Science in Christian Perspective



Land and Life: The Threatened Link
Agriculturist/Community Developer
Christian Reformed World Relief Committee
Sierra Leone
West Africa

From: JASA 34 (December 1982):

A review of global, national and regional trends indicates that large quantities of food-producing land are indiscriminately being converted to non-agricultural uses. An analysis from a Christian perspective reveals that economic determinism rather than biblical stewardship is the societal norm governing man's use of foodland. Creational stewardship is proposed as a biblical norm for managing all creational resources.

God created the earth with amazing potential to produce life-sustaining food. For life to continue, man is given the biblical task to nurture the land, to care for and tend it responsibly. This task is rooted in honoring the Creator and serving one another by producing food and fibre. God owns the land-we use it as His stewards.

This view challenges a fundamental premise of our. society. Compared to other life-sustaining resources such as air, water and solar energy, land is a creational resource which can be claimed as private property. Exclusive ownership is legally entrenched in a land title. Precedent and regulations stringently preserve the private ownership concept.

Perhaps nowhere is the notion of private property more explicit than in the market place. Land bought and sold is dictated by supply and demand. Possession is exchanged for a negotiated price. The market is the allocator of the land resource. Land is a commodity. Absolute ownership is assumed.

In our society, economic determinism overrides the biblical views of ownership and stewardship. The' consequences of this inverted regulating principle threaten the created link between land and life. Land most suited for the production of life-sustaining food and fibre is often irreplaceably lost to uses for which it was not intended. Many areas recognized for their significant food-producing potential are no longer available for food production. Most alarmingly, the threat continues.

Foodland losses may soon reach paramount proportions given future population projections and the food, facilities, and services needed to accommodate this population growth. There appears to be little awareness that the continual loss of food-producing land is becoming a serious problem. This article is an attempt to increase the level of awareness by examining global, national, and regional trends that reveal foodland losses and to place this problem within the context of creational stewardship.

Magnitude of Foodland Losses

Foodland is a finite resource. Only 11076 or 1.5 billion hectares (1 hectare = 101 square meters) of the world's land surface is arable. Population growth however is an increasing phenomenon. The world's population is now over 4 billion and is projected to increase to 6 billion by the year 2000. As a result, an unprecedented demand on the earth's arable land base can be expected from competing uses such as housing, transportation, industry, resource extraction, and recreation.

Global Trends

Insufficient data are available to accurately indicate global losses of agricultural land but rough estimates have been made. Biswas and Biswas (1978) estimate that between 50 and 70 million hectares of land are removed from production every year by all causes. These causes include soil degradation, erosion, desertification, urbanization, transportation and so on.

A projection by the Worldwatch Institute estimates that expanding cities alone will cover 25 million hectares of cropland between now and the end of the century (Brown, 1978). This projection assumes, probably conservatively, an increase in the world urban population of 1.6 billion and an increased urban area of 63 million hectares of which 40% is cropland.

The amount of arable land available per person is expected to decrease from 0.34 hectare at the present to 0.25 hectare at the end of the century (Brown, 1978). This calculation, based on population growth alone, does not include arable land converted to uses (e.g., housing) needed to accommodate this population increase. If accurate data were available, a more realistic figure would be lower.

Losses of food-producing land will likely be highest in third world countries. These countries tend to have a higher rate of population growth and a lower rate of arable land available per person (Table 1). For example, Canada has a 0.807o annual rate of population growth and 1.8 hectares of arable land per person compared to 3.5 076 and 0. 1 hectare, respectively, in Surinam. Significantly, it is precisely in Third World countries where the need to retain agricultural land is the greatest.

Compared to other life-sustaining resources such as air, water and solar energy, land is a creational resource that can be claimed as private property.

National Trends

Information describing foodland losses on a national basis is more readily available, particularly for developed countries where reliable data-gathering systems are usually in place. Availability of information led to the selection of Canada, Japan and the United States for a more detailed examination of national foodland losses.


Canada is the second largest country in the world and has a relatively high amount of arable land per person (Table 1). However, a vision of Canada as a vast agricultural plain is deceptive. Merely 13 016 (119 million hectares) of the total land area is potential agricultural land. Of this amount, 4207o (50 million hectares) is arable and 19076 (22 million hectares) is prime cropland (Science Council, 1977).

