Preserving America's Farmland--A Goal the Federal Government Should Support

CED-79-109: Published: Sep 20, 1979. Publicly Released: Sep 20, 1979.

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Farmland is essential to the Nation's abundant agricultural production which has not only fed U.S. citizens well, but has been a positive contributor to the balance of payments and to humanitarian commitments to developing countries. Since the 1973-1974 grain purchases by the Soviet Union which eliminated surpluses and sharply increased commodity prices, there has been a growing concern about the loss of farmland. GAO examined how farmland can be preserved and what role the Federal Government should play to protect it.

Replacement or expansion of land in the farmland base involves significant tradeoffs and limitations on water, energy environment, and cost. The proportion of agricultural production dependent on energy- and cost-intensive irrigation systems is rapidly increasing. Preserving farmland has been given little consideration or low priority and has usually been outweighed by other interests in Federal projects. Furthermore, Federal or Federally assisted projects often result in the direct and/or indirect taking of prime and other farmland. One problem may be the conflict between the information regarding the importance of preserving prime farmland which is furnished to agencies, and USDA publications which cite large potential cropland reserves and production capabilities. State and local methods to preserve the land have had limited impact on its loss, and none of the methods used are likely to insure that land will be kept in agricultural production. There is insufficient data and a lack of uniform criteria to help Federal agencies evaluate the impact of losing farmland and to balance this loss against other national interests, including food production and food prices. A widely publicized national policy identifying the national interest in and goals for protecting and retaining farmland could: (1) guide and support land-use planning and decisions by the Federal, State, and local governments; (2) encourage intergovernmental coordination and cooperation in managing the land; and (3) promote public investment patterns that will minimize adverse impacts on farmland.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: Congress should: (1) formulate a national policy on protecting and retaining farmland; (2) set a national goal as to the amount and class of farmland that should be preserved; (3) periodically assess the impact of farmland losses on the established goal; and (4) delineate the Federal Government's role in guiding and helping State and local efforts to retain farmland. If Congress decides to provide Federal support to States and political subdivisions to carry out farmland preservation programs as proposed in bills now before Congress, it should specifically set out the criteria which such programs have to meet. This criteria should provide, among other things, that agricultural areas be geographically defined and preferably correspond to areas that contain the most prime farmland, and that agricultural use and prime farmland be clearly and specifically defined.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should: (1) develop additional data on, and make analyses of, the significance of losing prime and other farmland; (2) insure, through periodic reviews, that all USDA agencies evaluate the loss of prime and other farmland in their project approval processes in consonance with the Secretary's October 1978 land-use policy statement; and (3) require that additional analyses be made of the USDA potential cropland estimates in terms of how much land is likely to be converted considering current land use, production tradeoffs, development problems and costs, and other economic values, such as changes in the relationship of production and development costs to commodity prices, and that the results be published. The Secretary of Agriculture and the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality should undertake a joint effort to develop criteria to guide Federal departments and agencies in determining and evaluating the impact of their proposed projects and actions that affect prime and other farmland losses with other national interests. The Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality should instruct Federal departments and agencies to include in their environmental impact statements and other environmental review documents a discussion of their analyses relating to the criteria recommended above.

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