June 11, 2010


The Declining Human Footprint (Wendell Cox, 06/11/2010, New Geography)

There are few more bankrupt arguments against suburbanization than the claim that it consumes too much agricultural land. The data is so compelling that even the United States Department of Agriculture says that "our Nation's ability to produce food and fiber is not threatened" by urbanization. There is no doubt that agricultural production takes up less of the country's land than it did before. But urban “sprawl” is not the primary cause. The real reason lies in the growing productivity of American farms.

Since 1950, an area the size of Texas plus Oklahoma (or an area 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 (Note 1). That is enough land to house all of the world's urban population at the urban density level of the United Kingdom.

Even with less land, agriculture's performance has been stunning. According to US Department of Agriculture data, US farm output rose 160% between 1950 and 2008. Productivity per acre rose 260%. In particular , California's farms – often cited as victims of sprawl – have done quite well. Between 1960 and 2004 (Note 2), the state's agricultural productivity rose 2.3% annually and 3.0% per acre. By comparison national agricultural productivity rose less over the same period at 1.7% overall and 2.2% per acre.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, from 1990 to 2004 (latest data), California's agricultural production rose 32% and on less farm land. [...]

The human footprint, as measured by the total urban and agricultural land has been declining for decades, both in the nation and California, where the greatest growth has occurred (Figure 1 & 2). The same is also true of Europe (EU-15), Canada and Australia, where all of the urbanization since the beginning of time does not equal the agricultural land recently taken out of production. Even in Japan, the human footprint has been reduced. It may be surprising, but human habitation and food production has returned considerable amounts of land to a more natural state in recent decades, while America's urban areas were welcoming 99% of all growth since 1950.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2010 3:46 PM
blog comments powered by Disqus