Of all the resources our society is recklessly squandering without regard for the future, productive farmland is one of the most critical. Farms are the places where green plants capture the solar energy that we need to feed ourselves. Every acre of land that is developed or paved reduces our capacity to grow food. It often also raises local taxes, dramatically alters the landscape, and reduces biodiversity.
As I write, I can see through the leafless trees to the other side of the valley where former hayfields are newly dotted with enormous houses. When I moved here, and until about a decade ago, those fields were cut for hay. It wasn't so long before that the cows grazing and crops grown on those fields were important to a farmer's livelihood and the town's food supply.
If you ask the people in those big, ugly houses what they're going to eat, they'd probably answer: "Our food will come from 'somewhere else'," or maybe, "It will come from the supermarket."
Their answers illustrate the collective denial which allows our town's excellent farmland to be more or less continuously consumed by upscale housing developments, industrial zones and now, the newest threat - a residential golf course.
So, if not from our former farming town, then where will they get their food?
Unfortunately, that "somewhere else" attitude seems to prevail nearly everywhere. I've seen it in changes occurring all over the Northeast, in Texas, Minnesota, Maryland, and in North Carolina. Everywhere we travel, the farms are overrun with big ugly houses, enormous windowless stores, malls and endless asphalt.
The American Farmland Trust confirms this impression. It reports that the US loses one million acres of fertile farmland every year to urban sprawl. Much of this is the most productive land near cities, where small farms once grew high-value fruits and vegetables for local consumption. The Trust also notes that two billion tons of fertile topsoil are lost every year to erosion.
Last fall, Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel released his study entitled "Food Production Threatened by US Population Growth." He found that every year, two million acres of farmland are lost to erosion and unsustainable agricultural practices, in addition to the one million acres consumed by sprawl. Dr. Pimentel notes that the US already has the third largest population on Earth, and that for each additional person, we lose one acre of farmland. Every week, the US gains over 55,000 people and loses over 55,000 acres of farmland.
Maybe that "somewhere else" is overseas. However, last year National Public Radio reported on the conversion of 200 square miles of Chinese farmland to an industrial zone where American luxury cars are built. Meanwhile, the displaced farmers wash cars in the city to earn money for their families back home.
And, in a recently-released report, researchers at John Hopkins University warn of food shortages as global population grows. Worldwide, an area larger than the US and Mexico combined has suffered moderate to severe soil degradation. This study found that within 50 years, North America will have to increase its food production by 30 percent just to feed its projected population. By then, at the current rate, the US will have lost one-third of its present farmland.
This report also discusses the problem with food distribution. Even today, although enough food is grown to feed all six billion humans on the planet, two billion of us are malnourished, and 50,000 people, mostly children, die every day from starvation, malnutrition and related causes. (In 1990, the daily toll from these causes was "only" 35,000 people. Now, just seven years later, 50,000 people die every day. We're obviously going in the wrong direction.)
There are clearly population-growth and food-distribution problems which can't be solved by saving farmland. However, the more acres of productive land we lose, the worse those other problems become.
The stark reality is that globally, there is only one-half of an acre of cropland per person. Besides abusing the land, we've also polluted and over-fished the waters nearly everywhere. So, unless we want to eat the products of a chemical factory, or, as some suggest, eat food produced from garbage or oil by genetically-engineered organisms, we need land to grow our food.
We should value all of our potentially-productive land for humans' long-term survival, beginning with the land in our own yards and in our towns.
The notion that our food will come from "somewhere else" is a very dangerous fantasy.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.