Wasted Agricultural Land and Future Food Shortages

A food disaster in the U.S. is inevitable. The drought in California continues unabated. We are relying, more and more, on imported food, and at the same time, food exports are increasing. The amount of agricultural land in the U.S. is steadily declining. Then much of that land is misused.

In 2014, the U.S. planted over 90 million acres to corn, and then harvested 14.215 billion bushels of corn, which is 796 billion lbs (at 56 lbs/bushel) [USDA Corn data table].

Just about 12% of that corn was exported, 93.6 billion lbs. Why is so much corn exported? To make livestock feed for cattle in other nations. When we grow corn and soy to feed livestock in the U.S., we benefit from the food produced: meat, poultry, farm-raised fish, eggs, milk, etc. But there is no good reason why we should grow crops to feed cattle in other nations. They should grow their own cattle feed.

Corn yields in the U.S. in 2014 were 8787 lbs/acre, using planted acres, not harvested acres. This figure takes into account the failure rate for the corn crop. Some acres do not yield any corn, due to crop failure, but the land was still used. This means that 10.7 million acres of land was used just to grow corn for export. That land could have been used to grow food for our population.

Now you might argue that we are already well-fed. But there will come a day when an agricultural disaster strikes, and the supermarket shelves are bare. Then the agricultural system will be thrown into chaos as we try to adjust to produce enough food for our own population.

As for the corn that is not exported, in 2014, we used 291.7 billion lbs of corn to make ethanol to add to our gasoline formula. And that corn took an additional 33.2 million acres of land to grow. Doesn’t ethanol from corn improve the environment by offering a cleaner burning gasoline? No, it doesn’t. The EPA and independent researchers have concluded that using ethanol in gasoline is worse for the environment. So why are we wasting land growing corn for fuel?

We also use vegetable oil to make biodiesel fuel. In 2014, we used 17 million acres to make biodiesel, mostly from canola oil, corn oil, and soybean oil. These are edible oils that could be used for food.

Now we also grow corn and soy to make livestock feed for our own cattle, which provides us with food. I’m not against that use of land. But we also graze cattle on “grassland pasture and range”. Which is better? Grass-fed beef is all the rage. But we use over 600 million acres of land just to graze cattle, while the total land used for all crops is about 300 million acres [USDA Major Land Uses]. Using land to grow livestock feed is a more efficient use of our land.

Soybeans are also used to make livestock feed. But that soy is dual-use. We get soybean oil and a major livestock feed ingredient out of the same crop. That’s not such a bad use of cropland. The main issue is that, in 2014, 107.4 billion lbs of soybeans were exported. U.S. soybean yields are about 77 bushels per acre (with 60 lbs/bushel), which is 4620 lbs/acre. Land used to grow soybeans solely for export, then, was about 23.25 million acres that year.

Total agricultural land misused, per the above discussion: 84 million acres, which is 28% of the 300 million acres or so of cropland used in the U.S. to grow crops. Then there is the 600 million acres of land used for ranging and pasture, at least some of which could be converted to cropland.

Other food exports, net, in 2014, according to the USDA:
4.31 billion eggs
8.13 billion lbs of milk (yes, milk data is in lbs)
532 million lbs of cheese
106 million lbs of butter

3.82 billion lbs of pork
7.18 billion lbs of chicken
776 million lbs of turkey

42.3 billion lbs of wheat
6.96 billion lbs of rice
1.3 billion lbs of tree nuts (various kinds)
1.075 billion lbs of peanuts

That is a lot of food and land that could be used to feed the U.S. The approaching agricultural disaster in the U.S. is partly caused by excessive food exports, and partly by misuse of agricultural land (ethanol, biodiesel, exported livestock feed).

