Read more from Slate’s special issue on the future of food.
America got its start as an agricultural wonderland, a continent-sized expanse of free land up for grabs for anyone with the gumption to sail across the ocean and steal it from the Indians. The United States’ great East Coast metropolises arose as export terminals for the agricultural bounty this land bore. Our early infrastructure megaprojects, canals and railroads, served to further expand the scope of agricultural shipping, and their intersections brought us the cities of the Midwest. And though America has industrialized and then unindustrialized, agriculture remains a great constant of our economy. Relatively few Americans farm today, but the much-derided mainstream commercial agriculture sector in the United States remains a major engine of productivity and could easily be become stronger yet.
How productive is America’s farm sector? Viewed in one light, it seems not so impressive: The 2009 output equaled 170 percent of 1948 output, for an average annual rate of 1.63 percent—well below the economy-wide average.
But the agricultural industry was already mature in 1948, so seems unfair to expect its productivity to increase at the same rate as computer production or jet airplane manufacturing. What’s more, productivity derives from multiple sources. A firm, country, or sector can increase output by increasing the volume or quality of inputs—more workers, more machines and capital goods, more land and energy—as well as by increasing the efficiency with which these inputs are used. And here’s where America’s farms look like champions. Total growth in agricultural inputs was only 0.11 percent during this period, meaning that almost all the growth in agriculture was due to “total factor productivity,” otherwise known as the secret sauce by which an industry gets more efficient at turning inputs into value.
One tangible sign of America’s sustained agricultural productivity is that we are a large net exporter of agricultural goods. Farming, in other words, stands alongside software, media, financial services, tourism, airplanes, and military equipment as one of the main things we sell to the world in exchange for our imports of oil and consumer goods.
The lion’s share of our exports—about $50 billion worth last year—were basic staples: soybeans, corn, wheat, and cotton. The big destinations for American farm goods are our neighbors in Canada and Mexico, plus the hungry mouths of land-scarce Asia—China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. And rising living standards in the Pacific Rim promise even more agricultural bounty ahead. As people get richer, they start to want to eat more meat. America exports meat ($12.5 million worth of pork, beef, and chicken in 2011), but, more to the point, our staple grains feed animals. A cow is essentially a low-efficiency, high-status method of transforming grain into food for humans, so steady growth in world demand for meat implies enormous growth in demand for feed crops.
But to fully take advantage of these trends, America needs to increase its overall agricultural output, not just our total factor productivity. That means getting more inputs.
Perhaps the most important trend to reverse would be the long-term decline in the quantity of American farmland. Over the past 40 years, about 125 million acres of American land have gone out of cultivation. While the government shouldn’t try to force land back into agricultural use, it’s well worth reconsidering policies that have tended to do the reverse.
Urban and suburban jurisdictions tend to put severe restrictions on how dense developed land can become. In very land-constrained places like Silicon Valley, this results in high housing prices and slow population growth. But most of the United States is more spacious than that, and excessive restrictions on apartments and townhouses merely result in outward expansion into farm territory. In Washington, D.C., for example you can’t build skyscrapers downtown, which, among other things, encourages the construction of office complexes in the suburbs. When jobs sprawl away from the center, housing patterns grow ever-more-diffuse and begin to eat into farmland. Less restriction on the use of urban and suburban land would mean more space available for use for agricultural production.
The other input where we’re most clearly falling short is people. Land and transportation infrastructure alone wouldn’t have turned America into a farm powerhouse if people hadn’t moved here from Europe to till the soil. The same situation applies today, when immigrants and especially temporary seasonal workers are a key element in the agricultural labor force.
In recent years, unfortunately, the country’s political mood has wrought a crackdown on unauthorized immigration—a move that fantasists insist will mechanically push up wages for American workers. In reality, the lowest wages Americans will accept will in many cases be too high to be profitable, leaving crops rotting in the fields rather than picked by visitors from Latin America. This merely wastes resources and reduces overall incomes throughout the country. What’s needed isn’t tolerance of illegal border crossing, but expanded temporary-worker programs ideally purged of the requirement that migrants work exclusively for one employer, which too often open workers to abusive treatment.
The days when the United States was a nation of farmers are long gone, but we’re still the Earth’s greatest agricultural producer. The world, meanwhile, is a big and increasingly hungry place. With a few smarter policies to bring more land into cultivation and an adequate supply of workers to till it, this strong point of the American economy could get even stronger.
Also in the special issue on the future of food: five “food frontiers," including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; and the case for bringing back home ec. This project arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.