In 1977, crop exports were growing, prices were rising, and planted land was expanding. Grain stocks in the United States had been depleted since 1972, famine was stalking many countries, and degradation of resources was feared. Congress enacted the Resource Conservation Act, directing the Secretary of Agriculture to appraise the U.S. resources for growing food (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1981[USD81]; 1990[USD90a]). In the 1980 Appraisal, the pessimism of the time reinforced by a perception that technology could not continue delivering miracles prompted projections of expanding cropland.
Later about 20% of U.S. cropland was idled to avoid crop surpluses and bankrupt farmers (Figure 4.1.3.).
So the 1989 Appraisal projected that within 40 years, farmers would grow higher yields, cultivate and irrigate less land, and consume less water than in 1982. The intermediate projection of cropland in the 1989 Appraisal is 56% of the pessimistic 1980 Appraisal and 61% of the actual cropland of 1982. The engines of the projected shrinkage of cropland are exports rising no faster than yields, domestic demand rising slower than yields, and animals converting feed to products with relative efficiency.
In the fall of 1991, Resources for the Future convened meetings for the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1992[USE92]) to assess the future of U.S. agriculture and its implications for the environment. The Business as Usual scenario for 2010 A.D. envisioned growth in demand that is modest domestically and strong abroad and envisioned continued competitive strength of U.S. farmers. The scenario required some increase in cropland--but not back to the area of the early 1980s. The demand for water would shift production from west to east. About habitat for animals, the meeting concluded, ``The increase in cropland could result in some additional loss of animal habitat. Countering this is the increasing commitment of the American people to the protection of wildlife. The commitment may be expressed, however, not by restricting the expansion of cropland but increasing the productivity of present habitat and providing more habitat on non-agricultural land."
The Environmentally Friendly scenario assumed that Americans would eat less meat, global population would slow its growth, farmers abroad would increase yields, and less research and more rules would make American farming more costly. The consequent reduction of 15% in land and water use of the Environmentally Friendly scenario, of course, left more wildlife habitat, land for Nature. Like the 1989 Appraisal, the EPA Futures Project foresees little expansion and instead possible contraction of U.S. cropland.