There’s a lot of land in the world, but how much of that land is used for agriculture?
With a growing population, it’s also worth considering if we have enough land left to grow food and other resources we need for the future.
In this guide, we summarise answers to both those questions.
Summary – How Much Land Do We Use For Agriculture, & Are We Going To Have Enough Land In The Future For Food & Other Resources?
As of 2019, we use about 37% of the land on earth for agriculture
A distinction should be made between the different types of agricultural land – arable cropland, and grazing land
Whether we have enough land in the future for food and agriculture is in part going to depend on how we use it i.e. what we grow and produce on that land
Much of the land suitable for agriculture is already being used in many countries, so, increases in land efficiency are probably going to come from how many calories (as well as other nutritional units like grams of protein, fat, and so on) we can produce per hectare, and becoming more productive and efficient with the land we are already using, rather than expanding agricultural activities to more land
A diet centred around plant based foods (like vegetarian and vegan diets) and less around animal products based diets (meat, but also dairy) tends to be able to feed more people with less land i.e. it’s more efficient, and also have a higher carrying capacity to support a greater sized population
Developing and less industrialized regions may be an exception to this – they may be able to take advantage of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, modern farming machinery, and other commercial/industrial scale farming methods to scale food production (whereas developed countries tend to be already doing this)
Some estimates say we have about 10.5 million square miles of farmable land left in the world – most of it located in Africa, and Central and South America (10.5 million square miles is slightly less than double the amount of land we are currently using for crops according to some satellite observations).
But, other sources indicate that significant caution should be exercised with this land as there might be economic and practical challenges involved with farming it (soil type, climate, access to the land, economic feasibility, and so on), and it might not be productive land to farm
Overall, we probably need to start taking a much more detailed approach to agriculture in terms of what we are using land for, the resources we are putting into it, what we are getting back out of it, and the overall short and long term impact that process is having.
The impact of different agricultural practices on society, the economy, the environment and wildlife are all important.
But, we also need to consider the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fats and minerals we are getting from the foods we produce.
The impact of changing weather patterns on agriculture, the amount of water agriculture uses via irrigation, and the GHG emissions from agriculture are all important to track, along with food waste and food loss inefficiencies at the production through to consumer levels.
There’s many ways we can improve the agriculture and food system to have better and more efficient use of land, but these other factors need to be considered in that approach and strategy.
Erosion is one of the threats to the productiveness of arable land used to grow crops (some estimated indicate that over the last 40 years, 30% of arable land has been destroyed by erosion)
Population growth and erosion (as well as soil health (are two factors which may continue to lower the amount of agricultural land available per person in the world
A changing climate may also impact growing conditions for the negative or the positive in some areas.
New technologies like lab grown food have potential to help with food production whilst reducing some land use, but aren’t a perfect solution right now
Different Ways We Use Land In The World
Some of the different uses for land for humans are:
Recreational, Transport, Agricultural, Residential & Commercial
We also specifically use some land for the benefits forests and trees provide, and there is land we use for lakes, rivers, dams etc. as freshwater supplies
Types Of Agricultural Land Use – Arable/Cropland & Pastureland
Agricultural land is land devoted to agriculture, and consists of:
Arable Land/Cropland – is land devoted to growing plants for humans use for food, material, or fuel. Arable land is also used to grow feed (hay, cereals, oil seeds) for animals
Pastureland – is land used for raising and grazing animals/livestock.
How Much Land In The World Is Used For Agriculture – Arable Land and Pastureland
29% of the world’s surface is land, and 71% is ocean
Of that 29%, 71% is habitable land, with the remaining land being glaciers and barren land
Of all habitable land in the world, 50% is used for agriculture
77% of agricultural land is used for livestock, and 23% for crops
According to Worldbank.org, in 2016:
37.4% of the world’s land area was used as agricultural land
11.06% of the world’s land area was used as arable land
Satellite images … show roughly 17.6 million square kilometers (6.8 million square miles) used to grow crops, with between 32 and 36 million square kilometers (12 and 14 million square miles) used to raise livestock
Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with pasture and arable land dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of the total agricultural land.
One-third of global arable land is used to grow feed
26% of the Earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface is used for grazing.
How Much Of The World’s Arable Land Is In A Degraded State?
As a result of erosion over the past 40 years, 30 percent of the world’s arable land has become unproductive.
How Much Farmable Land Do We Have Left To Expand On?
Some sources say there is land left for farming:
Current estimates put the remaining amount of farmable land at about 27 million square kilometers (10.5 million square miles), most of which is concentrated in Africa and Central and South America.
At present some 11 percent (1.5 billion ha) of the globe’s land surface (13.4 billion ha) is used in crop production (arable land and land under permanent crops).
This area represents slightly over a third (36 percent) of the land estimated to be to some degree suitable for crop production.
The fact that there remain some 2.7 billion ha with crop production potential suggests that there is still scope for further expansion of agricultural land.
However, there is also a perception, at least in some quarters, that there is no more, or very little, land to bring under cultivation.
… much of the land also suffers from constraints such as ecological fragility, low fertility, toxicity, high incidence of disease or lack of infrastructure.
These reduce its productivity, require high input use and management skills to permit its sustainable use, or require prohibitively high investments to be made accessible or disease-free.
… These considerations underline the need to interpret estimates of land balances with caution when assessing land availability for agricultural use
Other sources say there is little or no land left to expand agricultural practices:
Further expansion of agriculture is a poor solution to meeting future needs because we’re using nearly all of the land that’s suitable for agriculture already.
Right now … about 38 percent of the land on Earth is used for food production.
The rest is either is either unsuitable for cultivation because of soil, climate topography, or urban development, or it’s forest land.
Because we don’t have more land to expand farming into, any gains in agriculture have to be made by more efficient agricultural methods
One of the 21st century’s great challenges is to develop diets that are both healthy for our bodies and sustainable for the planet
North America, South America and Oceania could spare significant amounts of land if they moved to the less meat-intensive (and consequently, grain-intensive) diet in the USDA guidelines
In contrast, Africa, the European Union, and Asia would require a significant expansion of agricultural lands to support a USDA guideline diet
Do We Have Enough Arable Land & Pasture Land Left For Our Future Food Production Needs?
Something that should be considered is that we are already producing enough food, as of 2019, to feed 10 billion people worldwide – even though we have over 7 billion people living on earth.
So total production isn’t an issue right now – distribution to the people who need the food is.
In addition to that, we can do the maths on how much land we will need in the future.
It’s going to come down in simple terms to how many people we have on earth, how much land we have available, and how much land we need to feed one person:
– Number Of People
Estimated to be somewhere between 9 to 13 billion at peak population between the years 2050 and 2100
– Amount Of Land
Right now we are using roughly 17.6 million square kilometers (6.8 million square miles) to grow crops, with between 32 and 36 million square kilometers (12 and 14 million square miles) used to raise livestock
– How Much Land We Need Per Person To Grow Food For Them
Estimates of between 1 acre to 3.25 acres per person, with current agricultural systems and based on the standard Western or American Average Diet. (farmlandlp.com, and plantricianproject.org).
This depends on the diet we eat and how much meat and dairy we eat.
So, in the future we could need anywhere between 13 billion to over 39 billion acres, if the whole world ate a Western diet high in animal based products and high in calories.
This is of course only a very rough estimate.
Right now, the the FAO reports 7.9 billion acres of arable land in the world (plantricianproject.org).
These are very rough estimates though and should only be used as a starting point or a guide – they are not precision point accurate.
Consider this from globalagriculture.org:
With increasing population growth, the amount of arable land available for each person is continually dropping.
Currently, each human being has only 2000m² at his or her disposal; in 1961, that figure was 4000m².
The amount of arable land available per person will decrease to 1500m² by 2050.
Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation.
Variability, & Factors Contributing To Land Used For Agriculture
The land used for agriculture varies over time depending on the needs of the population, and the capability of farming technology and practices.
Also, there are factors that contribute to how much land can physically be used for for farming at any one time:
Natural factors – climate conditions, weather factors like rainfall, soil composition, rockiness and altitude, and more
Human Factors – urban development and sprawl, pollution and landfills, deforestation, soil salinization, and soil/land damage such as erosion of topsoil, desertification, and more
We must also consider other random factors like the availability of lab grown food in the future, the advancement of GMO food technology, and an increased use of organic and sustainable farming practices which could lift yields.
Soil erosion rates and soil health/fertility are other random factors that contribute to food production yields and potential as well.
How We Use Agricultural Land (For Different Foods, Diets & Resources) Matters When Considering Land Use Efficiency…
The types of foods and diets we use land to grow impact how efficient our land use is.
For example, the US’ food diet is considered by some to be far less efficient from a farming land use perspective that the food diet of some other countries:
… if the whole world attempted to adhere to the USDA dietary guidelines, we’d be short about 1 gigahectare of farmland – about the size of Canada – under current agricultural practices
This principle can also be applied to biofuels and other uses of land.
Some uses of land for agriculture and growing resources are more or less efficient than others in terms of what we get back out of it, and this ultimately impacts how much land we have available now and in the future.
How We Might Increase Land Use Efficiency In Agriculture
According to inhabitat.com:
Increase agricultural yields and productivity with newer methods and technologies that have a lesser environmental impact, and are more sustainable
Decrease food waste
Change diets to food types (i.e. more plant and crop based, and less animal based) that make more efficient use of land, and convert energy and agricultural inputs better through to the consumer.
Growing animal feed for livestock is inefficient from an energy conversion perspective.
Certain animals like cattle, sheep and pigs tend to be less efficient to rear than chicken for example.
According to globalagriculture.org:
The production of meat, milk and eggs leads to an enormous loss of calories grown in fields, since cereals and oil seeds have to be cultivated to feed to animals.
… the calories that are lost by feeding cereals to animals, instead of using them directly as human food, could theoretically feed an extra 3.5 billion people.
[we might look to the sustainable raising of livestock on land where they aren’t competing with crops and more efficient agricultural products i.e. land not fertile or not suitable for growing plant based foods]