Working landscapes, environmental correctness

According to a 2001 agricultural economic report, “urban expansion claimed more than 1 million acres per year between 1960 and 1990″ in the United States, and that expansion follows one of two two routes: 1. expansion of urban areas or 2. large-lot development (greater than 1 acre per house). (Heimlich 2001)

 

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Land trusts throughout the United States have reacted to this trend of the loss of agricultural land to urban developers by working to protect farms and ranches (and some mixed-use tree farm operations) by creating easements for them as “working landscapes.” For purposes of discussion, forests have been teased out from the farm and ranching portion of ‘working landscapes’ since even, “Tree plantations are more biodiverse [than an annual crop], even though such plantations may be less complex than a ‘wild’ stand.” (Dekker-Robertson 1998)

Let’s not fool ourselves, no perfect solution exists (whether it be market-driven, government mandated or mixed enterprise) to our environmental needs for open space. On the contrary, compromises must be found. No right and perfect answer exists; only “good enough” exists.

At first glance, the creation of working landscapes appear environmentally correct. One would have thought allowing ranching and farming families to stay in business and ostensibly ward off urban encroachment would have been a good thing. After all, they are our neighbors and as such they hold a special place in our hearts (mine included). Now, I’m not as certain, at least from an ecologic or economic vantage point. Working landscapes now appear to be a form of environmental correctness.

What impresses me about the “working landscapes” solution is that it is neither government mandated nor is it funded by tax dollars (except to the degree that land trusts are tax-exempt as 501.C.3s). Farmers and/or ranchers who agree to a land trust’s requirements to maintain a working landscape bolster the land’s economic production.

What concerns me regarding “working landscapes” is that agriculture is arguably the most ecologically disruptive activities we humans engage in. There is no question that we are better off due to the invention of agriculture. Yet, we have become more efficient at growing food and fiber which means fewer acres are needed to grow food per capita. The upshot then is, saving a ranch or farm may not be our wisest course of action and freeing the land up for other uses (even urbanization) may actually be beneficial. As a result, working landscapes may not be better for our environment than urban development.

Proponents give an array of arguments for preserving, protecting, and maintaining working landscapes. (Arizona Land and Water Trust n.d.) (National Park Service 2008) (Morse 2010) These include preventing:

1. Loss of regional identity, distinctiveness, and character and its corollary loss of context for stories linking people to the land and an estrangement from the landscapes sustaining us

2. Unraveling of traditional social/economic relationships to the land and loss of special products of place

3. Loss of models in sustainable landscapes and living cultures

4. Fragmented landscapes

5. Loss of biological diversity

6. Food insecurity

7. Climate change


Below are my responses to each of these arguments and why I think they are overblown.

1. Loss of regional identity, etc.

Not just in the U.S. but also worldwide, the stories and the character of the land and those who work it are being lost. This comes as a byproduct of progress, the homogenization of time and place. Since humans began trading with one another and thus specializing in the products we did best, we have lost the ability and knowledge of how things are made. We have lost the ability to fashion projectile points from rock. The Stone Age did not come to an end from lack of stones; they were replaced by other and better materials and made into new products. Maintaining working landscapes to prevent loss of regional identity, distinctiveness, and character is, at best, a rear-guard effort that will devolve into a situation where tourists will stop to interact with docents who will explain how it used to be done. In other words, I believe that the working landscapes will become anachronisms


2. The unraveling of traditional social/economic relationships to the land and loss of special products of place.

The second reason to prevent loss of social/economic relationships for those “special products of the place” aligns itself closely to the first argument of preventing loss of place. Prevention again is a rear-guard action. As has been happening for the last ten thousand years because of trade and specialization, places are becoming more similar and less distinctive. Farmers, displaced from the ‘Euxine Lake’ when the sea level rose and broke through the Hellespont, brought their seeds with them, so Northern Europe lost its special products of place when the farmers planted the newer emmer and einkorn wheat grains. (Ridley 2010) The items we treasure as distinctive to place may not be as permanent as we would prefer to believe. Just because something is what we happen to have in our memory does not mean that it has always been that way.

As for those special products of place, we no longer manufacture Acheulian hand axes. After all Acheulian hand axes used to be quite special; the most important item for people, no matter the place, for one million years. (Ridley 2010) Yet, we no longer fret that no one uses them anymore. Once an item or process has been replaced, we have to move on–I do not see how farming and ranching is any different.


