More Mouths to Feed Means Less Land to Feed Them On

Published on April 17th, 2008

By Leon Kolankiewicz
April 17, 2008

Agricultural experts have warned for years that California’s most productive farmland is threatened by the state’s relentless population growth. Farmers and ranchers have expressed the same concern for decades.

Unfortunately, to date neither warnings nor concern have slowed the pace at which of some of the nation’s most productive croplands and soils are being eaten up by development. Even as the number of mouths to feed in California soars toward 40 million and beyond, the very land and water resources needed to feed these multitudes – and the growing populations of a nation and world that depend on California’s agricultural exports – are shrinking.

The irony is that the state’s farmlands are shrinking precisely because the millions added to our population every decade are competing with farmers for water and for the very same land that is best at producing food. As population increases and sprawls across arable land, the ability to feed that population decreases. Because they tend to have good soils and are easy to build on, flat lands with access to fresh water attract both agriculture and urbanization. When homes can be built to house hundreds of new residents on the land occupied by a single farm, in a market economy urbanization will displace agriculture every time as the “the highest and best use.”

California has long been America’s leading agricultural state, generating over $30 billion a year in revenues. Fertile soils, the availability of irrigation water during the growing season, and a moderate, Mediterranean climate allow for year-round cropping. California cultivates more than 350 crops – including more than half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts – on less than four percent of the nation’s agricultural acreage. All of America’s almonds, artichokes, figs, olives, persimmons, pomegranates, prunes, raisins and walnuts are produced only in California.

The sheer variety, quantity, and cash value of crops grown in the great Central Valley is probably unrivalled by any other comparably-sized area on earth. Indeed, according to Maxwell Norton of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Merced, only a handful of other regions on earth have the same unique combination of soil productivity, mild climate, and available water as the San Joaquin Valley, including areas around the Mediterranean Sea, parts of southeast Australia, and the Punjab province of India.

Unfortunately, around the world, the urbanization of these irreplaceable lands is accelerating. In California, especially the Central Valley, productive farmlands are succumbing not only to urban encroachment but are being split up into unproductive rural ranchettes or hobby farms.

Last year the American Farmland Trust released the study Paving Paradise, based on data collected by the California Resources Agency’s Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program. The study found that, between 1990 and 2004, land was being developed at nearly twice the historic rate. “Rapid population growth, of course, is driving this trend,” concluded the Trust.

More than 60% of the 538,000 acres developed in California – 326,000 acres – was agricultural land. However, and not surprisingly, in the most important agricultural areas like the Central Valley, a higher portion – nearly three-quarters – of the area developed was farmland. Just as disturbing was the finding that nearly half of all farmland lost was high quality, classified by the state as prime farmland, unique farmland, or farmland of statewide importance.

The Trust estimates that by 2050, if the state’s population projections come to pass, and if current trends in development efficiency (population density) continue, an additional 2.1 million acres would be urbanized. “Smart growth” uses a variety of measures to increase the density of both new and existing developed areas to reduce the rate of sprawl. But there is often a cost to increased density, such as more traffic congestion, overcrowded parks, and smaller homes and tinier (or nonexistent) yards. It is often politically unpopular in those communities on which it is imposed.

In any case, reducing the rate of land conversion by increasing density will merely slow but not stop the inexorable attrition of California’s farmland. Instead of a given acre of farmland being lost to development within a decade, it might take two decades, but it will still be lost, as long as California’s population continues expanding rapidly with no end in sight.

Any society that squanders its endowment of high quality farmland is incredibly short-sighted. These are the lands that with the proper stewardship could produce food virtually in perpetuity. Like the non-renewable energy resources we have squandered in recent decades, this loss will come back to haunt us in a future likely to be dominated by shortages of both energy and arable land.

Food prices are mounting globally as a number of factors converge, including the addition of 70-80 million more mouths to feed every year, diversion of food crops into biofuels production, increasing consumption of meat (which uses far more land to grow the crops fed to livestock), and rising energy prices. All of these put upward pressure on prices.

If California is to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, it must grasp the nettle of overpopulation. Unsustainable population growth must be checked. There is less an emerging shortage of food than a “longage” of population. Since virtually all present and projected growth is from immigration and higher average immigrant fertility, these must be reduced.

If we don’t, then one day California will struggle just to feed its own citizens, no less the nation and the world.

Leon Kolankiewicz is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and can be reached at [email protected] or 805-564-6626.

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