A recent article in the Omaha World Herald, “Food Demand Drives Farmland Prices,” brings into focus the fragility of what to many is our nation’s limitless agricultural land base. In the article, J.B.Penn, chief economist for farm equipment maker Deere & Co., notes with the world population expected to grow by 50 percent by 2050, the ability of the world’s agricultural lands to produce is about to be overtaken by the need for more food. He points out that, “Most of the good land in the world today is already under cultivation” and that poorer-quality land will require “costly and controversial” measures, such as increased irrigation, to produce more crops.
In the United States our agricultural land base is not only under pressure to produce food for our own internal needs and those of the growing world population, but also for energy products and increasingly for environmental goods and services. Yet at the same time, unwise development continues to permanently destroy farmland at an alarming rate — 4,080,300 acres from 2002 to 2007, an area nearly the size of Massachusetts, as reported by the recently released USDA National Resources Inventory (NRI). And to Mr. Penn’s point about the risks of enlisting poorer-quality soils into meeting future world food needs: the NRI reports that during this same period prime farmland in the U.S. (meaning land with the best soils to produce food and fiber), declined by over two and a quarter million acres.
It has been 30 years since the United States last conducted a comprehensive analysis of its agricultural land base – the National Agricultural Lands Study.
The prospects of a world population increasing by 50% in just forty years, the realities highlighted by Mr. Penn and the stunning farmland loss numbers produced by USDA, all point to the need for us to once again take stock of the status of our precious, valuable and irreplaceable agricultural lands.
Only a new “National Agricultural Lands Study” – with the commitment of the highest levels of the federal government – can clarify the multiple demands on and the benefits provided by well-managed agricultural lands and determine the country’s need for agricultural land as a national security asset in a sustainable green economy.
With this study, we can truly lay out the groundwork for a robust, comprehensive strategy to secure this resource base for future generations.
About the author: Bob Wagner celebrates his 25th year at American Farmland Trust in 2010. He has worked in the field of farmland protection since 1981. In his current position, Wagner helps states and local communities nationwide build support for and create policies to protect agricultural land. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org