Agricultural Land Preservation

Why Protect Agricultural Land

The success of today’s agricultural sector is vital to the economy of most nations. In Canada, for example, agriculture is the third largest contributor to the gross domestic product and employs over 762 000 people, but its supply of agricultural land is limited and unevenly distributed, with only 11% of the land base capable of producing any agricultural product and less than 5% capable of producing crops. Agriculture also plays an important role in the American economy, accounting for 10% of all exports, employing over 3.1 million people on over 2 million farms.

The number of farms in most of the industrialized world has steadily decreased. Meanwhile, both the intensity of farming activities and the average farm size have increased, indicating the consolidation of smaller farms into bigger units. Today, farmers comprise less of the workforce; farms have become more specialized, more efficient, and more productive. These trends, and associated urbanization pressures, are stressing the land base and contributing to a decline in the availability of productive agricultural land.

Urbanization of Rural and Agricultural Land

In any country with limited productive agricultural land, the loss of farmland to urban uses is a serious concern. Urbanization of rural and agricultural land has various resource, social, and environmental implications. Many cities were established upon productive agricultural land and the characteristics that make land suitable for agriculture also make land appealing for development. As a result, pressure continues to be placed upon agricultural land for purposes other than agriculture, especially residential, industrial, commercial, and recreational uses. The emerging pattern on the landscape is characterized by low density urban development, particularly in North America. In the more densely populated countryside of the United Kingdom (UK) and Western Europe, there are greater pressures for development on productive agricultural lands.

The Effects of Urbanization on Agricultural Land Use

Urbanization has a variety of impacts on agricultural land use that combine to threaten the viability of the agricultural industry and the natural resource base. Urban ization influences agricultural land use most directly by converting agricultural land to urban uses: a permanent, irreversible consequence. Indirectly, urbanization influences agricultural land use through changes in the economic environment of urban fringe areas. As the demand for land in the urban fringe grows, the pressure on land prices to reflect urban values, rather than farm use values, increases. When farmers and rural landowners can receive more money by selling land for uses other than farming, they can no longer economically justify keeping the land for farm use. Alternatively, there may be abandoned farms, idled lands, or financial problems for those who continue to farm. As urban and suburban residents move into agricultural areas, conflicts inevitably arise which may threaten or restrict farm operations, such as nuisance complaints, vandalism, trespassing, and robbery. Urban encroachment onto farmland may also cause changes in farmers’ status in their communities, increase land speculation, taxation, and demand for public services, and result in an increase in nonfarm ownership of land. Farmers facing these effects may respond by selling the land, intensifying production, or reducing investments in the farm operation.

Preservation for Food Security

The conversion of agricultural land to urban or nonagricultural uses is a critical threat to the long term health of the agricultural industry. A secure land base is essential for agriculture and can only be assured if mechanisms are in place to protect agricultural land.

Two opposing views exist over the need to preserve agricultural land for food and fiber production. On the one hand, economists question the need to preserve agricultural land because of food surpluses, low prices for the producer, and the bankruptcy of farms. Many argue that there is no need for farmland protection policies because the free market will effectively allocate land for various uses. On the other hand, preservationists support the claim that domestic sources of food should be protected because the extent of high quality agricultural land is limited, and the urbanization of farmland is irreversible and could lead to food shortages.

It is clear that lands with the highest agricultural potential are continually being converted to nonagricultural uses. Meanwhile, less productive, marginal land is being brought into production to offset the losses of prime agricultural land. Bringing new, lower quality lands into production involves substantially higher costs, reduced profits, and environmental damage. The need to preserve agricultural land for food security exists more because of the quality, not quantity, of land being converted to urban uses. Preserving farmland may reduce transportation costs associated with food imports, reduce dependency on foreign food supplies, and allow con sumers to enjoy fresh, local produce.

Preservation for Open Space, Environmental Sustainability, and the Rural Economy

In addition to its function as a food and fiber producer, agricultural land provides wildlife habitat, areas for groundwater recharge, and open space for urban dwellers. Protecting agricultural land can also preserve farming as a pastoral ideal and protect the rural economy. Preserving farmland for amenity and natural environ ment reasons helps to protect the rural character of the countryside, environmentally sensitive areas, and visually significant resources. While strategies to preserve farmland may contribute to the protection of open space and natural resources, true farmland preservation strategies aim to protect land for agricultural use.

Approaches for Preserving Agricultural Land

The Future of Agricultural Land Preservation