Will we feed the world or house suburbia?

March 24, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON -- Every hour of every day, America loses 45.6 acres of its best farmlands to subdivision shopping centers, strip malls, roadways -- 400,000 acres a year succumbing to development. Between 1982 and 1992, an area roughly the size of Vermont was lost.

Do we care? Should we?

The American Farmland Trust reports that we're squandering some of the world's finest soils. In 50 years, it says, the United States could well have added 50 percent to its population, reaching 390 million. Yet if land keeps being lost, farmers and ranchers may have to make do with 13 percent fewer acres of high-quality farmland.

In a worst-case scenario, the United States -- today a potent global producer and exporter of foods and fibers -- could become a net importer within 60 years.

We've heard dire warnings before and shrugged them off because the North American land mass is so vast, and because technology keeps increasing the potential crops from each acre of land cultivated.

But a new map by the Farmland Trust drives home a critical point. The imperiled lands aren't just anywhere. They're clustered around our major cities. Our ancestors typically started their settlements near rivers, and amid the continent's most fertile areas.

Blobs of red sprinkled from New England to Florida to Texas to the Pacific Northwest mark where, across America, concentrations of prime or unique farmland coincide with the most rapidly developing areas. The map's red spots, not surprisingly, fall in the orbit of our great cities.

Indeed, 70 percent of the 181 geographic regions used in the study showed prime farmland under development pressure. And the greatest quality-farmland loss occurred in 20 areas representing just 7 percent of the nation's land.

Statistics gathered by Scott Bernstein of Chicago's Center for -- Neighborhood Technology and others show why. Between 1970 and 1990, the Chicago region grew 4 percent in population but 46 percent in land area occupied. The respective figures for New York were 8 percent and 65 percent; for Philadelphia, 4 percent and 32 percent; for Seattle, 36 percent and 87 percent. St. Louis, between 1950 and 1990, gained 35 percent in population but occupied 355 percent more land.

We Americans, in short, have a remarkably land-consumptive lifestyle. As we've depopulated many of our inner cities, we've created, as the farmland trust notes, ''colorless subdivisions with names such as Orchard Hills or Blackhawk Ranch, desperately trying to retain the image of places destroyed.''

Increasingly, as erstwhile city and suburban residents occupy new rural home sites, ranchettes and farmettes, they create an ''edge effect'' -- increased taxes, escalating land prices, disputes over farm sounds and smells -- that complicates farming on the land still available.

Plus, development subtracts from farmlands' ability to recharge ground water and contain floods, provide wildlife habitats and feeding areas for migratory birds, and absorb pollutants.

Think about trade

We need to think expansively about our 21st-century trade opportunities. As such nations as China urbanize and increase their standard of living, they will demand kinds and varieties of foods that few places on the face of the globe produce in abundance.

The magazine AgriFinance published a cover story focused on the ''Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois Drift Plain'' -- the 11,020-square-mile area from Chicago to Milwaukee and beyond. The headline: ''America's Breadbasket: Will It Feed China or House Suburbia?''

Visit with business and civic leaders in such Illinois counties as Winnebago, Will, Boone and De Kalb -- on the very outer edge of Chicago regional expansion -- and you discover that not every farmer is anxious for a quick and profitable sell-off of his land. Leaders in those counties want to preserve the existing economy of an area that Bradley Lubben of the University of Illinois' Cooperative Extension Service describes as ''an agricultural powerhouse, raising near $1 billion worth of farm products from grain, livestock and horticultural enterprises.''

The story of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys of Central California -- America's top agricultural resource with $13 billion in yearly farm production -- is even more arresting. Seventy-seven percent of the Central Valley is red on the farmland trust's charts. Population is projected to treble between now and 2040. Low-density sprawl will devour more than 1 million acres of farmland by 2040, costing taxpayers $29 billion more than the cost of more compact, efficient development.

The American Farmland Trust's report couldn't be more timely. Can we -- before it's too late -- come to our senses?

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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