Now you might think that, once a food disaster hits the U.S., we will stop exporting food and stop growing livestock feed for cattle in other nations. Really? Why do you think that would happen? The agricultural system is commercial, not philanthropic. The large agri-businesses that control much of the food economy are profit-based. If they can make more money growing corn for ethanol, or livestock feed for export, that is what they will do. It would take a severe change in our government agricultural and trade policies to reform the system. Yes, that’s right. Whether we suffer food shortages and empty supermarket shelves depends upon the infinitesimal wisdom of Congress. Yikes.

– Thoreau

9 Responses to Wasted Agricultural Land and Future Food Shortages

  1. The growing of grain for feeding livestock is never the most efficient use of our land. We could feed an additional 800,000,000 people with the grain we use to fatten hogs, cows, chickens, and turkeys. That’s right: more than double our present population could be fed with what we waste on feeding animals! In addition, it takes 1,000 gallons of water to put one pound of beef on the table (primarily from irrigation used to grow the grain to feed the animals). Until America weans itself from this enormous consumption of meat, we are doomed. The answer is only partially imbedded in stopping exports, the total answer is to stop the use of meat, meat byproducts, and other processed foods. We need to learn to garden, produce our own caloric intake and start taking a hell of a lot better care of our land, water, and other natural resources. Furthermore if people would get their heads our of their asses and their asses out of the kitchens and learn to eat raw food we could save megawatts everyday on electricity. Short answer, stop worshipping at the altar of commercial farming and learn to do it ourselves. Thanks for the article, especially the exports data. I had no idea we were sending so much foodstuffs abroad!

    • The 800 million figure is an exaggeration. And we do get food from the livestock. Yes, livestock feed is an inefficient use of land. But grazing cattle is even less efficient. And growing corn for ethanol is a total waste. So, fix the worst problems first.

  2. the quality of meats raised by grass fed versus grain fed should be taken into consideration. Feeding the masses of population here in the US – many of which do NOT carry their own weight – many due to poor quality diet – shouldn’t the quality of foods for them be improved – ie. grass fed. Less corn in all’s diets! GMO corn and soy???

    • Quality is a consideration. But we are running out of agricultural land. Eventually, grazing cattle is going to be phased out, because the land is needed for other uses.

  3. Cannot agree with Taxn2 – a simple google for vegan diets will show how dangerous long term meatless diets can cause problems. http://chriskresser.com/why-you-should-think-twice-about-vegetarian-and-vegan-diets/

    Unfortunately for the queasy stomached people or the brainwashed (did you see that brainwashing meat packing plant video in high school?) our bodies evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be omnivores.

  4. Much of the land that is grazed is not suitable for grain production. Either it is too steep or there is not enough water to irrigate it.

    Also, a hay/forage component is a good thing to have in a crop rotation. It breaks disease and pest cycles and can increase organic matter in the soil.

    With regard to “vegan” being unhealthy, the Japanese eat a little bit of meat, primarily as flavoring, and they have the longest life expectancy on the planet. Seventh Day Adventists also eat very little meat and they also have life expectancies that are statistically greater than the average.

    The key seems to be “Moderation in all things.” If America has a food crisis it is most likely to be driven by economics, logistical challenges and consumers inability to prepare “food” from basic ingredients rather than the inability to actually grow food.

  5. Grazing cattle on CROPLAND is definitely not the most efficient in terms of maximizing yield, although it still may be desirable for other reasons, ecological or economic. But as said above, not all land that is grazed is suitable for crops. A study done for New York showed that the optimal diet included about 2 ounces of animal protein (meat or eggs) a day: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2007/10/diet-little-meat-more-efficient-many-vegetarian-diets

    • Some pasture and grazing land can be converted to cropland. I think a diet can be healthy with 4 to 5 oz of meat/poultry/fish per day.

  6. I once read that a human body can only process 6 oz of meat a day. The Japanese consume lots of fish. If it’s healthier for humans to avoid meat, why do we all seem to desire it so much? It’s not the two all beef patties that make you fat, it’s the stuff in the special sauce and sesame seed bun.