A tobacco farm at sunset. Photo credit: Flickr/Taber Andrew Bain

We're slowly running out of farmland. Urban sprawl, desertification as well as irrigation issues are among the many thieves that steal valuable farmland each year. The trend is quite disturbing; in 1970 there were 0.39 hectares of arable land, or the land suitable for farming, per person. That's down to less than 0.22 hectares as of 2010 and is expected to continue declining in the future. Because of this, non-food crops like tobacco could end up being banished from fields as it's using land that could be used to feed the masses.

Tobacco's impact on food production
While tobacco is typically grown in a rotation with other crops, it's still taking up valuable arable land that could be used for growing food. Further, because tobacco plants use more nutrients than other crops, it leads to degradation of the soil. In addition, tobacco soil is prone to wind and water erosion, which can leave the soil less suitable for food crops.

Those soil issues aside, the fact that tobacco uses up arable land that could be growing food crops could potentially be a bigger issue in the future. There have been estimates in the past which suggest that 10 to 20 million people could be fed if farmers replaced tobacco crops with food. As arable land shrinks and crop yields increase, every hectare of land becomes more valuable.

 

Photo credit: Flickr/coolio-claire

While the land used to grow tobacco could feed millions, it still pales in comparison to the estimated 870 million people that currently suffer from chronic undernourishment. It is, however, low-hanging fruit, so to speak, for an area where food production can grow. The fact that there are 16 million people undernourished in developed countries alone suggests that switching crops could have an impact. Despite the fact that the world does currently produce enough food to feed everyone, insufficient land to grow food or the income to purchase it continues to plague many parts of the world. Producing more food, and therefore lowering its cost, could help to provide more nourishment to those that need it most.

The war on tobacco is just beginning
While no one is yet calling for an end to tobacco farming, the war on tobacco still rages on. The statistics are absolutely devastating when we consider that according to the Centers for Disease Control 443,000 people die prematurely each year from smoking or exposure to second hand smoke. Another 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking. That's in the U.S. alone. Despite this the nation's 44.6 million smokers simply aren't yet persuaded that the risks of disease are worth quitting.

Instead, many smokers are finding fewer outlets to pursue their addiction. Companies like the CVS Caremark Corporation (NYSE: CVS) are taking a stand by recently deciding to stop selling cigarettes altogether. The $2 billion a year in business it does from selling cigarettes isn't in line with the company's approach to overall wellness. Not to mention the fact that CVS and others are selling a product that could potentially result in the premature death of its customers.

That's in addition to a number of new laws that have been passed in recent years to make it more difficult for people to smoke. To date, 28 states have enacted statewide bans in all enclosed public places, which includes bars and restaurants. In other states where there isn't a statewide ban in enclosed public places, local municipalities have enacted a ban. In a lot of cases the only places that smokers can actually smoke is in their own homes and cars. However, that could change as more places look to ban smoking in cars where children are present. 

Final thoughts
It's becoming nearly impossible for people to smoke these days. Given the sad statistics, that's not a bad thing. For those looking for one more reason to quit, add the fact that tobacco farming it taking up precious land that could be used grow food. We could feed millions of people on the land that's current used to grow tobacco.

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Matt DiLallo has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.