The United States is facing a critical challenge concerning its agricultural land as it grapples with the competing demands of urban expansion and conservation efforts. Richard Brain, an environmental toxicologist with Syngenta Crop Protection, recently published a report on this issue, describing it as a "vice" that poses a threat to the future of American farmland.
Brain's report sheds light on a question that is often overlooked in USDA reports on farmland acreage: where does the land go when farms and farmland decline? According to his findings, between 2001 and 2016, approximately 11 million acres of farmland and ranchland were converted to urban and highly developed areas (4.1 million acres) or low-density residential use (about 7 million acres). To put this into perspective, the total land area in the United States is around 2.3 billion acres, with 29% dedicated to permanent grassland, pasture, and range; 28% as forest; 17% as cropland; 14% for special use; 3% as urban areas; and the remaining 9% classified as miscellaneous. Brain explains that "special use" includes rural transportation, rural parks and wildlife, defense and industrial purposes, as well as miscellaneous farm-related activities.
Brain emphasizes that these percentages have shifted over time due to changing societal needs. At one point, agricultural land accounted for nearly half of the total land area in the United States. The remarkable productivity of farms has played a significant role in supporting the country's population growth, which has increased tenfold over the past 150 years. Brain attributes this to the resilience of rural communities and technological innovations such as mechanization, fertilizers, and pesticides.
However, Brain warns that every system has its limits, including agriculture. While he believes that the peak of agricultural production has not yet been reached in the U.S., he predicts that an impasse is inevitable. As farmland is increasingly converted into subdivisions, warehouses, and parking lots, Brain suggests that society should question the sustainability of this trend.
Conservation efforts have also contributed to the loss of farmland, a movement that Brain acknowledges is gaining momentum due to growing societal interest. Nevertheless, he argues that it is easier to convert conservation land back into agriculture if necessary compared to urban developments. Once farmland is paved over and transformed into a subdivision, it becomes irreversibly changed. In contrast, conservation reserve programs (CRP) can be reclaimed and reverted to production if needed.
Brain also raises concerns about farmland ownership, noting that non-agricultural entities, detached from agriculture and associated communities, are increasingly treating land as a commodity. This speculative investment has significantly driven up the value of farmland, making it unaffordable for many aspiring farmers.
Furthermore, the USDA reports that farm sector debt tied to real estate is expected to reach a record high of $375.9 billion in 2023, surpassing the 10-year average. Brain suggests that this increase in debt is linked to generational succession and the turnover of farmland, as acquiring and transitioning land often come with significant financial burdens.
While Brain does not believe that the loss of agricultural land has reached a critical point, he cautions that even with technological advancements, there are limits to agricultural productivity, and the U.S. may be approaching a turning point. It is crucial to acknowledge the pressure exerted on existing land and find a compromise between societal expectations and food security.
The United States is facing a pressing challenge as it grapples with the diminishing availability of agricultural land due to urban expansion, conservation efforts, and changing societal dynamics. The impact of these trends on the future of American farmland necessitates a careful examination of sustainability and the need for compromise to ensure long-term food security.