Different foods use different amounts of land to grow and produce.
This guide gives an outline of how it might be possible to decrease the land footprint in an individual’s diet, by identifying the types of diets and also individual foods that take more or less land to produce.
This guide is a complementary to these guides:
- Individual Foods That Take The Most & Least Land To Produce
- 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 – How To Decrease The Land Footprint With The Foods You Eat
Several sources indicate that reducing beef intake and switching to a meat like chicken is perhaps the easiest and simplest way to decrease an individual’s total food based land footprint.
Eating less animal based food products, such as meat and dairy, would be the next step to reducing a food based land footprint.
Eating a predominantly vegetarian or vegan food diet (involving pulses, corn, rice, wheat, eggs and possibly fruits and vegetables) might use the least total land, or be the most land efficient diet.
Types Of Food Diets
When talking about reducing the number of hectares of land required to feed each person, per year, plant based diets (vegetarian and vegan) might be more land efficient than animal based ones (high in animal meats, added fats, sweeteners and so on).
To decrease land footprint, people might look at these specific foods within their diets:
Eliminate, Or Reduce – animal meats (mainly beef, pork, chicken, fish … although beef, pork and lamb might be more land intensive than chicken), some dairy like cheese, highly processed or refined sugar type foods, foods with artificial sweeteners, foods high in added fats like plant oil, dairy fat and animal fat
Substitute With, Or Increase – plant based foods like grains, fruit and vegetables, beans and lentils, peas, rice, fruits, cow’s milk, nuts, tofu (some of these foods may not have a low land footprint by themselves, but as part of a whole plant based diet, they can contribute to a lower total land footprint)
There can be a difference between total land use, land use efficiency, and the types of land (grazing vs cropland) that each food type uses
When talking about land required per gram of protein produced, animal sources of food can be more land efficient according to some studies than plant sources of food (although, other studies debate this). Land requirements for animal based foods can also change when certain animal feed supplies have been exhausted.
The diet based approach of assessing land efficiency is a simplistic rough guide only, and not definitive. Different measurements and variables can change the outcomes.
Food waste at the consumer level might also be taken into account (vegetables, fruits and highly perishable foods are actually wasted at a greater rate at the consumer level than meats for example). When looking at food waste numbers of fruits and vegetables, this group of foods might be most responsible for the most cropland when food is wasted at the consumer level
When taking into account food waste, healthier diets centred around more plant based diets, actually waste less cropland than the “Western diet”, characterized by high intake of refined carbohydrates, added sugar, sodium, and animal products, and low intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
There are many other things to consider though in a food diet other than just the land footprint, such as the water footprint, carbon footprint, and so on.
Solely plant based diets are not perfect, do have their own drawbacks, and may not be healthy for some groups of people with certain nutritional requirements and health conditions
Something worth noting when it comes to land specifically is that vegetables, fruits and plant based food actually needs arable cropland to grow at a large scale. Livestock on the other hand can make use of far less fertile grazing and cropland (that vegetables, fruits and plant based foods can’t) which is in far greater availability. So, when talking about land – you need to consider the types of land too (and break them up into categories) – cropland vs grazing and pastureland.
There’s also other factors like local weather and soil conditions, economic conditions, population growth and the impact of future food demand, whether food production efficiency and yield is maxxed out, the eco impact of different farming methods, and other factors to consider when assessing the foods we grow and produce, and how the agricultural industry might be best operated.
The authors of the study at elementalscience.org note that in order to move to a more plant based diet, changes that have to be considered on a society wide and agricultural level might be ‘changes in agronomic and horticultural research, extension, farm operator knowledge, infrastructure, livestock management, farm and food policy, and international trade’
Food Groups With Higher Land Footprints
Beef tends to have the highest footprint of the animal meat products
Pork, turkey, chicken and fish follow beef
Some dairy like cheese
Foods with added sweeteners
Foods with lots of added fats
Food Groups With Lower Land Footprints
Beans and lentils
Generally anything plant based
Notes On Food Land Footprint Variables
The land footprint given for any particular food will vary depending on where/how the food has been produced, what data has been used, and the final unit of measurement.
It does depend on the farming method used (for example grain and grass fed beef can have different land requirements), where the food is produced (country, state/province and specific farm) etc.
It also depends on which indicator you are measuring the food land footprint by:
- As part of a whole type of diet (as current studies mainly do) e.g. meat based diet, ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan etc.
- Per serving
- Per unit of weight (pounds, kilograms etc.)
- Per calorie or kilocalorie
- Per gram of protein
- Per gram of fat
- Per gram of carbohydrates
- and more
Different foods have different nutritional profiles, which is a different consideration altogether from food weight or serving amount.
You also have to consider food waste – and vegetables, fruits and healthier foods tend to have a higher food waste rate at the consumer level, but waste cropland at a lower rate.
Read More About Different Food Land Footprints
A Case Study On Decreasing Land Footprint Through Diet
You can read more here https://www.wri.org/blog/2016/04/how-i-tweaked-my-diet-cut-its-environmental-footprint-half
The writer notes that 85 percent of the GHG emissions and 90 percent of the agricultural land use associated with the average American diet come from animal meat and dairy, and about half of the emissions and land use are from beef alone.
The land required for this food and the greenhouse gas emissions produced (for an average American diet) is nearly twice as high as the world average.
Shifting from beef to chicken, and cutting meat, dairy, fish and egg consumption by half – will decrease your environmental impact of your diet by 15%, and almost 50% respectively.
4. Peters, C.J., Picardy, J., Darrouzet-Nardi, A.F., Wilkins, J.L., Griffin, T.S. and Fick, G.W., 2016. Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios. Elem Sci Anth, 4, p.000116. DOI: http://doi.org/10.12952/journal.elementa.000116 (https://www.elementascience.org/articles/10.12952/journal.elementa.000116/#)