Food security forum to focus on loss of farmland

John Larson, senior vice president of national programs for the American Farmland Trust, will speak about the loss of farmland to “buildings and asphalt” during a Oct. 26 food security forum in Walla Walla, Wash.

The U.S. has lost 31 million acres of valuable farmland over the last two decades, Larson says. He will deliver the keynote address during a food security forum that starts at 8 a.m. Oct. 26 at the Walla Walla Community College Water and Environmental Center.

John Larson is senior vice president for national programs for American Farmland Trust. The organization is accessing USDA data to determine where the “most productive, resilient and versatile” farmland is.

The farmland lost is usually developed “to the point that it is now buildings and asphalt,” he said.

About 13 million acres were lost to low-density residential development 1-acre lots.

“It’s happening not just in urban and suburban settings, but also in very rural settings,” Larson said. “That was eye-opening for us.”

“The farmland that produces food for America is in danger,” said Hannah Clark, Pacific Northwest regional director for AFT. “Nationally, we’re losing 3 acres of farmland per minute. That’s a staggering number that should make us all come to attention. If we don’t have farmland, the food supply isn’t there.”

Urban development hinges on the proximity to necessary natural resources, much like the historic settlement of major cities, Larson said.

“We’re developing our most productive (farmland) at a higher rate of development than other lands,” he said. “As those more productive acres are developed, the potential is to push us onto more marginal ground to try to grow the same level, if not (more).”

The impact of trying to grow more food on less-productive ground would have environmental and economic ramifications, Larson said.

“It’s a matter of protecting the right acres that we need for the good we grow,” he said. “It’s also a matter of giving the information to municipalities, townships and counties to make better planning decisions. There are certain places where we should develop, but there are also places where we shouldn’t.”

The forum also includes panels on tools for agricultural land protection, food defense and safety and steps to build resilience.

Availability of land and products is the biggest need in food security today, said Lindsey Williams, director of the Agriculture Center of Excellence. The centers are flagship institutions funded by the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to connect education and industry.

“Agriculture touches so many, if not all, parts of the U.S. economy, and we have a responsibility to protect those who produce our food, their products and their land,” Williams said.