uring the 20th century humanity got really efficient at producing crops. From 1961 to now, for example, we produce the same yield of crops with 70% less land. This is the result of innovations in ag-tech that make us need less land to produce the same yields.
For meat and poultry, land use is more complicated. There are similar innovations in livestock production but as yet the trend is not an overall downward trend in efficiency. We know how to get more calories from less land in both crops and livestock, but these innovations need greater distribution. As global population and wealth grow, so does the need for land for livestock.
Let’s look at the numbers.
37.6% of global land area is used for agriculture. That includes both livestock and crops. Half of all habitable land in the world is used for agriculture. Even though takes 3 times the amount of land to raise livestock than it does for crops we only get about ⅕ of our calories from it and ⅓ of our protein from it. Agriculture is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses behind energy used in industry. Compounding our rise in global temperatures, agriculture is also responsible for 70% of all water withdrawals and of the 28,000 threatened species in the world, 24,000 of them are threatened directly because of agriculture.
Ouch. If food is so good, why do these numbers make me feel so bad?
There is hope. Farmlands can be used as a carbon sink, for example, turning from a net emitter to a net reducer. Such techniques include a reduction in tillage, using cover crops, reducing artificial fertilizers, and diversifying and rotating crops. With all good trends, it’s got a catchy name: Regenerative Agriculture. While their focus is not specifically on land use, it plays into one of the most important uses of land and its role in climate change.
One other thing to consider is how much of the world’s population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. 30% of our global population works in agriculture. So the three competing factors of agricultural production are getting higher yields (i.e. using less land to produce the same amount of calories and protein), reducing our GHGs and carbon footprint, and maintaining sustainable economic incentives for farmers to keep on keeping on. The OECD calls this the Triple Challenge and has current recommendations for policies and practices in their 2021 report “Making Better Policies for Food Systems.”
So, big question here: Can we support future food demands without using more land?
The answer is yes. Absolutely.
Why would we do that? Because land use for agriculture accounts for:
How would we do that?
The bottom line is that by focusing on a goal of net zero increase in land used for agriculture, we can force ourselves to practice sustainable agriculture to meat that single goal. ← see what I did there?
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