Paving over the food supply

I first became aware and concerned about sprawl during the eight years I lived in a central Illinois farm town. Illinois, with 22 million acres of corn and soybeans under production, exports $13 billion worth of grain and beans annually, yet in recent years has annually converted 100 thousand acres to development.

It doesn’t take an agricultural specialist to realize farmland is a finite, non-renewable resource. Once you pave it over, it’s almost never returned to production. Now we see this happening in China.

Construction workers walk past a farmer leading his goat herd past newly constructed residential buildings in the town of Gushi in Henan province March 28, 2010. Gushi, a county some thousand kilometres south of Beijing, is a microcosm of the urbanisation tide reshaping China, driving investment to the country's poorer interior, devouring farmland and creating cities that will absorb more residents than the total population of the United States in coming decades. This metamorphosis of farms to factories is at the heart of how China's economy, a welterweight in global terms in 1980, could be the world's biggest a decade from now. Picture taken March 28, 2010. To match Special Report CHINA-URBANISATION/    REUTERS/David Gray (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS)

The rule of thumb used in the United States is you need to pave an acre for every five cars on the road. With car sales approaching 1 million vehicles per month now in China, that’s a love of pavement. Not only that, the Chinese now consume more meat than Americans — half of the world’s pork production occurs in China, and a lot of grain is needed to fatten up those pork bellies. China is a significant grain producer, but they need to import most of their grain from the United States of America. With record drought decimating Russian grain production this year and lower yields on American crops, we’ll see higher prices at the supermarket in the next few weeks.

ITAR-TASS: NIZHNY NOVGOROD REGION, RUSSIA. JULY 27, 2010. Patches of wheat in the burnt field in Nizhny Novgorod Region. A severe drought and wildfires have devastated crops across European Russia. (Photo ITAR-TASS / Denis Rusinov) Photo via Newscom

Higher prices are inconvenient, but how soon before climate change and unproductive land brings drought to China and Illinois? Even if we completely discount or disbelieve human causes of climate change, why don’t these patterns of development and reduced food production scare the well nourished feces out of us?

Foreign Policy Magazine interviewed Lester Brown, an expert on the issue of food security, in Grain Pains. Read it for more on the topic.


  1. Offset by increased yields – which are a function of large scale use of another finite resource.

  2. Fascinating article! One small nit to pick though – the article cites a value of one acre of pavement for every five cars on the road, not every one car.

  3. Variations of this have been going on for longer than you can imagine. Silicon Valley was the largest contiguous orchard and was called “The Valley of Heart's Delight”. The largely treeless moors of Scottland were once forested but cut down, as was Easter Island, Jordan, the fertile crescent…

  4. As an Illinois resident, I have to say I cringe every time I see new development spring up in the metro-east on perfectly good farmland. I have to wonder how much longer Collinsville can claim to be the “Horseradish Capital of the World.” If there's a good thing to come out of the recession, I guess it would be it's slowed some of the development.

  5. Someone else once said that 'civilization is a pyramid scheme, and with each successive civilization's greater reach, the stakes get higher'. It has also been argued that the span of time between the 'Fall of Rome' in Western Europe and the Renaissance corresponds quite well to how long it takes depleted soil and forests to recover well enough to rebuild a civilization.

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