How The US Uses Its Land : Planet Money The U.S. is a big place, nearly 1.9 billion acres. On today's Indicator, we look at how all that land is divvied up.
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The Cows Are Taking All The Land

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The Cows Are Taking All The Land

The Cows Are Taking All The Land

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.


And I'm Cardiff Garcia, and it is almost Independence Day...

VANEK SMITH: Happy birthday, America.

GARCIA: ...Fourth of July. Down the British.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Poor British.

It's true. This week, 243 years ago, the U.S. declared independence from Great Britain.

GARCIA: And probably nobody, or...


GARCIA: ...Nobody at all...

VANEK SMITH: Nobody thought the U.S. was going to amount to anything, I imagine.

GARCIA: ...Could possibly have predicted back then that a couple hundred years later, the U.S. would be the biggest economy in the world.

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, this happened for a bunch of reasons, but one of them was really just, you know, the United States themselves.

GARCIA: Yeah. I mean, the U.S. is enormous. It's hundreds of millions of acres big, and it's full of resources, not to mention some of the most productive land on Earth.

VANEK SMITH: And this got us thinking. The U.S. has all of this land, and it's been such an amazing resource for the country and for the economy, but how exactly are we using this resource?

GARCIA: I don't know. Kind of hoping we answer that question on today's episode, though.

VANEK SMITH: So glad you asked, Cardiff, because, in fact, we do. Today on the show, how the U.S. uses land. We take a look at the industries and services that make up our nation and see who's getting all that space. And, Cardiff, I'm also going to present you with an object at the end of the show that I think best represents how we use land in the U.S.


VANEK SMITH: Today's indicator is 1.9 billion acres. That is the total amount of land in the contiguous 48 states. That is not counting Alaska or Hawaii. And that is a lot of acres.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has studied all of these acres and how we use them. It issues land use reports. And Lauren Leatherby is a data journalist at Bloomberg News. And she and her colleague Dave Merrill actually went through these reports and wrote up a really cool report about how the U.S. uses its land. Welcome, Lauren.


VANEK SMITH: So, OK, Lauren, it's about 1.9 billion acres of land that we're dealing with entirely. And it is pretty striking, like, how we use the land. What was the biggest use of land in the U.S.?


VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Cattle.

LEATHERBY: Livestock in general. The USDA's top-line figures show that pastureland takes up about a third of the entire U.S.

VANEK SMITH: That's so crazy.


VANEK SMITH: If you add in - and also, if you added in, like, the land taken to grow food for livestock, it was something like 41%...


VANEK SMITH: ...Of U.S. land is going to cows.


VANEK SMITH: Were you surprised when you found that?

LEATHERBY: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I've seen stories before about, like, you know, the land footprint of a steak is really big. But just to look at it like this and to - you know, we weren't coming in with any assumptions, and then we just saw this figure. That it was about 41% was used for either grazing or to grow food for livestock was really pretty surprising to us.

VANEK SMITH: What was the second-biggest use of land in the U.S.?

LEATHERBY: Yeah, so the second-biggest use of land in the U.S. was forestland. And that's a combination of unprotected forestland, which means that it's not a part of a national park or a state park, and about 14% was owned by corporations.

In total, we saw that about 2% of the forest in the U.S. was harvested annually, and that's - most of that is replanted. In fact, I think it was replanted at a rate so that timber - the volume of timber was actually growing year to year. But it was quite striking to see this massive chunk of the U.S. designated as forestland, and about 2% of that goes away and then comes back every year - gets replanted.

VANEK SMITH: Well, I mean, that is - it's 538.6 million acres to forest. So, Lauren, we've got pastureland and forests taking up nearly 1.2 billion acres of our 1.9 billion total acres of land in the 48 contiguous United States, but that still leaves us with about 700 million acres. So what is the third-biggest use of land in the U.S.?

LEATHERBY: So that's cropland. Cropland is about a fifth of the U.S.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. That is 391.5 million acres.

LEATHERBY: But what's interesting is that the amount of food that we eat from all that cropland - a lot of it is used for livestock. And so that's corn for livestock, and that's soy for livestock. A lot of it is feed exports, so exports for livestock abroad.

VANEK SMITH: So much of the land in the U.S. going to livestock.

LEATHERBY: Yeah, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: I feel like if, like, an alien race landed and just, like, looked at how we use our land, they would think that, like, cows were running the place.

LEATHERBY: Probably.

