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.