Development is Destroying America's Farmland, Pastureland and Forests
In the twenty years from 1992 to 2012, a region equivalent to the land in all of New York State – about 30 million acres of farmland – was lost to development. Worse was that fully one third of that land was considered among the best kind of land for crop production.
This is all happening at a time when population growth on one end and climate change on the other are putting higher pressure than ever before on the need for useful cropland.
According to a new report from the non-profit The American Farmland Trust (AFT), Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, the pressure on this situation is growing more difficult as time rolls forward. At projected population growth rates, by 2050, there will be 50 to 70 percent higher demand on U.S. crops to meet the country’s growing needs for food, fiber, and even energy. There will be no more land available to meet that need. And despite improved yield management on the soil available, if nothing is done we as a nation will have less ability every year to continue to meet that demand.
Although it is often forgotten, this cropland is important in far more ways than just its crops. On a pure economic level, food and industries such as shipping, packaging, and retail distribution are responsible for a whopping $992 billion of the U.S. GDP annually as of 2015. It is responsible for 11 percent of all employment in America, though that has been slipping over time as increased mechanization and mega-farms have begun to dominate the country. Other parts of the economy also depend on the success of the agricultural industry one way or another. Those include forestry, fishing, the beverage industries, textiles, apparel and leather manufacturing, and the obvious additions of the restaurant and bar business. Estimates suggest that for every dollar earned directly from agriculture, there is another $1.27 of other business that is generated because of that first dollar.
Cropland is also important for floodplain protection and fire suppression, depending on what kind of growth is happening in a given region.
Part of the challenge for the U.S. in taking care of its agricultural land is that – because of a combination of natural terrain features, soil makeup, and current climate conditions, just 17 percent of America’s land area is able to produce crops at the right production levels, versatile use capabilities and resiliency – what the report refers to as PVR – to support growth levels with few environmental challenges.
The elimination of the farmlands has another affect which is critical to note. As it disappears, it creates a correspondingly bigger problem from a climate change side in two ways. That land and the crops which used to grow upon it are no longer able to act as a major carbon dioxide absorber. What replaced them also tends to absorb and re-radiate heat more, plus attract more greenhouse gas emissions from transportation of various kinds, power plants, and both residential and business building energy consumption.
Development also tends to create increased challenges in recycling where available, waste disposal, and the potential for increased pollution from runoff, and groundwater contamination.
Besides just noting the sheer magnitude of the land being converted for development use, the report called out several important findings that weigh on what future land management practices might need to be to prevent continued destruction of available growing regions.
Although development could have happened in underutilized urban regions, that would have been costlier for builders than what actually happened. It turns out over 62 percent of all development and over 70 percent of urban development disproportionately used agricultural lands as their starting point. Low-density residential development ate up 41 percent of the loss. Residential development has the illusion of leaving more land available because there is often more green area left in such regions. But because even that green area is forever lost to agricultural purposes, the effect is still the same. Further, on a per-person basis, residential use was far less efficient in how it took over formerly arable acreage.
The urban part of development was most often built on cropland, at a rate of 41% of the totals. Pastureland (at 25.9%), rangeland (23.8%), and woodland (9.3%) were used at much lower levels.
In contrast, residential development affected both cropland and pastureland equally as the most dominant kinds of land used for building, at 34.5% for each type. Because of its desirability for home living, residential areas also strongly affected woodlands (at 19.9 percent) versus rangeland (at only 11.1%). Despite the value of the wooded area for such developments, residential building also always ends up chopping down many trees with value to wildlife, carbon dioxide absorption, and shelter from the heat.
Because of the nature of development and its demands for land types, an unfortunate additional concern is that the land used for both urban and residential building was on average far more desirable for agriculture than the unused lands nearby. The report found that the median PVR (productivity, versatility and resiliency) value for lands used for “development was 1.3 times higher than the median PVR of land that stayed in production”. Development therefore is seen as an even bigger threat to croplands than might have been expected, since it tends to happen on the most valuable agricultural area.
In 2012, the last year covered by the current report, because of the rapid rate of depletion of available croplands by development – and the preference for the best agricultural lands for that use – the country was in far worse shape for available farming purposes than most might have expected. Now only 324.1 million acres of cropland had the right PVR values or better to be used for intensive farming purposes. That’s less than one-third of all agricultural land still available for use. It is also less than 17 percent of the total area in the United States.
