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Sustainable Communities Strategies Offer New Hope for Farmland Conservation in California

Dusk over a California vineyardRegional planning agencies throughout California are now working on “sustainable community strategies” (SCSes) aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from vehicle travel by reconfiguring their land use and transportations plans. By emphasizing more compact community development and alternatives to automobile travel, these plans also offer the opportunity to conserve farmland by reducing low-density urban sprawl.

The new strategies are being driven – no pun intended – by a state law called SB 375, which links transportation funding and incentives for land developers to local compliance with greenhouse gas reduction targets. For example, in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s leading agricultural region, the state Air Resources Board has set a target of reducing GHG by 10 percent by 2035. To determine how they will meet this target, regional planners are comparing alternative scenarios for future urban growth that would result in the development of more or less farmland and other resources.

A recent academic study from the University of California, Davis, found that urban areas produce at least 70 times more greenhouse gases per acre than agricultural operations. This lends new urgency to saving farmland as a means of ameliorating climate change as well as maintaining food production. American Farmland Trust is collaborating with other local and state nonprofit organizations to provide assistance to regional planning agencies in the San Joaquin with a goal of reducing farmland conversion by at least 50 percent compared with the current development trend. As documented by the recent AFT study, Saving Farmland, Growing Cities, only about 6 new residents have been accommodated for every acre of farmland lost to development, only one-third to one half as many people per acre as in California’s coastal communities. This leaves much room for improvement and hope that both GHG and farmland loss can be significantly reduced. To determine how future development scenarios would impact agriculture and climate – and ultimately, to select the alternative with the least impact – American Farmland Trust has urged regional planners to measure both farmland loss and the increase in GHG emissions that would result from its conversion to urban uses.

American Farmland Trust