Skip Navigation Planning & Markets
Subscribe Submission Requirements Editorial Board Archive Links Search Home


Farmland Preservation and Ecological Footprints: A Critique

Peter Gordon
School of Policy, Planning, and Development and
Department of Economics
Harry W. Richardson
School of Policy, Planning, and Development and
Department of Economics
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0626



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.

Print VersionCONTENTS

  1. Introduction

  2. Food, Resources and People

  3. Land Economics

  4. An Example: The Agricultural Land Reserve in Vancouver

  5. Ecological Footprints

  6. Conclusions





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 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:

  • U.S. cropland use peaked in 1930; we feed more people using fewer farmers and less land every year because of continuously improving productivity; we will feed even more people on even less land once we discard water subsidies and crop subsidies; even the USDA has retracted its own 1977 alarm about three million acres per year lost to cities.
  • Land's highest and best use at urban boundaries can change from rural to urban; when it does, elementary models of land use show that markets will reallocate that land to its most valued use. Who would replace that mechanism? Those who implemented the wasteful water and crop programs now in place?
  • This process (if left alone) may be reversible if and when society ever values the same land more highly in farm use.
  • In many cases (including California's Central Valley), loss of acreage is less associated with urban development than with a shift from field crops to more productive and more land-intensive fruits, nuts and vegetables.
  • The external economies and job creation impacts of urban development are discounted while similar impacts with respect to agriculture are overplayed.
  • Land is the typical farmers' most important asset; farmers can be expected to see that their land is used in ways that are most socially beneficial; ownership creates stewardship; most forest lands are government owned but most reforestation takes place on private lands. Simon labels allegations that we are running out of farmlands: "... the most conclusively discredited environmental-political fraud of recent times" (1996, p. 139).

page 1



USC Seal

Main Page | Subscribe | Submission Requirements | Editorial Board | Archive | Links

ISSN 1548-6036

Copyright 1999-2000
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California 90089-0626