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Vanishing Farmland: How It's Destabilizing America's Food Supply

3 years ago
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Food security. Sounds boring, eh? It's not something talked about very often, but the fact is America's rising population is creating no small amount of peril in the food-supply chain. Farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate as farms are sold off and developed into suburban housing, shopping malls and transportation systems.

The American Farmland Trust is the only national environmental organization devoted entirely to preserving farms. On its Web site are the following statistics:

• The nation lost farm and ranch land 51 percent faster in the 1990s than in the 1980s.

• We're losing our best land -- most fertile and productive -- the fastest.

• Our food is increasingly in the path of development.

• Wasteful land use is the problem, not growth itself.

Julia Freedgood, managing director of Farmland and Communities, of the Farmland Trust, told me in an interview, "We're losing about a million acres a year, so over the course of the last 30 years since American Farmland Trust has been in existence, that's about 30 million acres."

There's a healthy debate evolving in environmental circles about disappearing farmland and whether the loss could become so great as to threaten our ability to feed ourselves. Some environmentalists see farmland loss as largely an East Coast phenomenon.

Caroline Niemczyk, a board member of the Trust for Public Land, told me in an interview, "In the East Coast it's really a problem. We have enormous stretches of farmland in the Midwest and the far West, and that's of all types ranching, and citrus production in California, vegetables. We've got a lot of mixed use in the Mississippi Valley, but we are finding in the East Coast that it's harder and harder to maintain what really have become small family farms."

Other environmentalists say farmland supply in the West is also on the decline. They agree that while vacant land is still more widely available in the West, it is not prime farmland. Farms are being paved over in California more quickly than in most eastern states. In California, which used to host an abundance of prime farmland, one of every six acres developed in California since the Gold Rush was paved over between 1990 and 2004.

Most environmentalists see something called smart growth as the solution, which Freedgood describes as smarter urban planning: "What we need is to actually to have better cities, more livable cities, tighter-knit communities, more compact development, make more land available for farming so that we can feed more people."

The concept of smart growth became trendy in the 1970s. In the intervening 40 years, Americans have done nothing but tear up farmland for development in ever larger chunks to feed our voracious appetite for housing first, and worry about food production later. We're gluttons for suburban sprawl. On the other hand, our political will for smart growth is nonexistent. A large percentage of what has been developed, never to be reclaimed, was built close to or on prime farmland. The reason was early American farmers needed to quickly transport fresh crops from farms to markets in more heavily populated areas. As cities grew over time, they expanded and consumed the best farmland.

This trend is exacerbating even today. In the 1990s, according to the Farmland Trust, prime land was developed 30 percent faster, proportionally, than the rate for non-prime rural land. Marginal farmland depletes a greater percentage of natural resources than prime land when it is farmed. It requires more water and irrigation to grow crops and produces a lower yield.

The Farmland Trust also reports some 86 percent of U.S. fruits and vegetables and 63 percent of dairy products are produced on prime farmland in urban-influenced areas, or near cities. That means much of that land will soon be consumed by development, too, if present trends continue. According to Freedgood, we're already short of what we need to meet America's appetite for fresh produce: "There's new data from the economic research service that shows that we're 13 million acres short of fruit and vegetable production to meet everybody's daily requirements."

As the supply of prime farmland and fresh produce dwindle, Americans in turn grow more and more dependent on imported foods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we now import 79 percent of fish and shell fish, 32 percent of fruits and nuts and 13 percent of vegetables.

When we import more food, we increase our trade balance deficit, we spend much more food money on fuel for transportation, and we rely more heavily on other countries -- so disruptions in those markets affect our food prices and supply chain. We are not yet at the point where we are so dependent on foreign foods we could starve if we suddenly lost access to overseas markets. But as Freedgood points out, there's one problem few people consider when the topic of imported food is raised:

"There's a high correlation between . . . lack of food access and obesity, and if you're not producing enough fruits and vegetables and the price of fruits and vegetables is expensive, then those aren't the foods that people are choosing to eat. They're choosing to eat the cheap foods that tend to be really high in calories and salt and sugar and so on."

Any Volvo-driving, Brie-eating yuppie can tell you urban farmer's markets are all the rage and there seem to be more of them than in prior decades. But locally grown food still comprises a very small percentage of fresh foods sold on a national scale. So with dependence on foreign foods rising and development of prime farmland growing ever more rapidly, what else can be done to prevent over-development of farmland? The sad answer is, nothing the American populace seems to want to stomach right now.
Filed Under: Environment, International

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47 Comments

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mark

It is not worth buying from American Farmers after you add FREE Health care,Schooling,Welfare,Tax revnue,to there MOSTLY ILLEGAL WORKERS.The produce cost 2.00 dollars a pound but the REAL COST is more like 1,000 dollars a pound after you add all the benifits,Not to mention JACKPOT BABIES.This BURDEN to AMERICA is a LIFETIME.I watch were it is grown and DO NOT BUY AMERICAN GROWN.

