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Title: Recent collapse of crop belts and declining diversity of US agriculture since 1840

Over the last century, US agriculture greatly intensified and became industrialized, increasing in inputs and yields while decreasing in total cropland area. In the industrial sector, spatial agglomeration effects are typical, but such changes in the patterns of crop types and diversity would have major implications for the resilience of food systems to global change. Here, we investigate the extent to which agricultural industrialization in the United States was accompanied by agglomeration of crop types, not just overall cropland area, as well as declines in crop diversity. Based on county‐level analyses of individual crop land cover area in the conterminous United States from 1840 to 2017, we found a strong and abrupt spatial concentration of most crop types in very recent years. For 13 of the 18 major crops, the widespread belts that characterized early 20th century US agriculture have collapsed, with spatial concentration increasing 15‐fold after 2002. The number of counties producing each crop declined from 1940 to 2017 by up to 97%, and their total area declined by up to 98%, despite increasing total production. Concomitantly, the diversity of crop types within counties plummeted: in 1940, 88% of counties grew >10 crops, but only 2% did so in 2017, and combinations of crop types that once characterized entire agricultural regions are lost. Importantly, declining crop diversity with increasing cropland area is a recent phenomenon, suggesting that corresponding environmental effects in agriculturally dominated counties have fundamentally changed. For example, the spatial concentration of agriculture has important consequences for the spread of crop pests, agrochemical use, and climate change. Ultimately, the recent collapse of most agricultural belts and the loss of crop diversity suggest greater vulnerability of US food systems to environmental and economic change, but the spatial concentration of agriculture may also offer environmental benefits in areas that are no longer farmed.

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Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Publisher / Repository:
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Global Change Biology
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 151-164
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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