International farmland concerns heighten importance of local food and protecting American farms

A new U.N. report indicates that a quarter of the planet’s land mass is degraded and unable to effectively produce food for a swelling global population. This calls into question the reliability of international food supplies and heightens the importance of local food and of protecting American farmland.

A global economy can make a lot of sense. Everyone produces the products they’re best at making. Most things are less expensive. And we’re all better off.

Food, however, may be one of the exceptions.

A new report from the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates that a quarter of the world’s land mass has been so overused and degraded that there is considerable doubt of our planet’s ability to feed its people. (See the article by Dario Thuburn (AFP): “Quarter of World’s Landmass ‘Highly Degraded:’ U.N.” Google News, 11/28/11.) With Earth’s human population now over 7 billion and rising, it seems wiser than ever that Americans encourage and protect reliable local sources of safe, high quality food.

Yet the U.S. still comes closer and closer to becoming a net food importer. It would be more than unfortunate if Americans became as dependent on overseas food supplies as we are today for oil – not just for our own cost and standard of living, but also for any hope of international peace and security. We’re obviously not always going to be able to count on getting our food from overseas. And limits on the world’s food seem likely to generate future global instability.

The flourishing American local food movement has given a lot of attention to assuring that our food is safe, fresh, and healthy, and that it is distributed in a way that provides fair access to all segments of our society. Those are worthwhile objectives. But this movement typically focuses little attention on preserving the farmland that grows that food. And its perspective is often very local.

There are, no doubt, many urban-edge farms in existence today that would have long-since disappeared were it not for the growing number of farmers markets and increased opportunities for farmers to sell their products direct to local consumers. But it is also these same urban-edge farmers who face the most intense land-cost competition for farmland from sprawling urban development. Let us hope that these new advocates for local food are also paying attention to the need to protect the local farmland required to produce that food.

And, in the face of the increasing potential for global food shortages, let’s also remember that food and affordable farmland is also an American national problem, not just one we face at the perimeter of our urban centers. We also need a strong American agriculture industry generally, not just one that produces direct-market produce along the urban edge.

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