Is there a farmland crisis?

By , Emery N. Castle, an agricultural and resource economist, is president and senior fellow at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.

Does the recently released report of the National Agricultural Lands Study actually document an alarming trend of farm-to-urban land conversion? The issue should be addressed, but only in a context that is accurate. Clearly, proper land use is important; for many local jurisdictions it is the principal means of affecting their destiny. On the other hand, theh United States is in no danger of running out of food because of disappearing farmland.

The 3-million-acre figure for annual loss of land from agriculture cited by the National Agricultural Lands Study simply does not hold up under scrutiny. Among other faults, it includes land that never was used for agricultural production and never would have been, development or no. It is specious to claim such land as "lost."

The period from 1967 to 1975 saw 875,000 acres per year converted from current and potential cropland to nonagricultural purposes, a rate almost sure to decline. Even in the unlikely event it were to continue, by 2008 we will have suffered an accumulated loss of less than 4 percent of the potential US cropland base of 540 million acres.

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Or look at it from another angle. The annual conversion rate referred to is about one-sixth of 1 percent of the cropland base. Projections of annual yield increases are on the order of 1 to 2 percent. It follows that only a very small change in yields per acre is needed to equal a very large change in the rate of conversion.

But shouldn't the country err on the side of caution? Indeed it should, but the clamor over lost cropland is harmful because it diverts attention from several important issues.

A much more real and immediate threat to agricultural resource use is posed by the national commitment to gasohol made by Congress in 1980. Full implementation of the program would mean a probable demand for 30 million additional acres devoted to corn (as a feedstock for fuel alcohol), a doubling of feedgrain prices, and much higher food prices. Such potential damage dwarfs even the most alarmist estimates made by those concerned about farmland conversion.

Another example: powerful forces in both government and the private sector are pushing for the expansion of agricultural exports, a policy guaranteed to bring into production land that will be highly vulnerable to erosion from both water and wind. Erosion is a matter of legitimate national concern.

Perhaps most important, concentrating on the issue of land lost to agriculture diverts attention from the single most important factor in agricultural productivity -- technological change. The need to invest systematically in agricultural research -- to make research an integral part of national agricultural policy -- may not have the political and media appeal of campaign to "save our farmland," but it would pay off in food production and the order of thousands to one.

The language used in the National Agricultural Lands Study is a source of much of the confusion about the adequacy of agricultural land. "Agricultural land" has been used interchangeably with "farmland" often when "cropland" would be the most meaningful concept. The distinctions are important:

Agricultural land as defined by the NALS is all nonfederal rural land not in nonagricultural use. That means rural transportation rights of ways, water impoundments, and other nonfarm uses as well as cropland, pastureland, rangeland , and forestland. In 1977 there wre 1,361 million acres of such land.

Farmland is all land in farms and amounts to 1,050 million acres. Cropland, pastureland, rangeland, and forestland can all be found on farms; about 400 million acres re in crops. Land now in crops plus land of high and medium potential for croos totals 540 million acres. It is from this cropland base that the bulk of our existing and potential agricultural productions must come.

Unless these distinctions are kept in mind, it is easy to be misled. The loss of 3 million acres per yar of land used for agricultural production would be a matter of concern. But that is not happening; "disappearing farmland" is not a dire national problem.

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