EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Eroding Soils and Shrinking Cropland: Crops and Cars Compete for Land

In addition to the losses to degradation, prime cropland is also being paved over. As the new century begins, the competition between cars and crops for land is intensifying. The addition of 12 million cars each year consumes, in new roads, highways, and parking lots, roughly 1 million hectares of land—enough to feed 9 million people if it were all cropland. Since the world's people are concentrated in the agriculturally productive regions, a disproportionate share of the land paved for cars is cropland.26

Millions of hectares of cropland in the industrial world have been paved over for roads and parking lots. Each U.S. car, for example, requires on average 0.07 hectares (0.18 acres) of paved land for roads and parking space. Thus for every five cars added to the U.S. fleet, an area the size of a football field is covered with asphalt. More often than not, it is cropland that is paved simply because the flat, well-drained soils that are well suited for farming are also ideal for building roads.27

The United States, with its 214 million motor vehicles, has paved 6.3 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) of roads, enough to circle the earth at the equator 157 times. In addition to roads, cars require parking space. Imagine a parking lot for 214 million cars and trucks. If that is a stretch, try visualizing a parking lot for 1,000 cars and then imagine what 214,000 of these would look like.28

However we visualize it, the U.S. area devoted to roads and parking lots covers an estimated 16 million hectares (39 million acres), almost as much as the 20 million hectares that U.S. farmers plant in wheat. But this paving of land in industrial countries is slowing as countries approach automobile saturation. In the United States, there is nearly one vehicle for every person. In Western Europe and Japan, there is typically one for every two people.29

In developing countries, however, where automobile fleets are still small and where cropland is in short supply, the paving is just getting under way. More and more of the 11 million cars added to the world fleet of 531 million are being added in the developing world. This means that the war between cars and crops is being waged over wheat fields and rice paddies in countries where hunger is common. The outcome of this conflict in China and India, which together contain 2.4 billion people, will affect food security everywhere.30

Car-centered industrial societies that are densely populated, such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan, which have paved an average of 0.02 hectares per vehicle, have lost some of their most productive cropland in the process. Similarly, China and India also face acute pressure on their cropland base from industrialization. Although China covers roughly the same area as the United States, its 1.3 billion people are concentrated in just one third of the country—a thousand-mile strip on the eastern and southern coast where the cropland is also located.31

If China were one day to achieve the Japanese ownership rate of one car for every two people, it would have a fleet of 640 million, compared with only 13 million today. While the idea of such an enormous fleet may seem farfetched, we need only remind ourselves that China has already overtaken the United States in steel production, grain production, and red meat production. It is a huge economy and, since 1980, also the world's fastest growing one.32

Assuming the same paved area per vehicle in China as in Europe and Japan, a fleet of 640 million cars would require paving nearly 13 million hectares—most of which would likely be cropland. This would equal almost half of China's 28 million hectares of riceland, which produces 122 million tons of rice, the principal food staple.33

The situation in India is similar. While India is geographically only a third the size of China, it too has more than 1 billion people, and it now has 8 million motor vehicles. A land-hungry country projected to add 515 million more people by 2050 cannot afford to cover valuable cropland with roads and parking lots.34

There simply is not enough land in China, India, and other densely populated countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, and Mexico to support auto-centered transportation systems and to feed their people. The competition between cars and crops for land is becoming a competition between the rich and the poor, between those who can afford automobiles and those who are struggling to buy enough food.

Previous Table of Contents Next

26. Addition of cars from Ward's World Motor Vehicle Data (Southfield, MI: Ward's Communications, 2000); population from United Nations, op. cit. note 16.

27. Calculations for paved area by Janet Larsen, Earth Policy Institute, based on U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Highway Statistics 1999 (Washington, DC: 2001), on Mark Delucchi, "Motor Vehicle Infrastructure and Services Provided by the Public Sector," cited in Todd Litman, Transportation Land Valuation (Victoria, BC, Canada: Victoria Transport Policy Institute, November 2000), p. 4, on Ward's World Motor Vehicle Data, op. cit. note 26, on Jeffrey Kenworthy, Associate Professor in Sustainable Settlements, Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, Australia, e-mail message, 7 February 2001, and on discussion with David Walterscheid, FHWA Real Estate Office, February 2001.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.; grain area from USDA, Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, updated 13 May 2003.

30. Automobile production from Ward's World Motor Vehicle Data, op. cit. note 26; fleet size from Michael Renner, "Vehicle Production Inches Up," in Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2003 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), pp. 56-57; population from United Nations, op. cit. note 16.

31. Larsen, op. cit. note 27; population from United Nations, op. cit. note 16.

32. Larsen, op. cit. note 27; economy from International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook (Washington, DC: October 1999).

33. Larsen, op. cit. note 27; rice area harvested and production in China from USDA, op. cit. note 29.

34. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 16; Ward's World Motor Vehicle Data, op. cit. note 26.


Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute