We lose three acres of farmland in the United States every minute. You read that right. Three acres every sixty seconds.
This wakeup call comes courtesy of John Piotti, President of American Farmland Trust (AFT), who spoke about conservation and Farmland at the 2019 Trust in Food Symposium Jan. 15 and 16 in Chicago.
“Over the last 20 years, we’ve lost 31 million acres of farmland—that’s equivalent to all the farmland in Iowa. That’s over 1.5 million acres a year, or three acres every minute,” Piotti says.
This loss of farmland is roughly twice what anyone thought it was, because previous estimates ignored low-density rural development. What’s even more frightening, Piotti says, is the fact that we’re losing our best land fastest.
Now Piotti knows that some will argue these losses aren’t a big deal. Maybe we don’t need as much land as we used to because we’re more productive on 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, Piotti says we need to take action now.
“Here’s what I know,” Piotti says. “I know 1.5 million acres a year represents a greater percentage than it might suggest, because much of that land is our best land—land that is most versatile, resilient and productive. 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.
“Because farmland is for far more than growing food,” Piotti says. “We all know that farmland provides many essential environmental services—such as providing a home for wildlife, storing and purifying water, and sequestering carbon. Yet we also know that farming, as currently practiced, causes some environmental degradation—notably water pollution and greenhouse gases emissions.”
What that means is that we are not yet managing farmland to produce sufficient environmental benefit. Doing so will undoubtedly require that we not grow food as intensely on every parcel of farmland. Hence the question: do we have enough farmland today?
“We need farmland not just to grow food, but to help restore our planet,” explains Piotti.
To Piotti, conservation practices are essential, but so is profitability. These two factors form an intimate connection that must be balanced to create a future for the farmers of tomorrow. An important point: profit is not a dirty word. If farmers aren’t economically stable, they can’t be the stewards our land needs. 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.
He encourages us to ask ourselves 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 American agriculture as part of a global system?
If the goal of protecting farmland is to make sure that land will always be there in the future, Piotti says, you haven't achieved that goal if your topsoil is washing down the Mississippi River. So from the beginning, AFT has been about saving farmland both by the acre and by the inch.
“What we also recognize from the beginning is that doesn't happen in isolation,” Piotti, says. “That only happens if you have farmers and ranchers who have the tools they need to be good stewards of the land. So at AFT, we see an inseparable trinity. It's about the land, it’s about the farming practices, and it's about the people who do the work. And it's all interconnected.”
Farmers and ranchers, Piotti says, are the eyes on the ground and hands in the dirt.
Twenty years ago, AFT pioneered a study called Farming on the Edge that documented the loss of farmland in the United States for the first time. They’re pushing that groundbreaking work further with a comprehensive collection of data called Farms Under Threat that will take a deeper dive to completely map federal grazing lands and examine forest land owned by farmers as well as assess the productivity and versatility of farmland.
“With national experts, we have developed a new system for assessing the productivity versatility and resilience of farmland, using criteria that go well beyond soil types,” Piotti says. “We will be able to look at changes over time and over various hypothetical scenarios. And because all this data is linked to a national climate change model, we will be able to assess how changes in temperature and precipitation and sea level will affect farmland.”
The bottom line, Piotti says, is that 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.
By the time you’ve finished reading this article, we’ll have nine fewer acres of land dedicated to agriculture. Scary.
AFT is known for its iconic green bumper sticker, “No Farms, No Food.” And if the current trends continue, Piotti says, the bumper sticker might require this ominous update: “No Farms, No Food, No Future.”
Learn more about Trust in Food here.