The paper analyzes two issues: the case against farmland preservation and the ecological footprint concept. With respect to the first, emphasis is placed on improving agricultural productivity, "highest and best use" land allocations, the reversibility of land uses in response to market conditions, the shift to more land-intensive crops, the environmental costs of agriculture, the comparative external economies and job creation impacts of urban vs. rural development, and the influence of private ownership on land stewardship. In addition, the world food problem is much more a distributional than an aggregate supply issue. The ecological footprint concept extends the land use per capita indicator both spatially (to cover the globe) and functionally (the land requirements to maintain all types of consumption). Global aggregates imply that land area requirements are greater than the world's available land, suggesting that current consumption patterns are "unsustainable." However, this idea is based upon severely limiting assumptions: no substitution of other factors of production for land; low rates of technological change; small countries with large populations are inherently bad; urban residents consume more natural resources than rural residents; gains from trade are negligible and/or undesirable; and price signals have little value.
Many planners and policy makers now claim that "farmland protection" is their charge, that ongoing suburban development patterns "waste land" and that within sixty years, U.S. farmers will not grow enough food for the country to feed itself (for examples of the debate, see American Farmland Trust 1995, Nelson 1990, Peter 1990, Mittelbach, Fletcher, Moscove and Wambem 1997). Many States have adopted a variety of farmland preservation measures that inhibit urban development (a useful Web source for the details of these programs is www.farmlandinfo.org). The rationale is based on several arguments, some of them specious. They include: threats to national food security (much less convincing in the United States than elsewhere); the "unproductive" character of housing compared with "productive" agriculture; the risk of more environmental degradation from pesticides if a smaller agricultural land stock is used more intensively; urban-biased policies such as the deductibility of mortgage interest and property taxes; the assumed imperfections of competitive land markets, particularly in the long run; the objective and sacrosanct value of "prime" agricultural land, inadequately defined; economies in public infrastructure costs if farmland preservation measures result in higher-density, more contained and compact urban development; the benefits of preserving open space; and the need to inhibit the growth of "ranchettes."
There are many arguments on the other side: