Environmental Impacts of Food: Land Use

Welcome to the third in our series of blog posts about how our food system impacts the environment. The ecological footprint of agriculture has been highlighted in recent years. It has notably been related to the rising global population and to an increased production of biofuels. In this article we will give you some background to the issues around land use and what you can do to reduce your footprint.

How do we define "land use"?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), land use, as defined since 1997, is “the total of arrangements, activities and inputs that people undertake in a certain land cover type (1).” The concept of land cover type is simply the earth’s land as it is observed, whether it be as vegetation or man-made and includes everything from forestland to wetlands, croplands and urban land. The definition of land use was later specified as being the use of a given type of land to “produce, change or maintain it (2).” Types of land use include agricultural - whether it be for the production of crops, livestock or biofuels - residential, commercial – for business and factories – recreational and transport. 

Did you know that Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use contribute to 24% of global greenhouse has emissions?

To put this into perspective, electricity and heat production in 2014 accounted for 25% of global emissions, while transportation accounted for 14%! 

Why something needs to change in the way we use our Earth's land

Land is a finite source and every way in which we decide to use our land will be at the expense of an alternative activity.  While economies are prospering, demand for urban expansion is growing which, among other reasons, also leads to deforestation and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide that accumulates in the atmosphere.  

In the agricultural use of land our society is being faced with a conflicting choice of activities. On the one hand, there is the production of biofuels, such as wood pellets, which, we argue, can replace fossil fuels to close the loop on our carbon cycle, reducing energy sector emissions. On the other hand, the use of this land for crop-based biofuel production draws away from the cultivatable land that could be producing human-feeding crops. With a steadily growing global population, the demand for both food and fuel will grow with it, and while just under 800 million people in the world are underfed and in the dark, it seems obvious to us that we need to make the most efficient usage of our land. 

Bringing us to our food-y Ecotarian mission...

Today, the land use question is getting global. It is true that if one country fails to satisfy its nutrition needs, it should be able to import food resources by one way or another. Nonetheless, the problems we face today, such as soil depletion and exhaustion or agricultural water pollution, are felt at a scale never seen before. They are sometimes the result of the addition of many local human activities. For example, the cycle of nitrogen, which is essential to ecological processes both in wild and managed environments, is being altered globally by the local production and use of fertilisers, burning of fossil fuels and industrial activity (3). Overall, the world has lost a third of its arable land due to erosion and pollution in the last 40 years (4), and one tenth of the extent of wilderness over the past two decades (5). Continents that were used to surpluses, such as North America and Europe, have started to worry about soil degradation (9).  

Easter Island civilization’s collapse has been related to environmental damage.

Easter Island civilization’s collapse has been related to environmental damage.

One of our big concerns is indeed the inefficient use of land for agriculture. A staggering 33% of croplands globally are used for the production of feed for livestock, while the production of livestock only provides 1/4 of global protein intake and 15% of dietary energy. Essentially, a lot more energy goes into feeding and cultivating livestock than is actually provided by eating chicken, beef or lamb. An ecologist from Cornell University found that the energy required for the production of beef meat is 54 times the amount of protein that meat provides (3).  

To get this amount of cattle, you need far, far more land.   

To get this amount of cattle, you need far, far more land. 

How can we do something about it?  

A large proportion of processed foods today still contain palm oil. Aside from the devastating human rights violations that stem from the production of palm oil, its production is also associated with a large land use requirement which has induced deforestation in tropical primary forests (4) and we should bear such factors in mind when choosing to intake processed foods. Behavioral change is a key to helping the world adopt better land use strategies and we believe that talking about your concerns when choosing your items at the grocery store or preparing a meal, will raise awareness amongst your peers and spread the “Ecotarianism”.

Below are some tips as to how you can make a difference to our environment in your daily life choices. 

  • Favor plant-based proteins over meat, and white meats over beef. On average the production of beef requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer and 11 times more water than is need for the production of poultry (similar numbers apply for lamb) (6).   

  • Lower your intake of processed foods. These typically contain higher proportions of palm oil, will have travelled a long way to get to your local retailer (see our previous blogpost on the impact of Food Transport) and require a lot of energy for their packaging.   

  • Embrace a diet adapted to the season and the region you’re in. Diet can be adapted to where you are and varies by season. Think twice when consuming almonds that come from drought ridden California. Check out the BBC seasonality table showing that it is currently the best time to consume blackberries, broccoli and figs! Additionally, you could reduce your pork consumption, as pork sold in the UK mostly comes from resource intensive factories that have serious adverse effects on rivers and wildlife (8).  


If you would like to know more on shifting diets, this WRI paper will help you giving great sustainable happiness to your taste buds!