Some foods are more land intensive than others.
In this guide, we outline the foods that take the most land to produce and make.
The guide we’ve provided here about diets is a complementary guide to this guide about individual foods – Types Of Food Diets That Are Most & Least Land Efficient
*Note – this page contains general information only. It is not professional advice. Always see a suitably qualified food or health professional before making decisions involving your health or diet.
Summary – Foods That Take The Most Land To Produce
Per gram of protein, beef/mutton by far uses the most land, followed by pork
An interesting stat about beef – it uses up nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land, but accounts for less than 2% of the calories consumed throughout the world, and less than 5% of the protein. It should be noted that most of the land taken up by beef is for grazing – only a small % is used to grow animal feed
Chicken and pork as meats are more land efficient than beef, but still require more land than beans per unit of protein
Reducing beef and mutton intake and switching to meats like poultry and pork can decrease a person’s food related land footprint
Switching to a vegetarian or predominantly plant based diet with little to no animal products such as meat, dairy, fish and eggs, can further decrease a person’s food related land footprint
Some of these trends and land footprints can change when measuring other indicators such as per calorie produced, per gram of fat produced, per serving produced, per kg produced, and so on
The type of farming method may matter to land efficiency – CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) tend to be more land efficient, but might have more animal welfare issues and environmental problems, compared to pasture/grazing livestock systems
Smart, well managed pasture systems might be an answer to CAFOs
In total land, livestock takes up about 77% of worldwide agricultural land, compared to crops at 23% (One-third of the planet’s arable land is occupied by livestock feed crop cultivation though)
In terms of total land area on Earth, wheat, maize, rice and barley are the crops that take up the most total crop land
Cutting beef intake, cutting meat intake, switching to a plant based diet, and eating foods from efficient agricultural systems can help reduce the land footprint of an individual’s diet. But, every individual has to make a decision about their health and nutritional requirements as well
*Note – these numbers are a general starting point only, and not definitive. There’s many variables that can impact land efficiency numbers.
The farming method and systems used can impact how much land is used.
Also, the type of land used is important – some geographical areas only have one type of land available (grazing land for example, and little arable land), or may have a surplus of land, and in this case land use may not be as much of a problem as in other places. When less land is used to produce a certain type of food, it doesn’t always mean that land has an alternate use.
Also – be mindful of nutrition. Not all foods have the same macro nutrients profile, and not all proteins are the same (full proteins vs partial proteins, and having a full amino acid profile vs not)
Individual Foods That Take The Most Land To Produce & Make
The average land use area to produce one unit of protein by food type, measured in metres squared per gram of protein is:
- Beef/Mutton – 1.02m²
- Pork – 0.13m²
- Fresh Produce – 0.1m²
- Poultry – 0.08m²
- Eggs – 0.05m²
- Dairy – 0.04m²
- Wheat – 0.04m²
- Rice – 0.02m²
- Maize (corn) – 0.01m²
- Pulses – 0.01m²
- Beef production requires 20 times more land … per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas and lentils.
- Chicken and pork are more resource-efficient than beef, but still require three times more land … than beans.
- … the type of food eaten matters as much, if not more, than how that food is produced.
- Beef production requires large quantities of land and water per unit of protein or calorie consumed.
- One-quarter of the earth’s land (excluding Antarctica) is used as pasture land overall
Total Area Of Land That Crops & Livestock Take Up Worldwide
Humans use half of global habitable area (50%) for agricultural production (of the remainder, 37 percent is forested; 11 percent as shrubbery; and only one-percent is utilised as urban infrastructure).
More than three-quarters of our agricultural land is used for the rearing of livestock through a combination of grazing land and land used for animal feed production (growing crops to feed animals).
Livestock takes up about 77% of agricultural land, but produces only:
- 17% of the world’s consumed food calorie supply from meat and dairy
- 33% of the world’s consumed food protein supply from meat and dairy
Crops take up about 23% of agricultural land, but produces:
- 83% of the world’s consumed food calorie supply from plant based food
- 67% of the world’s consumed food protein supply from plant based food
In other words, the 11 million square kilometres used for crops (plant based crops that directly feed humans as opposed to going to livestock feed) supply more calories and protein for the global population than the almost 4-times larger area used for livestock.
- Beef makes up about 24 percent of the world’s meat consumption
- Poultry accounts for about 34 percent
- Pork accounts for more than 40 percent
- Much smaller amounts come from other sources such as lamb, goat, and guinea pig, as well as bushmeat …
- But in terms of protein, less than 5 percent of what humanity consumes comes from beef, and in terms of calories, less than 2 percent.
- Beef cattle produce this meat using about 30 million square kilometers (km2 ) of land—27 million of that for grazing, and the rest for the feed and forage they eat, while pork and poultry take less than 2 million km2 each.
Put another way…
- Nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than 2% of the calories that are consumed throughout the world.
