Monday, July 25, 2011

Agriculture and Development Impacts: A Comparison of the Impacts and Discussion of the Preferred Method of Preservation and Development

Agriculture and development have significant impacts on the environment. While agriculture, and specifically cattle ranching, can cause severe damage to the environment the alternative of residential development causes different impacts that may be equally severe. It is important to consider the differing impacts of agriculture versus development in different countries in light of global agricultural impacts. The preservation of agriculture operations in the U.S., reduction of development of agricultural lands and prevention of further clearing of international lands for agriculture may be a better choice relative to environmental impacts. This is not a clear cut issue: agriculture provides a vital income for many in third world countries but the clear cutting of rainforests and other prime habitat has proven detrimental. The global community will need to weigh the benefits and costs of agricultural sustainability and human welfare.
In the Western United States cattle ranching is an important component of the western heritage. The cost of doing business is dramatically increasing over time with costs of raising cattle increasing, the price of beef decreasing and the temptation to develop high value land: “Increasingly, ranchers in Gunnison County face strong financial incentives to subdivide and develop their vast acreages into higher density uses to serve new residents, second home and tourism development” (Orens and Seidl 2004, 1). In Gunnison County, Colorado, ranching is a traditional way of life for many families. Agriculture accounts for 96% of the private land use in Gunnison County (Tadjion and Seidl 2006, 1). The County is currently considering instituting agricultural ranchland preservation regulations that would create a process to develop small portions of ranchland while preserving a significant portion of the ranch in perpetuity. These regulations are specifically aimed at large acreage operations—not feedlots. There is concern by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) of Gunnison County that continued financial pressure on ranchers will lead to more 35-acre developments throughout the County causing not only sprawl, but loss of the ranching heritage of Gunnison County; negative impacts to the tourism economy (Orens and Seidl 2004); habitat fragmentation and loss of scenic vistas and open space. These impacts can occur on a broad scale when rural land across the U.S. is regularly being converted to residential development. Preservation of the agricultural lands is shown to positively impact the local economy through tourism benefits and benefits to the public of the open space of ranches. Ranchlands are also considered an area of carbon sequestration; since the lands are left essentially undeveloped the County believes that the environmental impacts will be less than with residential development.
It is critical to compare the impacts of cattle ranching in the U.S. to impacts from development. There is no easy answer that clearly delineates one use as less impactful than the other. Cattle ranching has significant impacts on the environment:
In many situations, livestock are a major source of land-based pollution, emitting nutrients and organic matter, pathogens and drug residues into rivers, lakes and coastal seas. Animals and their wastes emit gases, some of which contribute to climate change, as do land-use changes caused by demand for feedgrains and grazing land. Livestock shape entire landscapes and their demands on land for pasture and feedcrop productions modify and reduce natural habitats (Steinfeld and others 2006, 4).
Residential subdivisions are the most common form of development on agricultural lands. Residential development leads to increased roads, larger number of septic systems in rural areas, habitat fragmentation and filling of wetlands. If this consumption continues as is, it will be important to understand that utilization of existing agricultural operations in the U.S. will not only provide local benefits through open space but may prevent large scale destruction of critical habitat in other parts of the world.
Brazil is a major exporter of beef in the world and continues to increase its market share (United States Department of Agriculture 2008). Much concern exists about Brazil’s land development policies and the destruction of rainforest for agricultural land:
Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring – 70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder. About 20 percent of the world’s pastures and rangelands, with 73 percent of rangelands in dry areas, have been degraded to some extent, mostly through overgrazing, compaction and erosion created by livestock action. The dry lands in particular are affected by these trends, as livestock are often the only source of livelihoods for the people living in these areas (Steinfeld and others 2006, xxi).
The environmental impacts are not the only impacts to consider with agriculture, there are human and social impacts. Many individuals rely on agriculture as their livelihood. The difficulty with agriculture in developing nations is that it is often an unsustainable practice that is utilized as a sole means of survival and does not reflect the ability of the land to produce a viable product. Sustainable agriculture is largely connected to the larger problem of sustainable development in developing nations: “Small farmers are held responsible for environmental destruction as if they had a choice of resources to depend on for their livelihood, when they really don’t. In the context of basic survival, today’s needs tend to overshadow consideration for the environmental future. It is poverty that is responsible for the destruction of natural resources, not the poor (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, 127). The crux of the issue is: how will the global community address the needs of the citizens of developing nations? All citizens deserve the opportunity to earn a livelihood and provide for themselves and their families. The creation of a sustainable economy will lessen the dire impacts of unsustainable agricultural practices on the environment. The World Commission on Environment and Development recommends: “…reducing incentives that force overproduction and non-competitive production in the developed market economies and enhancing those that encourage food production in developing countries. At the same time, these incentive structures must be redesigned to promote farming practices that conserve and enhance the agricultural resource base” (1987, 132).
There is no easy answer but programs in the U.S. that would assist in the continued operation of agriculture will provide local benefits and may benefit the global environment by preventing more destruction of native landscapes abroad. However this perspective does not address the need for sustainable development in third world countries where agriculture offers a means of income that may not easily be replaced: “Ultimately, environmental issues are social issues: environmental cost created by some groups and nations are carried by others, or by the planet as a whole. The health of the environment and the availability of resources affect the welfare of future generations, and overuse of resources and excess environmental pollution by current generations are to their detriment” (Steinfeld and others 2006, 5). The global community should create a global agricultural policy that considers the value of the land relative to non-economic values such as watershed protection, carbon sequestration, habitat for flora and fauna and also considers the need for sustainable economic development. There are some places that agriculture is appropriate and viable and there are some places that it is not. The global community will need to reassess our growing consumption of animal products in light of the damage it incurs while balancing that against the impacts that development of agricultural lands incurs. The impacts of agriculture and development are critical at this time in history and are intertwined with social and political issues that are difficult to resolve but it is critical that the issue be addressed.
Orens, Adam and Andrew F. Seidl. 2004. Winter tourism and land development in Gunnison, Colorado. Economic Development Report, No. 10.
Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Mauricio Rosales, Cees de Hann. 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestocks_long_shadow.pdf.
Tadjion, Omar and Andy Seidl. 2006. Economic impact of the livestock industry in Gunnison County, Colorado. Economic Development Report, No. 4.
United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agriculture Service. 2008. Livestock and poultry: world markets and trade.
World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press.