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The land intensity of our diet

Not only does the livestock industry account for the usage of 80% of global agricultural land, it is also the largest contributor to global deforestation, land degradation and loss of biodiversity.

Land challenges

Global land area is 13.2 bn hectares. Of this, 12% is used in the cultivation of agricultural crops, 28% is under forest and 35% are grasslands and woodland ecosystems. Although only a small proportion of the world's land is used for crop production, most of the easily accessible and (thus economic) resources are under cultivation or have other ecologically or economically valuable uses. Most of the remaining land has lower economic values (i.e. lower yields), significantly limiting its potential use in agriculture. The scope for further expansion of cultivated land is limited.

Status of global land degradation

33% of global land resources have already been degraded. (Source: UN FAO).

In addition, global yield improvements have started to stagnate. This is a combination of excessive demographic pressures and unsustainable agricultural practices. Climate changes, water scarcities, land degradation and a host of other factors are all contributing to either reducing yields on lands or putting fertile lands out of the agricultural system all together.

As human population, incomes and consumption continues to grow, our pressure on land requirements will only increase. With yield increases beginning to stagnate, the shortage of fertile land is likely to lead to significant food & hunger problems as we head on our journey from 7 to 9 bn people in 2015.

Livestock & Land

Not only does the livestock industry use up the vast majority of global agricultural land, it is also the single largest contributor to deforestation, land degradation and the loss of biodiversity. Grazing and feed production are the primary causes behind the extensive land requirements of raising livestock.

Land footprint of livestock industry

As per the United Nations2

  • 3.4 billion hectares of land are used for grazing of livestock. This accounts for 26% of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet.
  • A further 0.5 billion hectares of land is used for the production of animal feedstock. This accounts for 33% of the total global cropland.
  • In all, the livestock sector uses 80% of global agricultural land and 26% of the ice free land surface of the planet

Apart from occupying most of our global land resources, the livestock industry also has the following adverse implications for our planet's surface:

Deforestation

70% of the deforestation in Latin America has been due to conversion to pastures, with production of animal feedstock (primarily soyabeans) being responsible for the vast majority of the rest.

Deforestation: expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of de-forestation is occurring. 70% of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder.

Land Degradation: About 20 percent of the world's pastures and rangelands, with 73 percent of rangelands in dry areas1, have been degraded to some extent, mostly through overgrazing, compaction and erosion created by livestock action. Pasture degradation is generally a consequence of a mismatch between livestock density and the capacity of the pasture to recover from grazing and trampling. Among the environmental consequences of pasture degradation are soil erosion, degradation of vegetation, release of carbon from organic matter deposits, reduction in biodiversity and impaired water cycles.

Loss of Biodiversity: Livestock contribute directly or indirectly to all the drivers of biodiversity loss, from local to global levels. Livestock-related land use changes / modifies ecosystems that are the habitats for native species. It also contributes to climate change which in turn has an impact on ecosystems and other species. The sector also directly affects biodiversity through transfer of invasive alien species and overexploitation, for example through overgrazing of pasture plants. Water pollution and ammonia emissions, mainly from industrial livestock production, reduce biodiversity, often drastically in the case of aquatic ecosystems.

Land & Diet

Plant based foods (i.e. a vegan diet) are significantly less land intensive to grow, as compared to animal products. By reducing our consumption of meat & dairy products in favour of plant based foods, we can significantly reduce the land intensity of our diet (or the land footprint – similar in concept to our carbon or water footprints).

Global land, water and food shortages are a direct function of animal products in our diet. A global shift towards a reduction in meat & dairy and increased consumption of plant based foods, has the potential of alleviating some of humanities most pressing concerns – land & water challenges, world hunger and carbon emissions.

References: 

1 - UN FAO, Livestocks Long Shadow
2 - UN FAO, Livestock in the Balance