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.

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