A comprehensive study of the conversion of agricultural land to urban uses was conducted in 1977 (Gierman, 1977). Both area and quality of agricultural land converted to urban uses were considered for 71 urban population centres of 25,000 or more. Area was determined using historical land use maps. Quality was determined using the soil capability for agriculture classification of the Canada Land Inventory (CLI). This classification employs a scale of 1 to 7 to identify limitations for arable agriculture. CLI soil classes 1, 2 and 3 have no, moderate, and moderately severe limitations, respectively. These classes usually constitute prime agricultural land. Soil classes 4, 5, 6 and 7 have severe, very severe, extremely severe limitations and no arable capability, respectively.

A summary of the study's results is shown in Table 2. The average annual rate of conversion for all soil classes was 14,337 hectares. Prime agricultural land (CLI classes 1, 2 and 3) accounts for 10,899 hectares or 76% of this rate. The conversion rate of lower quality agricultural land is substantially less. During the five-year span approximately 72,000 hectares of agricultural land were converted to urban uses of which nearly 55,000 hectares were prime agricultural land.

The study also found that in urban population centres of 25,000 or more, 44 hectares of arable land were converted to urban uses for every 1000 increase in population. If this trend continues, and assuming an urban population of 31

This manuscript was researched and written while under the employ of the Christian Farmers Federation of Western Canada, 10766 - 97 Street, Edmonton, Alberta, T5H 2ML

Table 1 Population Growth Rate and Arable Land per Person for the World and Selected
Developed and Developing Countries, 1979.

                             Developed Countries                                 Developing Countries

                     World Canada Japan U.S.                 Bangladesh Ghana Mexico Nigeria Surinam

1.7       0.8         0.9     0.6                     2.9            3.1         3.4         3.2         3.5 

Land per     
0.34      1.8         0.1     0.9                     0.1             0.2         0.4         0.3         0.1

Source: Brown (1978), Gabel (1979)

million in the year 2000, about 308,000 hectares of arable land will be converted to urban uses. Since this estimate does not include conversions to non-urban transportation, recreation and resource extraction, actual losses would be higher.

These trends indicate significant foodland losses in Canada. One reason is that prime agricultural land is often located adjacent to population centres. More than one-half of Canada's CLI class I soils are located within an 80-kilometer radius of Canada's major cities. Ironically, most of Canada's modern settlement patterns began precisely because they were historically located in fertile farming areas.


The amount of arable land per person (0. 1 hectare) is significantly lower in Japan than in either Canada or the United States (Table 1). As a result, very intensive farming is practiced in an effort to meet national food requirements. However, food demand surpasses Japan's agricultural production capacity resulting in net food imports.

Despite a very small arable land base of five million hectares, serious losses have eroded this base even more (Gabel, 1979). The main factors affecting the loss of arable land for the period 1968 to 1974 are shown in Table 3. This six-year span witnessed a total loss of about 388,000 hectares of arable land, representing 7.7% of the total arable

Table 2. Conversion Rates of Agricultural Land of Various Capabilities to Urban Uses in Canada, 1966-1971.

CLI Soil                  Limitation                         Average Annual                 Percentage of Total
Capability                to Crop                             Conversion Rate                 Area Converted
Class                     Production                             (ha/yr) 
    1                             none                                     3138                                     21.9
2                         moderate                                  4488                                     31.3
moderately                               3273                                     22.8
Subtotal                                                                 10899                                     76.0
severe                                       1907                                    13.3
very                                            992                                      6.9
    6                         extremely                                     539                                     3.8
Subtotal                                                                    3438                                     24.0
Total                                                                        14337                                 100.

Source: Gierman (1977)

land area in Japan. The largest consumers of arable land were housing and urban services accounting for 54% of the total loss, followed by forests and parks (19%), communication systems (14%), and industry and mines (13%).

Given a relatively moderate annual rate of population growth (0.9%), pressure to convert remaining food-producing land to non-agricultural uses can be expected to increase. Yet, every available hectare is important to reducing reliance on food imports. Japan may become increasingly reliant on a global interdependence for its food, energy and raw material requirements.

