Agriculture Statistics Challenge Land Use Assumptions

LEESBURG, Virginia, April 16, 2002 (ENS) - A Virginia sheep farmer says U.S. agriculture statistics suggest that, contrary to popular belief, industrialized countries do not use more land than developing countries to grow food and raise animals. 

In the April 11 issue of the journal "Nature," Stephen Budiansky of Black Sheep Farm in Leesburg, Virginia, examined land use statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). His analysis revealed that developed nations provide more calories per person, and much more meat and dairy products, while using less total agricultural land than the poorest countries, and just a bit more crop land per capita. 

"It is often stated that countries with higher incomes demand much more land per person to sustain their higher consumption rates," Budiansky wrote. "What is most striking is that the total area used for U.S. food production has remained virtually unchanged since 1945." 

 From 1945 to 1997, per capita cropland use in the U.S. declined by 50 percent, Budiansky says, as population grew by 90 percent. 

Around the world, "food production represents by far the greatest impact of humans on land worldwide," Budiansky noted. "About 10 percent of the world's 13 billion hectares of land is used to grow crops, 25 percent for permanent pasture." 

Budiansky used USDA statistics to calculate how the nation's per capita land requirements have changed over time. Today, he found, the U.S. holds about 2.8 hectares per person. Crops are grown on 0.52 hectares per capita, while grazed forest land and grazed arable land account for another 1.17 hectares per capita. 

"By comparison, forested lands, parks and wildlife areas total 0.75 hectares per capita," Budiansky wrote. 

Average cropland area across all wealthy countries is 0.4 hectares per capita. In sub-Saharan Africa, cropland averages 0.3 hectares per capita, and grazing land accounts for another 1.7 hectares per capita. 

"Thus, developed nations provide more calories per person, and very substantially more meat and dairy products per person (per capita meat consumption in the United States is 10 times that in sub-Saharan Africa), while using only slightly more cropland per capita than the poorest countries and less total agricultural land (arable plus grazing) per capita," Budiansky concludes. 

Intensive farming methods require less land to feed more people, he says. "Use of chemical fertilizer and of hybrid and other high yielding varieties of grains could let developing countries match Western diets with little or no increase in land use," Budiansky argues. "The growth in urban areas and other uses of land that come with growing affluence add an insignificant amount to land requirements." 

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