VANEK SMITH: All told, that is nearly 1.6 billion acres of land for just those three uses. And that leaves us with about 300 million acres of land left. And then we get to a relatively small category, which is urban areas.

LEATHERBY: Yeah, so urban areas - that's, by far, the fastest-growing. The USDA has been tracking this since 1945. In the past 10 years, it's been growing at a rate of about 1 million acres per year. So that's the size of about Phoenix and LA and Houston combined, every year, growing in urban area.

VANEK SMITH: And that - I mean, that is amazing. So it's, like, about 69.4 million acres is urban right now, but growing really fast. You said the fastest-growing category. But it's still - like, percentage-wise, it's pretty tiny. It's, like, not even 4%.

LEATHERBY: Yeah, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: But this area - like, it's small size-wise, but it packs, like, this big economic punch, which was really interesting to me because you guys made this point that - I think it was, like, the top 10 urban areas in the U.S., which is a pretty tiny - I mean, you know, this is not even 3% of the total land in the U.S. - generates, like...

LEATHERBY: I think it's 40% of the U.S. GDP.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, that's the gross domestic product, all the goods and services our country produces in a year or - the measure that everybody likes to use. And that is all coming - that 40% is all coming out of, like, less than 3% of the land in the U.S.

Well, Lauren, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEATHERBY: Thank you.


VANEK SMITH: OK. So, Cardiff, I have something for you. After going over the land use data myself, I came up with this object that I think really represents, in one word - I guess it's actually two words - how we use land in the U.S.


VANEK SMITH: Here it is.

GARCIA: I'm half expecting this to be, like, a bag of mulch or something.

Oh, it's a Happy Meal.

VANEK SMITH: It's a Happy Meal.


VANEK SMITH: OK, so hear me out. Hear me out.

GARCIA: All right.

VANEK SMITH: OK. Open up the Happy Meal, if you don't mind.

GARCIA: Yeah, all right. Taking out the Happy Meal. It certainly smells like food from Mickey D's. It's got some toys in it.

VANEK SMITH: I know it's got the perfume.

GARCIA: Oh, we got...

VANEK SMITH: So of course...

GARCIA: ...Fries and a cheeseburger in there.

VANEK SMITH: OK. So the main event of the Happy Meal is, of course, the - well, I guess...

GARCIA: The food.

VANEK SMITH: ...It depends on who you are. We'll say the burger - the burger, right?

GARCIA: For me, it is. Certainly, for me, it is.

VANEK SMITH: The beef burger.

GARCIA: Yes, yes.

VANEK SMITH: And this is, of course, the largest use of land in the U.S. That is cow pasture, 654 million acres, plus the feed for the livestock, which is 127.4 million acres. And then, of course, there is the paper that the Happy Meal box is made out of. That is the second-largest use of land in the U.S., unprotected forest. That's 538.6 million acres. But, of course - OK, take out the hamburger and unwrap it.


VANEK SMITH: That also has paper on it, so more unprotected forest.

GARCIA: All right. Yup, it does have paper on it. Yup, it's a cheeseburger.

VANEK SMITH: Wheat for the bun - 21.5 million acres.


VANEK SMITH: Also in the box, the fries.


VANEK SMITH: A million acres of potatoes are grown in the U.S. But also, private land ownership, which is also on the rise. Now, the McDonald's family, the heirs of the people who founded McDonald's, own about 474,000 acres. That makes them the 24th-biggest landowners in the U.S. And the Simplot family from my native Idaho, which grows a lot of the potatoes that make McDonald's fries - 25th-biggest landowner in the U.S. - 443,000 acres.

So if we add all of these things up together, that is roughly 1.5 billion acres of land of the 1.9 billion available, all wrapped up in this Happy Meal.

GARCIA: So this is almost like - you know the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon...


GARCIA: ...Right? There's some connection, direct or indirect, between this Happy Meal and almost every piece of land in the U.S.


GARCIA: The six degrees of Cardiff's cheeseburger.

VANEK SMITH: It's the six degrees of Cardiff's cheeseburger.

GARCIA: Yes, exactly.

VANEK SMITH: If you want to know how we use land in this country - one word - McDonald's. McDonald's is how we use our land.

GARCIA: Can I take a bite now?

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, sorry. Sorry. It's not getting any warmer.


VANEK SMITH: This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo, fact-checked by Emily Lang and edited by Paddy Hirsch. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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