May 30 2010 at 1:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
randy

Give ma a break we are a long way from running out of land this is just another scare tactic to get people to do with out. The government pays for million of acres to not be planted each year. If i am right they are called land banks and even if we start using up them their is billions of acres that the government has laid back as parks that are not really used as parks.

May 30 2010 at 2:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mhuntphd

Population! Paul Ehrlic's 1968 book "the population bomb" should be required reading for every high school student. World population is out of control. Education, birth control, crime, starvation, and the reproductive rights of women are all intimately tied. If we don't wake up, we will run our of water and starve by the millions. One can only hope we gain control before the wars begin.

May 30 2010 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
janandbille

Such claims were made in Oregon in the Seventies when a democrat controled legislature and governor took away Oregonians land use rights. First came the Urban growth boundary which of course tripled the price of buildable land inside the UGB and with that a tripling of tax revenues. Step two is to break the family farm history by restricting the right to build on farm land. These restrictions also applied to the children of the farm owners thereby breaking the cycle of farm families. This forced the next generation of Farmers into the cities. The parents aged, and followed their children for care. This put cheap farmland on the market for Coporate buyers and a rich elite. After this the Oregon legislature (a bunch of lawyers who dreamed up the land scheme...see 1000 Friends)decided they would tell farmers what they could and could not grow. If you're old enough this is a parallel to the old soviet union.
By the way, no politician brought up "Soil Bank". Back in the fifties, with the introduction of commercial fertilizer, production skyrocketed. This led to a program called "Soil bank" which paid farmers to put their land back into trees or allow it to return to native range land. The Willamette Valley, Oregons best soils has an area of about 800,000 acres. This is slightly less than the area set aside in "Soil Bank, still sitting there to be used later.
A shortage of farm land is a fascist con game. Don't fall for it like Oregon did.

BE

May 30 2010 at 12:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tjstieg

The face of agriculture has changed drastically in just the last 30 years. Many fewer family farms, more vertical integration of livestock production, large corporate conglomerates, use of food crops for synfuel. Diversity in animal and plant genetics has been and will continue to be sacrificed for per acre/per animal yield. Don't expect anything different as the world's population nears and passes 7 billion. Pray that the ag business can keep pace.

May 29 2010 at 11:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ADoob5

Just another example of how history repeats itself, if people remember back in the 70's the farmers protested and drove tractors down Pennsylvania ave in Washington D.C. to protest their farms being taken over by what was called corporate farmes, such as ADM . The farmers tried to tell Washingtion that sooner or later the family farm would subside to this as the corporations took over the family farms and as the corporates fell and sold off assets to stay afloat they sold to housing. Then in the 90's , the government started paying some farms, like rice and wheat farms in the southern states to stop growing crops and start growing pine trees and once again, the farmers tried to protest and tell people this would be the outcome. Even Willie Nelson tried to help and spawned Farm-Aide to save the family farms to try and thwart this off. At what point does America stand up and say enough, and that it is time to become self-sustaining and strong enough to take care of our own needs ??? How much more or what else do we have to depend on other countries for ??? Now our food ???? Seriously ???

May 29 2010 at 10:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cookroader

Protecting farmland is important but check the average age of an american farmer.
He's getting older every year, not enough young people want to work that hard to commit to a life and a lifestyle.

May 29 2010 at 10:56 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Jerry Small

The article doesn't mention that the imported food is also more subject to contaminants than our own food supply which we have enough trouble with because of slack inspection by the USDA.

May 29 2010 at 10:50 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
mjmcf45

Duh...many have been saying this for decades...they are called farmers...the ignorance of a foolish nation is bringing about a dire situation...already has. It fits right in with the habits of an increasingly obese nation. Remember, obesity is more than a physical disease.

May 29 2010 at 10:28 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
melianthus

I clicked on this article's link, which didn't mention farmland, thinking, "Finally! Someone outside of Louisiana is taking note of the fact that the BP oil disaster has the potential to remove 30% of the seafood consumed by Americans every year.

But, no.

Where's the outrage over the disaster actually taking place at this moment.

Signed,
Another Louisianian who is sick of being on the butt end of BP's joke and everyone else's ignorance about what is actually going on down here!

May 29 2010 at 10:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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