Growing Threats To World's Farmland

FLOODING in the Midwest is wiping out considerable amounts of prime farmland. Thousands - maybe millions - of acres are being lost to agricultural purposes as tons of topsoil wash down the Mississippi and other rivers, and flood-caused pollution ruins more. It's one more reason to remember the value of land stewardship in America's heartland.

The deluge and its aftermath also are cause to think about the overall state of farmland in the United States and elsewhere, and the things that impact it aside from "natural" disasters. The picture, according to recent data, is not encouraging.

American Farmland Trust, a conservation organization headed by farmer Ralph Grossi, recently named the most threatened agricultural regions in the US. "The Top 12 on the Edge," as they're called, are: California's Central Valley, south Florida, California's coastal region, the Mid-Atlantic/Chesapeake areas, North Carolina's Piedmont, the Puget Sound Basin, the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison metro area, Oregon's Willamette Valley, the Twin Cities metro area, western Michigan, the Shenandoah and Cumberland vall eys, and the Hudson River and Champlain valleys.

These dozen areas account for just 5 percent of all US farmland. But according to the Department of Agriculture, they produce 17 percent of gross US agriculture sales, including 67 percent of the nation's fruit crops, 55 percent of its vegetables, and 24 percent of its dairy products. In other words, a great deal of the country's farm bounty.

But these areas also are in or right next to counties with the highest population growth rates. The biggest threat is suburban sprawl. For example, between 1970 and 1990, population in the Chicago area grew a bit more than 4 percent, but residential land used jumped 46 percent as 450 square miles of farmland were converted to nonfarm use. The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission figures another 220 square miles may be lost by 2010.

Taken together, all such "urban edge" agricultural land in the US (in addition to the Top 12) accounts for 56 percent of gross farm sales. Meanwhile, permanent conversion eats up 2 million acres a year in the United States.

"A critical segment of our agricultural system, and the tax revenue, employment, rural flavor, and open space it provides, is in danger," Mr. Grossi says. "It is being needlessly undone by growth patterns that are often poorly planned, frequently waste good land, and almost always are damaging to agriculture."

Globally, the situation is no better. The United Nations reported earlier this month that if nothing is done to prevent degradation caused by such things as erosive plowing and deforestation, the earth could lose 10 percent of its arable land. That's 245 million acres - an area nearly the size of Alaska.

"Analysis of man-made land degradation raises a fundamental question," warned Edouard Saouma, director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. "Are we going to have enough good land to feed the extra 2.6 billion people who will be on this planet by the year 2025?"

Mr. Saouma's question will have to be answered in the negative if trends reported a few days later by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute are shown to continue.

In its annual book "Vital Signs," the research organization notes that 40 years ago, there was about 0.4 acre of grain-harvested area per person. Since then, that figure has shrunk by nearly half to just under a quarter of an acre. It is true that more grain is being produced per acre around the world. Since 1984, however, annual per-person grain output has dropped some 8 percent.

Meanwhile, more than 90 million people are added to the world's population every year. And as the Worldwatch Institute's report states, "There are no new technologies in prospect suggesting that farmers can restore the 3-percent annual rate of growth in the world grain harvest that prevailed from 1950 to 1984, helping to reduce hunger and malnutrition."

One's head spins with the numbers and charts such reports provide. But it is the human dimension of the problem - the hungry children in Asia and Africa, the washed-out farm families in the American Midwest - that one needs to keep in mind when contemplating solutions to the loss of farmland.

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