United States

The United States has about 218 million hectares of arable land representing almost 25% of its total land area. About 76% of the arable land area is under cultivation and the remainder is potentially available but this would require drainage, irrigation and other large-scale improvement projects. The recently completed National Agricultural Lands Study (NALS) estimates that most, if not all, arable land will be under cultivation by the year 2000 (NALS, 1981).

Even with this immense reserve, the country is losing foodland at an alarming rate. Housing, transportation and related urban services are major factors affecting this loss. NALS provides useful up-dated information on national foodland losses. Using data from the National Resource Inventory, NALS maintains that about 9.5 million hectares of agricultural land were converted to nonagricultural use between 1967 and 1975 (Table 4). Cropland losses amounted to 2.2 million hectares for this period. Annually, nearly 1.2 million hectares of agricultural land were converted of which 400,000 hectares were from croplands. Although there is potential cropland to replace this loss the reserve is only temporary and will probably be unavailable beyond the year 2000. 

The amount of arable land available per person is 0.9 hectare (Table 1). This figure will probably decline to approximately 0.6 hectare by the end of the century, assuming an annual 0.6% increase in population growth and a loss of 400,000 hectares of arable land annually.

Unless agricultural production increases dramatically, population growth and cropland losses will seriously affect the domestic food supply and agricultural exports of the United States. NALS recognized this problem by concluding:

Given projected demand increases for U.S. agricultural products in the coming years, particularly for exports, and the uncertainty regarding future gains in crop yield per acre (productivity), the economic and environmental costs of continued conversion of the nation's most productive agriculture into housing tracts, shopping centers, industrial sites and reservoirs could be very high within 20 years. (NALS, 1981: 17).

Since the United States is the world's major net exporter of food, an uncertain future confronts those nations that are consistent net importers of food. A majority of the world's countries are now in this category.

Table 3 Loss of Arable Land in Japan, 1968-1974.

                     Housing and                Industry                 Communication        Forests,
                    Urban Services            and Mines             Systems                     Parks, etc.       Total

Area                 208.8                         49.1                             55.1                       74.7             387.7
(1000 ha)
(%)                    53.9                         12.7                             14.2                         19.2             100.0

Source: Biswas and Biswas (1978)

Harry H. Spaling is a community developer-agricultural specialist with Christian Extension Services in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Formerly, public affairs and development coordinator of the Christian Farmers Federation of Western Canada in Edmonton, Alberta, he has written several articles and reports and given many presentations on stewardship issues in agriculture. He received a Master of Environmental Science from the University of Calgary and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo. He has served as deacon and refugee coordinator in the Maranatha Christian Reformed Church, Calgary. He is a member of the Canadian Scientific Affiliation.


Table 4

Agricultural Land Converted to Urban, Built-up, Transportation and Water Uses in the United States, 1967-1975. (million hectares)

                                                            Pastureland                                 Other
Census                                                     and                                         Agricultural
Region                    Cropland             Rangeland             Forestland     Uses                Total

West                         0.3                         0.5                             0.2             0.2                  1.2
North Central          0.7                         0.3                             0.3             0.9                  2.2
South                      1.0                          0.9                             1.6             1.4                  4.9
Northeast               0.2                         0.04                             0.6             0.4                 1.2

Total                       2.2                         1.7                              2.7             2.9                 9.5

Source: NALS (1981)

Much more accurate information describing foodland losses is available at the regional and local levels because these traditionally form the basic land use planning units. Extensive quantitative analyses document permanent losses of considerable amounts of highly productive land in many regional and local areas. Examples of areas where these losses are well-documented include the Niagara peninsula in Ontario and the Okanagan and lower Fraser Valleys in British Columbia. The experience of these areas, and others, is a reminder to preserve prime agricultural land in those areas where it is not yet too late.

A survey of regional and local foodland losses is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, a case study approach is used to show that foodland losses are confined not only to extremely favorable soil and climatic areas, such as the fruitland areas cited above, but are becoming increasingly prevalent in many areas still secure in the illusion of boundless quantities of prime farmland.

