There are few more bankrupt arguments against suburbanization than the claim that it consumes too much agricultural land. There is no doubt agricultural production takes up less of the country’s land than it did several decades ago. But urban “sprawl” is not the primary cause. The real reason is good news: The growing productivity of American farms.
Since 1950 an area the size of Texas plus Oklahoma (or almost as large as France plus Great Britain) has been taken out of agricultural production in the United States, not including any agricultural land taken by new urbanization That is enough land to house all of the world’s urban population at the urban density level of the United Kingdom.
Spectacular Agricultural Productivity
Even with less land, agriculture’s performance has been stunning. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, U.S. farm output rose 160 percent between 1950 and 2008. Productivity per acre rose 260 percent.
In particular, California’s farms—often cited as victims of sprawl—have done quite well. Between 1960 and 2004, the state’s agricultural productivity rose 2.3 percent annually and 3.0 percent per acre. National agricultural productivity rose by annual rates of 1.7 percent overall and 2.2 percent per acre during the same period.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 1990 to 2004 California’s agricultural production rose 32 percent, on less farm land.
Impact of Urbanization Small
Of course, there has been substantial reduction of farmland close to some metropolitan areas, but overall the impact of urbanization has not been substantial. For example, since 1950:
• The farmland reduction in largely rural downstate Illinois has been four times the farmland reduction of the vast former rural areas of metropolitan Chicago, home to the world’s third most “sprawling urban area, after New York and Tokyo.
• The farmland reduction in the Phoenix metropolitan area has been 6 times the expansion of urbanization.
In addition, the nation’s agriculture is subsidized to the tune of more than $15 billion annually, strong evidence that more land is being farmed than is required. Subsidies increase the supply of virtually anything beyond its underlying demand.
America has less farmland because it has not needed as much as before to serve its customers. Thus, considerable farmland has been returned to a more natural state.
Generally, this is good for the environment. The same interests that frequently claim farmland has been disappearing also decry the loss of open space. Yet the withdrawal of redundant farmland has produced considerable open space—call it open space sprawl.
Repeat It Often Enough . . .
None of this has kept “disappearing farmland” from being a rallying cry among those who would construct Berlin Walls around the nation’s urban areas. Even so, the extent to which Bonnie Erbe of Politics Daily and National Public Radio embraces the fiction is surprising. The principal source for her article “Vanishing Farmland: How It’s Destabilizing America’s Food Supply,”
was a Web page from the American Farmland Trust, which seeks to conserve farm land.
In its California Agricultural Land Loss & Conservation: The Basic Facts, the Trust argues for more “efficient” (meaning denser) urbanization and claims, “One-sixth [17 percent] . . . of the land urbanized since the Gold Rush . . . has been developed since 1990.”
That might be an impressive figure, if it were not that the state has added 7 million urban residents since 1990—one-fourth (25 percent) of all the urban population added since the Gold Rush and equal to the 1990 population of New York City.
Most Development Isn’t Urban
In the same document, the American Farmland Trust indicates support for radical urban land regulations. Policies such as in Sacramento’s Blueprint significantly inflate the price of land, make housing less affordable.
The agricultural, property, and urban planning interests who would ration land for people and their houses ignore important targets such as ultra-low-density “ranchettes” favored by a wealthy, small minority who live in the country but are not farmers.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rural, large-lot residential development (nonagricultural) covered 40 percent more land than all of the nation’s urbanization in 2000. These parcels represent “scattered single houses on large parcels, often 10 or more acres in size.” Since 1980 the increase in this rural residential development has been one-third greater than the land area occupied by all of the urban areas in the nation greater than 1,000,000 in population.
If there is a serious threat to agriculture, it is from overzealous regulation that puts farmers at risk. Water reductions in the San Joaquin Valley—mostly the result of environmentalists’ demands—likely have taken more land out of production than any sprawl-happy developer.
The human footprint, as measured by total urban and agricultural land, has been declining for decades. This is true in the nation as a whole and in California, where the greatest growth has occurred. It may be surprising, but human habitation and efficient food production have returned considerable amounts of land to a more natural state in recent decades while the nation’s urban areas welcomed 99 percent of all growth since 1950.
Wendell Cox is a visiting professor at Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life. ” A longer version of this article was first published in New Geography. Reprinted with permission.