Land, food and the future

At the weekend I gave a talk on sustainable food to a student conference in China. I had a fairly open brief to talk about any aspect of food sustainability that I liked, and so I thought I’d write about land. In George Monbiot’s recent book Regenesis, he talks about how the climate and ecological crisis means that the world needs to produce more food on less land. So that’s what I talked about – not with any attempt to be comprehensive, but to offer some possibilities.

I’ll serialise the talk across three posts.

Here’s the core problem: we have ourselves this one planet, and on it we have to produce all the food for almost 8 billion people. But we can’t use all of it, because a lot of it is covered in oceans. So really we’re talking about the 29% of the planet that’s land.

We can’t use all of that either, because some of the land is desert, and some of it is under ice. So out of that 29% of the planet’s surface that’s land, only 71% of it is habitable for humans.

(Graphic re-drawn from Our World in Data)

That gets trimmed down further by the amount of good and useable land that’s covered in other things already. Like forests and woodlands, lakes and rivers, and of course the bit that we’ve built on. (That’s only 1% of the useful land, though it doesn’t always feel like that when you live in a city.)

Forests are really important for wildlife and for absorbing carbon dioxide, so we don’t want to cut down any more forests for farming. That restricts us to about half of the useable land.

That’s what we’re currently using, and at the moment about 77% of farmland goes to animals and the feed for them, and the rest to crops.

We’re getting all our food from a limited amount of space, but that space is shrinking because of climate change, soil erosion, and declining fertility. At the same time, the number of people who need to be fed is increasing as the global population grows. That means that the amount of farmland per person is going down each year.

In 1920 there was half a hectare of farmland for every person on the planet. That’s around half of an athletics field. As the world’s population has grown over the last century, the amount of farmland per person has halved.

Every year we see more pressure being piled onto farming to deliver the crops we need to feed everyone. And the choices are limited. If you’re tight on land, you pretty much have two choices.

The first is that you can expand the amount of land you use.

If you expand the land you have, you’re going to have to take it from somewhere else. This is a major driver of deforestation, as land is burned off and cleared for cattle ranching. That in turn leads to the displacement of indigenous people, who have traditionally lived in forests but don’t always have legal land rights.

We’d also be losing the forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, losing trees at a time when we need billions more trees to help us cool the planet. That makes climate change worse, which makes it harder for farmers.

And of course wildlife is paying the price too, with biodiversity losses. This is a matter of justice, in my opinion – we need to feed ourselves without destroying the non-human life that shares our planet.

The second approach might be to try and grow more with the land we already have. One way to do that is through intensification – but if we’re not careful, that can lead to piling more fertilisers and other chemicals into fields to drive up yields. That fertiliser then runs off the land and pollutes rivers, destroys aquatic life, and eventually leads to marine dead zones in the oceans.

Intensive farming also disrupts the soil, drying it out and depleting it of nutrients. This leads to depleted soils, which need more and more chemicals to make up for it, until the soil is exhausted and good for nothing, leaving us worse off than when we started.

We could intensify livestock production as well, and we know what that looks like: eggs produced from caged hens, pigs raised in barns and never seeing the sunlight, feedlot cattle. The cruelty to animals that’s involved in industrial animal farming is immense. This is a matter of justice too.

So what can we do? Is it possible to increase food production for 8 billion people without destroying the environment and the climate in the process?

  • Part 2 – more food from the same land
  • Part 3 – the search for new growing spaces


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