Finally, in that 1992-2012 period covered by the current report, over 11 million acres of the country’s best farmlands have been used up by development. That is 11 million acres used up in less than one generation (approximately 25.5 years) of human development. Critics of this report have noted that this is only a 3.2 percent loss of land in that time. The report counters that by saying that, “While a 3.2 percent loss does not sound devastating, it is roughly equivalent to losing one of the most productive growing regions in the United States, California’s Central Valley.”
It is also important to consider that not all growing regions can be used to produce the same types of crops. Because of climate variations and specifics of soil types, too much development in the wrong areas could wipe out a correspondingly higher percentage of certain types of crops, such as unique fruit or vegetable categories. For certain crops, specific micro-climates which are present in only a few areas may be needed to ensure sufficient production to be economically
viable. Shifting rain and drought patterns are also changing what can and even should be produced in certain areas. In California, for example, where almond production is a major industry, its dependence on high volumes of irrigation is already raising the issue of whether it should be cut back to preserve the ability to produce other crops.
These shifting weather patterns, lack of available additional arable land, and changes in food markets has already created one sort of crisis in the industry. Another recent study shows that the current demand for fruits and vegetables is now far higher than their available supply. Currently fruit needs are at 203% and vegetables at 164% of demand. Those numbers are only likely to go up over time.
As development has increased, where our food supply comes from has also shifted – and so that too becomes a factor to consider. According to the AFT report, approximately “60 percent of the market value of U.S. farm production comes from metropolitan counties and adjacent areas”. As the report goes on to say, “These counties supply 91 percent of domestically sourced fruits, tree nuts, and berries; 77 percent of vegetables and melons; 68 percent of dairy; and 55 percent of eggs and poultry.”
As to what can be done about this, the American Farmland Trust is calling for “a bold and comprehensive national strategy… to save the land that sustains us”. As major pillars for that strategy, they recommend the following:
A major increase in federal investments in agricultural land protection via the USDA Agricultural Conservation Easement Program—agricultural Land Easements (ACEP-ALE)
Fully funding agencies to monitor how agricultural land is being used on a regular basis. Such agencies would include the USDA, the NCRS’ National Resources Inventory (NRI), the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s (NASS) Tenure, Ownership and Transfer of Agricultural Land (TOTAL) survey, and the Economic Research Service’s (ERS) Major Land Uses reports.
Passing legislation to create a formal “21st century agricultural land protection platform”. Such an organization and system would help plan out how to juggle the complex competing needs of development and agriculture. It would also integrate considerations for how climate change will put its own increasing ‘heat’ on the situation.
Over all of this is the need to consider cropland, pastureland, woodlands, associated waterways, and groundwater sources considered as equally important parts of our modern infrastructure as roadways, mass transit, electrical power, and telecommunications. This is not just to support us as a human race. It is also needed to support all living things and help mitigate the ongoing problems climate change is bringing with it. There must be more of a balance of human needs of all kinds, along with the recognition that caring for America’s croplands is a critical part of the mix even as we do not always have direct contact with it.
Under the current U.S. government direction, many of the conclusions and requests for action noted in this report are going to be a tough sell. There is still a belief around which goes back to the earliest days of the industrial revolution, that good land is a virtually inexhaustible resource and that it can be used and abused with little concern. It is not, of course, and both its rate of utilization is going up while the quality of the remaining land is going down. If something is not done quickly to force more proactive management of this precious natural resource, we will find our own sustainability at high risk only a few decades from now.
Cropland is a critical aspect of national food security, but is not considered such by most of the simpleminded and greedy politicians that voters keep putting into power.
The reality is that even if cropland were more protected, it won't make much difference in the long-term. Climate change and soil contamination from decades of the application of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers will make it increasingly difficult to grow crops outdoors. The only way that food production will be able to keep pace with demand is to shift more to greenhouses and indoor vertical systems.
The surplus of high-rise office buildings in some cities may present an opportunity to shift food production to the heart of cities.
The other thing that has to happen is for far more people to reduce their meat and dairy consumption. At present, most grain is fed to animals which are then fed to humans. It takes up to 18 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of meat, so vastly more people could be fed at lower financial cost and lower cost to the environment if more people ate lower on the food chain. A healthy plant based diet also greatly reduces health care costs and increses productivity.