The areas selected for this case study are the Calgary and Edmonton urban regions located in the province of Alberta. Both regions are dominant centres in the western prairie provinces, the heartland of Canada's primary agricultural industry. These two regions were selected because (1) energy related economic development is generating unprecedented direct and indirect pressure on the prime agricultural land base, (2) there is still sufficient time to institute policies and planning mechanisms to preserve much of the prime agricultural land base, and (3) there is generally little awareness of foodland losses in this region, a prerequisite to initiating steps to preserve prime agricultural land. For discussion purposes, data pertaining to the two centres are combined to form one geographic unit.

Calgary-Edmonton Urban Region

A brief overview of land use in the Calgary-Edmonton urban region reveals that agriculture is the dominant land use activity, occupying 74% of the region (Thompson, 1981). Almost one-half of the agricultural area is devoted to cropland and one-quarter to pasture (improved and unimproved). Urban-associated uses account for 12% of the region's area. Most of this consists of urban built-up areas with transportation facilities occupying 1076 and resource "traction industries and recreation together occupying another 107o. Natural areas occupy about the same area as urban-associated uses.

A recent analysis of rural land use changes in the Calgary-Edmonton urban region provides valuable data indicating the loss of agricultural land over a ten-year period (Thompson, 1981). About 76,500 hectares of rural land were converted to urban uses in the region between 1968 and 1977/79 (Table 5). More than one-half of this amount consisted of prime agricultural land, defined as soil classes 1, 2 and 3 of the Canada Land Inventory (CLI) classification for agricultural capability. Areas with these soils are best suited for sustained agricultural production. An additional 20,000 hectares of CLI soil classes 3 and 4 were converted to urban uses. Although these classes are of lower agricultural capability they are of sufficient quality for arable crop production. In total, almost 8076 of the agricultural land in the Calgary-Edmonton urban region was converted to urban uses within a ten-year period.

Future conversion of agricultural land to urban use is difficult to predict. Energy-related economic development that is currently generating an unprecedented demand for developable land will likely continue in the foreseeable future. The area suitable for urbanization that does not include prime land for agriculture and recreation is estimated to be 190,000 hectares (Thompson, 1981). This represents about 19% of the total area of the Calgary-Edmonton urban region. Future pressure to convert prime agricultural land to urban uses will likely increase.

A process that will affect the agricultural land base in the future is annexation. The City of Edmonton's 1979 application to the provincial government to annex land from surrounding, predominately rural, municipalities is a case in point. Reasons for the City's annexation application included additional land requirements to accommodate projected urban growth until 2020 and, just as importantly, development control in the rural-urban interface, a lucrative tax-generating area. In 1980, the Local Authorities Board  (LAB), the government's annexation review agency, recommended that the City be granted approximately 50,000 hectares (LAB, 1980). 

Global, national and regional trends indicate that significant amounts of valuable food-producing land are being indiscriminately converted to non-agricultural uses. 

The LAB's recommendations have important implications for the agricultural land base. Approximately 55070 or 27,300 hectares of the recommended annexation area is characterized by CLI soil classes I and 2 (Pettapiece, 1981). Within the Edmonton region, areas with these soils are also climatically favoured because of a slightly longer frost-free period. About 31 % of the recommended annexation area is characterized by soil classes 3 and 4.

Cabinet approval of the LAB's recommended annexation area could mean considerable foodland losses. Such a decision may set a precedent for other municipalities to annex large areas from rural municipalities. The City of Leth bridge, for example, is considering annexing an eight-kilometer radius around that City.

As economic development and population increases, land will be required for a var ' iety of uses. Increasing de
mands will be placed on the agricultural land base. Of crucial importance is the location and quality of the land thatwill be used to accommodate these demands.


Global, national and regional trends indicate that significant amounts of valuable food-producing land are being indiscriminately converted to non-agricultural uses. Prime agricultural land, a creational resource, is often permanently lost, no longer capable of fulfilling its created task to produce life-sustaining food and fibre.

From society's perspective, the problem of foodland losses is attributable to inadequate farmland preservation policies, an absence of protective legislation and regulations, a lack of political will, public apathy, an illusion of infinite land reserves, and so on. From a Christian perspective, the problem has a much deeper root: biblical creational stewardship is not a societal norm governing man's use of the created elements.

