How Does Urban Sprawl Affect Agriculture?
Urban sprawl is a far-reaching problem. It’s defined as the uncontrolled expansion of urban areas, but it can be hard to see. There are a few ways to build a space up. In one method, you fit as many people into an area as you can, and you continue developing in a tightly knit, close, planned area that’s well-maintained and easy to correct. If people built this way, we wouldn’t have as many issues with expansion as we currently do.
The problem is, people don’t build this way. When someone chooses to build a home or a developer decides to build on a plot, they often look for areas that offer some space. That means you’ll get a house in the middle of the woods, then a small development a mile away, then another house somewhere between the two. People like to have the illusion of living in a rural area while still being close to everything a city has to offer: hence, urban sprawl.
This issue is very real, and it has a lot of different impacts. It forces wildlife to move to increasingly smaller habitats, while it forces individuals to rely more heavily on personal transportation instead of being able to use mass transit. But we aren’t just impacting the environment. We’re also affecting other people. Farmers and the agriculture business must deal with urban sprawl too, and that can make their lives harder.
Individual farmers are in a risky line of work where anything that goes wrong can frequently represent a massive setback. In fact, farming is such a difficult and costly operation, multiple families often choose to run one large farm cooperatively. Doing so allows them to split the cost of the immensely expensive machinery and land. But it also means a bad turn can hurt a small community, instead of just one person.
First, consider the traffic. As a population increases, the traffic does too. There’s a good reason you’ll never see a combine tractor driving through midtown Manhattan! Farmers who are dealing with new developments will face the same issues, and GPS mapping has only made the problem worse. People now take shortcuts to avoid traffic, but these are the same roads farmers need to use to transport their massive tractors and semis full of food. It makes the travel much less safe for them and the people around them.
But traffic isn’t the only issue. Food is a real, necessary resource. Urban sprawl eats the land up in a disorganized, thoughtless manner. Farmers already try and make the most of the land they have, and as the global population continues to increase, that need will only become more necessary. With less land available to purchase, farms that are doing well can’t expand and create more food for everyone, which forces them to rely on other options. Some of those are good, effective tools, but ultimately, nothing can replace the need for land.
The agriculture industry, as a whole, is a behemoth. It not only needs a massive amount of space, but it generates an enormous income for industries and individuals. Environmentalists push us to “eat local,” meaning we should buy food grown close to where we live. The problem with that is, thanks to urban sprawl, farms close to town often aren’t large enough to feed expanding populations. Even multiple small farms are unlikely to be able to feed a population of 100,000.
This problem, while a legitimate issue in temperate regions like much of the U.S., is even more pronounced elsewhere. Arid and semi-arid environments make it extremely difficult for small farms to supply the food an area needs. In developing nations, the need for work tends to outweigh a family’s ability to grow their own food, which leads to them depending heavily on larger farms.
The larger the demand on the farms becomes, the more they need land to expand. If farmers must compete with urban sprawl to keep up with demand, they often have to move farther away from the city, which leads to the same problem of needing to transport food over long distances.
The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics is looking into what happens when developing countries in semi-arid regions have to contend with urban sprawl. They hope this will give them insight into what these specific regions face when it comes to food stability, resource availability and food production.
So far, expected results are increased food prices, less food stability and decreased natural resources. If we look at urban sprawl in already developed areas like the U.S., we see farmers often either have to lock into their small areas and try to meet increased demands or sell their land for development. Neither of those options allows people to make the most of their land.
Farmers and the agriculture industry face many challenges. They’re competing with other companies, but also with an expanding population and a changing climate. We are consuming land at an alarming rate, and failing to use it responsibly. Fighting urban sprawl may not be an appealing choice, but it is a necessary one.