Our Incredible Vanishing Resource

06:28PM Mar 11, 2019
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Some will argue the loss of farmland isn’t a big deal. Maybe we don’t need as much land as we used to because we’re more productive with the land we have, they say. Maybe vertical farms can supply our vegetables, and we can turn to labs to produce our meat. Or maybe we can just stop eating meat, wasting food and making ethanol, and the current amount of farmland will sustain us.

If these options don’t sound like reasonable solutions to you, John Piotti, president of American Farmland Trust, says we need to take action now. He spoke about conservation and farmland at the 2019 Trust in Food™ Symposium.

“Much of the land [we’ve lost] is our best land—the most versatile, resilient and productive,” Piotti says. “And it adds up. Losing the equivalent of all of the farmland in Iowa in 20 years is a big deal.”

And more compelling, he says, is this message: He’s not sure America can afford to lose a single acre. In fact, he’s not sure we have enough farmland today. Why?

“Because farmland is for far more than growing food,” Piotti says. “We all know farmland provides many essential environmental services, such as providing a home for wildlife, storing and purifying water, and sequestering carbon. Yet we also know farming, as currently practiced, causes some environmental degradation—notably water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Conservation practices are essential, but so is profitability. Managing the land wisely, Piotti says, requires enough farmers and ranchers who know their land intimately and can afford to do what’s right by the land.

The bottom line, Piotti says, is we must retain enough farmland and manage it using the right practices.  

“But we cannot hope to retain all the farmland we need, nor manage it wisely, without enough farmers who have adequate know-how and financial resources,” he says.

Do We Have Enough Farmland Today?

John Piotti encourages farmers to ask themselves these questions:

  • How much farmland would we need if we were going to grow our food in a manner that didn’t involve any environmental degradation? How much land of what types would be needed?
  • How much more farmland would be needed, managed in which way, to go beyond carbon neutral to be a carbon sink?
  • How much more land will be needed as demand for food increases and as climate change reduces the suitability of other land to grow food?
  • How do these equations change when we think about U.S. agriculture as one part of a bigger global system?