Table 5
Agricultural Capability of Land Converted to Urban Uses in the Edmonton and Calgary Urban Regions between 1968 and 1977/79.

 CLI class                 Limitation         Area
to Crop            Converted    Per cent of Total              Per cent of
                                 Production           (ha)          
Class Area Converted       Urban Region

    1                             none                 10,844                     14.2                                 1.1
    2                         moderate              16,132                     21.1                                 1.6
    3                         moderately            15,170                     19.8                                 1.5
Subtotal                                                42,146                     55.1                                4.2
    4                         severe                   10,967                     14.4                                 1.1
    5                         very                         9,876                     12.9                                 1.0
    6                         extremely                 5,488                        7.2                                 0.5
    7                         no arable                     251                        0.3                                 0.0
 Subtotal                                                 26,582                     34.8                                2.6
Organic                                                        976                       1.3                                0.1
Unclassified                                               6,742                       8.8                                0.7
Subtotal                                                    7,718                     10.1                                 0.8
Total                                                      76,446                    100.0                               7.6

Data for Edmonton from 1977; data for Calgary from 1979.
Source: Thompson (1981).

Creational stewardship is a biblical norm for managing the elements of creation in such a way that the Creator is revealed, His glory and honor fulfilled, and the well-being of His creature maintained.

A major point of divergence between the two perspectives is the view of ownership (Boodt, 1976). Society views ownership as a right that establishes an absolute relationship between an owner and an object. The aim is to accumulate possessions.

Scripture places limits on ownership, not by restricting the number of things that can be owned (think of Abraham, Joseph and Job), but by identifying the true owner and attaching responsibility to ownership. All things belong to the Lord, the Creator (Psalms 24: 1). Ownership is a gift from the Lord. This gift defines the limits of ownership. All living and non-living things function according to the laws of creation. Their intended creational purpose is to be preserved. The elements of creation are to be allowed to express their created potential. Man must honor and respect these limits of ownership because as the earthly owner is subject to God, so is the object of ownership subject to God.

Biblically speaking, the responsibility attached to ownership is a calling to share and enjoy the beauty of creation. The object of this responsibility is not to accumulate possessions but to exercise creational stewardship. Creational stewardship is a biblical norm for managing the elements of creation in such a way that the Creator is revealed, His glory and honor fulfilled, and the well-being of His creature maintained.

Continual losses of agricultural land best suited for producing life-sustaining food and fibre is but one indication that creational stewardship is an unaccepted norm in society. Acceptance is not apparent even when the link between land and life itself is threatened. One is reminded of Amos, the farmer from Takoa, who, after seeing a vision of farmland being consumed by fire, begged the Lord to stop His judgment on the nation of Israel for its persistent unfaithfulness.


Biswas, M.R. and Biswas, A.K. 1978. "Loss of Productive Soil."International Journal of Environmental Studies. 12: 189-197.

Boodt, P.J. 1976. The Limits of Ownership. An address presented at the Second Annual Convention of the Christian Farmers Federation of Western Canada. Edmonton.

Brown, L.R. 1978. The Worldwide Loss of Cropland. Worldwatch Paper 24. Worldwatch Institute. Washington, D. C.

Gabel, M. 1979. Ho-ping; Food for Everyone. Anchor, New York.

Gierman, D.M. 1977. Rural to Urban Land Conversion. Occassional Paper No. 16. Lands Directorate, Fisheries and Environment Canada. Ottawa.

Local Authorities Board (LAB). 1980. The City of Edmonton Annexation Application; Board Order, Report and Recommendations.

National Agriculture Lands Study (NALS). 1981. Final Report 1981. Washington, D.C.

Pettapiece, W. 1981. Alberta Research Council. Personnal Communication. Edmonton.

Science Council of Canada. 1977. People and Agricultural Land. Study on Population, Technology and Resources. Perceptions 4. ttawa.

Thompson, P.S. 1981. Non-Agricultural Land Use. Unpublished Paper Prepared for the Alberta Soil Science Workshop. Environment Council of Alberta, Edmonton.