De­vel­op­ment is De­stroy­ing Amer­ica's Farm­land, Pas­ture­land and Forests

Trillions - - Contents -

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.

Photo: Nel­son Mi­nar, CC

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