The coronavirus pandemic reminds Americans of farmland’s critical importance in keeping our food supply lines strong and ensuring that food reaches our tables during a crisis. A study conducted by the American Farmland Trust found that millions of acres of agricultural land that could have been dedicated to serving these purposes, have instead been developed and converted.
The AFT study found that people are willing to act when the changes to their landscape are visible. Unfortunately, most land changes are hard to see, which has led to diminished action by individuals and states alike — this has devastating implications on our future:
While development trends always have peaks and valleys, and real estate bubbles always burst, the force and extent of the last decade’s decline were an anomaly—far below the rates from recessions dating back to the 1960s. Yet states still converted 11 million acres of agricultural land. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, this is slightly more than all the land used to grow fruits, nuts, and vegetables across the U.S. Even in uncertain economic times, it is urgent that states—especially states with high rates of conversion— step up to save their farmland and ranchland.
The AFT reminds us that this growing threat of agricultural land conservation has broad implications and negative consequences on every state in our nation. The map below shows the threat to working farms and ranches — which are often the most resilient and versatile lands — as well as the irreversible damage caused by development.
Although every state has taken some action, it is critical that our nation continues its efforts to promote policies that will protect land threatened by urbanization. The AFT calls on state and federal funding to assist and strengthen local efforts, where resources are often limited.
At P4C, we know that while government efforts are necessary, private conservation is needed to help fill in the gaps.
This threat is not unique to food security alone, but also has stark environmental impacts. The Greener Fields AFT and UC Davis study shows that if land in California had remained dedicated to farming, it would have led to less pollution than by converting it for other uses.
In fact, when farmland is managed well, it produces far less pollution than land converted to housing or commercial use. According to the study “Greener Fields” produced by AFT and UC Davis, farmland that is converted to other uses emits greenhouse gases at a level 58-70 times greater than if it had remained in farming. To put that in perspective: a 75% reduction of farmland loss in California would be equivalent to taking 1.9 million cars off the road.
If land preservation was made a priority, we would be better prepared to reduce air pollution and help mitigate the footprint we leave on our environment.
We know that the AFT’s work to conserve agricultural land is of critical importance, especially during a time of uncertainty, and we must do more to prioritize the safekeeping of ranch and farmland. That’s why our mission is poignant: conservation easements help prioritize the conservation of land over future profits in land development, investing in our future by forging land rights today. The private sector will continue to play this increasingly necessary role, especially amid dwindling government investment in conservation.
The AFT study, once again, illustrates the need to reverse the devastating trends of increasing land development and rising urbanization. And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to present new challenges, we know preserving more land is critical to navigating this crisis — and any future crisis. By expanding the purchase of agricultural conservation easements, we can ensure that more land is protected, not less — allowing us to rise to this challenge.