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Urban growth devours farmland, report says

Urban sprawl is engulfing prime farmland so fast that the United States may be forced by the middle of the next century to import more food than it exports, a conservation group contends.

American Farmland Trust projected in a "worst-case scenario" Thursday that with the U.S. population expected to jump 50 percent by 2050 and high-quality farmland to shrink 13 percent, the nation could become a net food importer within 60 years.

That would lead to problems with a host of social, economic, food security and environmental issues, said the report, "Farming on the Edge."

Florida, one of the nation's leading producers of oranges, sugar cane and winter vegetables, suffered from some of the biggest losses of farmland between 1982 and 1992, the study found. The study included South Florida in the 20 most threatened agricultural regions.

While not in the top 20, portions of Pasco, Hillsborough, Manatee and Hernando counties also are facing threats from the onrush of development, the conservation group said.

U.S. agricultural exports totaled a record $59.8-billion in the fiscal year that ended in September, compared with imports of $40-billion.

Imports have hurt Florida growers of winter vegetables in recent years, said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. He said Florida now accounts for up to 35 percent of the winter vegetables consumed in the United States, compared with nearly 80 percent in 1990. Cheaper imports from Mexico have put many growers out of business.

The study found that between 1982 and 1992, 4.3-million acres of prime farmland were overrun. Every state shared in the loss, it said, most frequently to scattered and fragmented urban development near major metropolitan areas.

Texas lost the most farmland, 489,000 acres or 11.5 percent of the U.S. total.

Florida lost 166,000 acres. Nearly one-third of the state's 35-million acres of land are used for agriculture. The threatened part of South Florida, which includes parts of Broward, Dade, Collier, Monroe and Palm Beach counties, produces winter vegetables, citrus fruits and sugar cane.

American Farmland Trust is a private, non-profit conservation organization. Its study was funded in part by the Philip Morris Cos.

_ Times staff writer Ameet Sachdev contributed to this report.

Farm lands at risk

So much farm land may be lost to suburban sprawl by the middle of the 21st century that the U.S. will be forced to import more food than it exports. The 20 most-threatened agricultural regions, according to conservationists:

1. Sacramento, San Joaquin Valley

2. Northern Piedmont

3. Southern Wisconsin, Northern Illinois Drift Plain.

4. Texas Blackland Prairie.

5. Willamette, Puget Sound Valleys

6. South Florida.

7. Eastern Ohio Till Plain.

8. Lower Rio Grande

9. Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain

10. Southern New England, Eastern New York Upland.

11. Ontario Plain, Finger Lakes

12. Nashville Basin

13. Central Snake River Plains

14. Southwestern Michigan Fruit and Truck Belt

15. Central California coastal valleys

16. Columbia Basin

17. Imperial Valley

18. Long Island-Cape Cod Coastal Lowland

19. Connecticut Valley

20. Western Michigan Fruit and Truck Belt

Texas lost almost 500,000 acres of prime land between 1982-92; 16 other states lost more than 100,000 acres. States with most losses are in tan.

SOURCES: American Farmland Trust, AP