- Beef makes up 24% of the world’s meat consumption, yet requires 30 million square kilometres of land to produce.
- In contrast, poultry accounts for 34% of global meat consumption and pork accounts for 40%.
- Poultry and pork production each use less than two million square kilometres of land.
- [one study found] that it takes about nine hectares of permanent pasture plus about three hectares of cropland to produce one ton of beef.
- It compares with less than one hectare of cropland to produce one ton of poultry or pork.
- [another study] calculated that ruminants (like cattle) need six hectares of land to produce a kilogram (kilo) of protein, while pork production needs only 3.6 hectares.
- A totally vegetarian alternative using beans, peas, or other legumes reduces this area to 2.7 hectares
- No estimate was given for chicken production
- 26 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is used for livestock grazing.
- One-third of the planet’s arable land is occupied by livestock feed crop cultivation.
- In the United States, animals directly consume 95 percent of oat production and 80 percent of our corn
- Further highlighting land used for livestock…
- Just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people.
- Another 36 percent is used for animal feed.
- And the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses
- The proportions are even more striking in the United States, where just 27 percent of crop calories are consumed directly — wheat, say, or fruits and vegetables grown in California.
- By contrast, more than 67 percent of crops — particularly all the soy grown in the Midwest — goes to animal feed. And a portion of the rest goes to ethanol and other biofuels.
- Some of that animal feed eventually becomes food, obviously — but it’s a much, much more indirect process.
- It takes about 100 calories of grain to produce just 12 calories of chicken or 3 calories worth of beef, for instance.
- CAFO’s (confined animal feeding operations) tend to be more land efficient than pasture based systems
- But, they come with environmental, animal welfare and social costs such as nitrogen rich manure that pollutes, airborne ammonia, the use of antibiotics which can produce antibiotic bacteria, and cruel living conditions and practices on the animals inside them
- Smart, well managed pasture systems produce meat and other animal products while avoiding many of the problems associated with CAFOs
The Area and Relative Proportion of the 18 Major Crop Categories are:
|Crop||Area, 1000 km2||Relative Fraction, %|
|Oil palm fruit||72||<1|
|Total of major 18 crops||15,256||85|
How To Decrease Land Use In A Food Diet
Some of the ways a person might do this might be:
- Reduce beef and mutton intake
- Substituting beef with chicken would reduce the land footprint of your dietary meat source 10 to 15-fold
- Reduce intake of animal meat and animal product based food altogether, and move more towards plant based foods
- Eat foods from land efficient agricultural systems that also place emphasis on animal welfare and environmental impact
- Diets with beef reduction scenarios can reduce per person land use and greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent (replacing one-third of beef consumption with other meats or legumes) to 35 percent (reducing beef consumption by 70 percent, down to the world average level).
- The average American could cut their diet-related environmental impacts by nearly one half just by eating less meat and dairy, or by cutting meat/dairy/fish/egg consumption in half
- Eating less beef protein and animal protein could save between 310 and 640 million hectares (766 million to 1.6 billion acres) of agricultural land, with a vegetarian diet even more.
- Reducing consumption of animal-based foods among the world’s wealthier populations could free up significant amounts of land—possibly enabling the world to feed 10 billion people by 2050 without agriculture further expanding into forests.
* It should be noted though that land use is not a simple one step swap. It does involve many other factors like type of land available, climate, farming method, yield/efficiency and more. You also have to weigh up economic, social and other environmental factors.
Some Further Stats & Definitions On Agricultural Land
Agricultural land is typically land devoted to agriculture … particularly the rearing of livestock and production of crops— to produce food for humans. It is thus generally synonymous with both farmland or cropland, as well as pasture or rangeland.
The following are some definitions of types of agricultural land:
- “arable land” (a.k.a. cropland): here redefined to refer to land producing crops requiring annual replanting or fallowland or pasture used for such crops within any five-year period
- “permanent cropland”: land producing crops which do not require annual replanting
- permanent pastures: natural or artificial grasslands and shrublands able to be used for grazing livestock
Some stats on areas of the above types of lands worldwide are:
Agricultural land covers 38.4% of the world’s land area as of 2011.
Permanent pastures are 68.4% of all agricultural land (26.3% of global land area),
Arable land (row crops) is 28.4% of all agricultural land (10.9% of global land area),
And permanent crops (e.g. vineyards and orchards) are 3.1% (1.2% of global land area).
- Total of land used to produce food: 49,116,227 square kilometers or 18,963,881 square miles
- Arable land: 13,963,743 square kilometers or 5,391,431 square miles
- Permanent crops: 1,537,338 square kilometers or 593,570 square miles
- Permanent pastures: 33,585,676 square kilometers or 12,967,502 square miles
5. Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2018) – “Yields and Land Use in Agriculture”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/yields-and-land-use-in-agriculture’ [Online Resource]