MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
There are 1.9 billion acres of land in the continental United States. But how does that land get used? The co-hosts of NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator, Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia, use a familiar fast-food meal to answer that question.
CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: 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.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: 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. How exactly are we using this resource? And Cardiff, I will present you with the object that I think best represents how we use land in the U.S. But, first, I want to speak with Lauren Leatherby. She's a data journalist from Bloomberg News. And she went through the reports issued from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It's about 1.9 billion acres of land that we're dealing with, entirely. What was the biggest use of land in the U.S.?
LAUREN LEATHERBY: Cattle.
VANEK SMITH: Cattle (laughter).
LEATHERBY: Just livestock in general. 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: Forestland. And that's a combination of unprotected forestland, which means that it's not a part of a national park or state park, and about 14% was owned by corporations. 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 (laughter) - gets replanted.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
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. But what's interesting is that the amount of food that we eat from all of that cropland, a lot of it is used for livestock. And so that's corn for livestock, soy for livestock.
VANEK SMITH: All told, that is nearly 1.6 billion acres of land for just those three uses. And then we get to a relatively small category, which is urban areas.
LEATHERBY: That's by far the fastest growing. 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: 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. It's a Happy Meal. OK, so the main events of the Happy Meal is of course the beef burger.
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. Wheat for the bun - 21.5 million acres. Also in the box - the fries. A million acres of potatoes are grown in the U.S.
But also, private land ownership, which is also on the rise. Most of the top landowners in the U.S. are cattle ranchers and oil barons. 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: Cardiff Garcia.
VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.