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What You Want to Know About Resources and the Environment…But Couldn’t Find

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Agriculture has always depended on soil, water, air, and other natural resources and has always had a profound impact on the environment. Despite the increased focus on environmental issues during the last half of the 20th century, it wasn’t always easy to find basic facts about resource use in agriculture and environmental impacts associated with agricultural production. Nearly 10 years ago, ERS addressed that problem with the release of Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, known as AREI. The third and latest edition of the report, available as an online document only, continues to expand on the information contained in the original and is updated as new data become available. Coverage includes land, water, and a variety of other resources, practices, and policies.

Land resources—Grassland pasture and range, followed by forest, each account for over 25 percent of U.S. land use, while cropland comes in third with 20 percent. While urbanized land has quadrupled since 1945, it still makes up less than 3.5 percent of the U.S. land base and is not an overall threat to food production. Besides food, rural land provides many other amenities (such as open space, scenic views, wildlife habitat, and recreation) that are driving farmland preservation efforts. While land quality can be degraded by soil erosion, conservation efforts have substantially reduced the problem on agricultural lands.

Water resources—Irrigation of crops is the dominant use of fresh water in the U.S., but agriculture’s share is dropping as urban and environmental demands for water increase. While only about 15 percent of U.S. harvested cropland is irrigated, this portion provides about 40 percent of the total value of crops produced. Water runoff from agricultural lands often carries sediment and nutrients and other chemicals into water bodies and groundwater. Various Federal and State programs are directed toward water conservation and quality preservation.

Biological resources— Some biological resources affect agriculture (such as cultivated plants and pollinators), some provide scientific input (such as genetic resources for plant breeding and biotechnology), and some are natural goods and services (such as wildlife, fish, and scenic beauty). While often difficult to value, these resources make an increasingly recognized contribution to society, and are the focus of national and international efforts to preserve and enhance that contribution.

AREI also has chapters on soil, nutrient, and pest management; agricultural productivity and research; domestic conservation and environmental polices; and U.S. agriculture and global resources.

This article is drawn from...

Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, USDA, Economic Research Service, January 2008