3. Loss of models in sustainable landscapes and living cultures.

The term “sustainable” is the term du jour and means many things to many people. Yet the loss of this “sustainable landscape” stems from its inability to provide an income sufficient to ward off other encroaching income streams: farming/ranching became unsustainable from an economic point of view. That is the land succumbs to its “highest, best use.” Rather than being something to mourn, the trade from one use to another may be a natural outcome toward greater sustainability. By trading land for money, the rancher or farmer may prove to be better off than before. “Interdependence of the world through trade is the very thing that makes modern life as sustainable as it is,” says Matt Ridley, “suppose your local wheat farmer tells you that last year’s rains means he will have to cut his flour delivery in half. You will have to go hungry.” Today, you benefit from a global marketplace; “in which somebody somewhere has something to sell you so there are rarely shortages, only modest price fluctuations.” (Ridley 2010)

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade,” wrote Steve Sexton on the Freakonomics website. “The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” (Sexton 2011)


4. Fragmented landscapes.

This argument makes little sense. Farming and ranching patch quilts our landscape. Farming is a disruption of a natural landscape (often through deforestation) to grow food or fiber. Today, much of our fiber, though not our food, can be made from petroleum products with a much smaller footprint than agriculture. Urban areas need much less space compared to agriculture. The urban areas in the United States occupy about 3 percent of the U.S. whereas agricultural land occupies nearly 50 percent. (Frey 1995) It would seem more advantageous to have land revert to its natural state through use of greenbelts around urban areas.


5. Loss of biological diversity.

This argument aligns with the previous: the loss of biological diversity already happened when the area changed to agriculture. Agriculture fragments and disrupts natural habitats. In addition, predators to the crop, flock or herd (which are often displaced by the agriculture pursuit) are subdued through mechanical and chemical means. Maintaining working landscapes means ensuring the loss of biological diversity, not preventing it.


6. Food insecurity.

The desire of the land trusts is to protect small family farms and ranches because they are close by and therefore can provide food and fiber. Steve Sexton, writing on the Freakonomics website says, “[I]mplicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a ‘relocalized’ food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.” (Sexton 2011)

And, as noted by Jesse Ausubel, this argument does not stand up: “For centuries, farmers expanded cropland faster than population grew, and thus cropland per person rose. When we needed more food, we ploughed more land, and fears about running out of arable land grew. But fifty years ago, farmers stopped plowing up more nature per capita. Meanwhile, growth in calories in the world’s food supply has continued to outpace population, especially in poor countries. Per hectare, farmers lifted world grain yields about 2 percent annually since 1960. Two percent sounds small but compounds to large effects: it doubles in 35 years and quadruples in 70.

“Vast frontiers for even more agricultural improvement remain open. On the same area, the average world farmer grows only about 20% of the corn or beans of the top Iowa farmer, and the average Iowa farmer lags more than 30 years behind the yields of his most productive neighbor. Top producers now grow more than 20 tons of corn per hectare compared with a world average for all crops of about 2. From one hectare, an American farmer in 1900 could provide calories or protein for a year for 3 people. In 1999 the top farmers can feed 80 people for a year from the same area. So farmland again abounds, disappointing sellers who get cheap prices per hectare almost everywhere.” (Ausubel 1999)

Lastly, the United States Department of Agriculture is not sounding the full alarm, yet: “[Urban expansion] is not seen as a threat to most farming, although it may reduce production of some high-value or specialty crops. [emphasis added] The consequences of continued large–lot development may be less sanguine, since it consumes much more land per unit of housing than the typical suburb.” (Heimlich 2001)


7. Climate change.

Preventing climate change (by proclaiming his pet project prevents it) seems to be the last bastion of the scoundrel. Whereas it used to be that everything caused pollution, it now gets weighed by its “carbon footprint.” Sexton says this about the advisability of small farms for lowering carbon emissions, “The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser estimates that carbon emissions from transportation don’t decline in a locavore future because local farms reduce population density as potential homes are displaced by community gardens. Less-dense cities mean more driving and more carbon emissions. Transportation only accounts for 11 percent of the carbon embodied in food anyway, according to a 2008 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon; 83 percent comes from production.”

Summary

So, to a Physiocrat or Romantic, preservation of so-called working landscapes may make sense. They preserve viewscapes, allow a traditional way of life to continue (ranching and farming), help our agricultural neighbors survive in these difficult economic times, and help maintain a region’s distinctiveness and character.

However, from an ecological and economic perspective maintaining agricultural holdings makes very little sense. “The worst thing for the environment is farming,” says Dr. Pamela Ronald, “It doesn’t matter if it is organic [or conventional]…You have to go in and destroy everything.” (Voosen, 2010) We currently use nearly 40% of Earth’s ice-free land for our food and fiber needs. According to one source, that’s an “area 60 times larger than the combined area of all the world’s cities and suburbs.” (Wilcox 2011)

If the area figure cited is even close to true (and it appears that it’s close to the mark), then it is more beneficial to allow farms and ranches to revert to wildland (and urbanized area), especially if they are not economically viable.


Sources

 

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