EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Protecting Cropland: Saving Cropland

Every person added to the world’s population in a land-scarce time provides another reason for protecting cropland from conversion to nonfarm uses. Ideally, we would build our homes, offices, factories, shopping malls, roads, and parking lots only on land that is unsuitable for farming. Unfortunately, people are concentrated where the best cropland is located—either because they are farmers or because land that is good for crops is typically the flat, well-drained land that is also ideal for cities and the construction of roads.

This reality underscores the importance of land use planning in the development of human settlements and also in the formulation of transportation policy. The U. S. sprawl model of development is not only land-intensive, it is also energy-inefficient and aesthetically unappealing. Urban sprawl leaves people trapped in communities not densely populated enough to support a first-class public transport system, thus forcing them to commute by car, with all the attendant congestion, pollution, and frustration.

Automobiles promised mobility, and in largely rural societies they provided it. But in urban situations a continually increasing number of cars eventually brings immobility. There is an inherent conflict between the car and the city. After a point, the more cars, the less mobility. Some cities are now taxing cars every time they enter a city or the center district. Initially Singapore but now also Melbourne, Oslo, and, most recently, London have adopted this disincentive to encourage commuters to shift to public transportation, which takes much less land. 39

European governments, which have followed a very different development model from the United States, have carefully zoned their urban development, leading to a much more land-efficient, energy-efficient, aesthetically pleasing approach. Ironically, Americans often spend their vacations biking in the English or French countrysides, so they can enjoy picturesque rural settings not destroyed by sprawl.

In developing countries facing acute land scarcity, there is now another pressing reason for protecting cropland from the automobile and urban sprawl. China, for example, has been blindly following the western industrial development model. In 1994, it announced that it was going to develop an auto-centered transportation system, inviting manufacturers such as Toyota, General Motors, and Volkswagen to submit proposals for building assembly plants in China. 40

Within a matter of months a group of senior Chinese scientists, including members of the Academy of Sciences, had produced a white paper challenging this decision. They noted the oil import needs this policy entailed, along with the traffic congestion and air pollution. But their principal question was whether China had enough land both to feed its people and to support an auto-centered transportation system. Their conclusion was that it did not and that the government should build an alternative urban transportation model that used far less land—a system centered on light rail, buses, and bicycles. 41

We are indebted to these scientists for recognizing early on that the automobile-centered, western industrial development model is simply not appropriate for densely populated developing countries. Nor over the long term is this model likely to be viable in industrial countries either. Numerous European cities are not only investing in first-rate public transportation systems, they are also actively encouraging the use of bicycles for travel within the city. Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where up to 40 percent of all trips within the city are taken by bicycle, are leading the way. 42

When industrial countries were rapidly urbanizing during the twentieth century, agricultural land was considered a surplus commodity. Now it is a scarce resource. In today’s densely populated developing countries, the amount of land used by transportation systems directly affects food production. In a world of 6 billion people, transportation policy and food security are intimately related. 43

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39. John Whitlegg, editorial, World Transport Policy and Practice, vol. 8, no. 4 (2002), p. 5; Randy Kennedy, “The Day the Traffic Disappeared,” New York Times Magazine, 20 April 2003, pp. 42–45.

40. Ding Guangwei and Li Shishun, “Analysis of Impetuses to Change of Agricultural Land Uses in China,” Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, vol. 13, no. 1 (1999).

41. Ibid.

42. Anthonie Gerard Welleman, project manager of the Bicycle Master Plan at the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, presentation at the Velo-City Conference ’95 (Basel, Switzerland: 1995), at www.communitybike.org/cache/autumn_bike_master_plan.html.

43. United Nations, op. cit. note 5.


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