More food from the same land

Yesterday I wrote about pressures on limited global farmland, and how we basically had two choices. We could look for new growing spaces, or try to get more food from what we have. Tomorrow I’ll look at the first of those, and today I’ll look at the second – is there any way to get more food from the same amount of land?

Food waste

One really good place to start is with food waste. Globally, a third of all food is wasted. 1.3 billion tonnes of food is thrown away every year. That’s food that could be feeding people or animals, and so it’s an obvious and practical solution. We’d also save money and reduce greenhouse gases from waste, so everybody wins.

The problem of wasted food is slightly different depending on where you are in the world. In richer countries, it’s often because people buy more than they need. This is called food waste.

In poorer countries, it’s often because harvests are lost to poor storage facilities, or food rots before it can be transported to market. This is called food loss.

There are solutions to both of those. Here in Britain we have a long running campaign that has helped to educate people to buy better, cook smarter and use up leftovers. Across the channel in France the government has brought in a law that makes it illegal for companies to throw away edible food.

Then there are creative solutions for reusing food that might otherwise go to waste. Here are two examples. Sir Kensington’s is a vegan start-up that takes the leftover cooking water from a hummus factory, and uses it to make mayonnaise. And Toast is a beer company that gathers up unsold bread from bakeries and bread factories and uses it to make beer, using an old medieval recipe.

On the food loss side, the things that would make the biggest difference are often really simple – like crates. Imagine harvesting your apples and just piling them into a truck. There’s a good chance that the ones at the bottom are going to get bruised as they’re thrown in. They’re not going to last as long, and once the truck gets to market they’re going to be useless. Packing fresh fruit and vegetables in crates keeps it safe and makes it stackable. It’s a simple thing, but often farmers on very low incomes don’t have access to these cheap solutions.

Food spoils quickly in hot countries, so here’s a solution I really like – Ecofrost are a company in India that makes solar refrigerators that can be delivered off the back of a lorry. Farmers can stack their crops inside until it’s ready for market, prolonging the life of the food. And because it’s solar it can operate out in the fields or in villages without power, and all on zero carbon energy.


There is another way we could use food waste. We could turn it into food of a different kind. See this post for a profile of Europe’s largest insect farm, Ynsect in France. They take crop wastes and feed it to fly larvae, which will eat anything. Then they grind them up to make animal feed.

We can eat insects directly too, and they’re a rich source of protein. This is deeply weird in Britain, but plenty of food cultures around the world include insects, and they could be an important source of future protein.

You don’t have to eat bugs either. A few years ago I did a little project to try as many insect foods as I could, and I found cookies, pasta, energy bars, tortilla chips and lots of other things that you could eat without ever knowing that you were eating insects.

Changing diets

Looking back at this graphic from yesterday, here’s another thing we can do to get more food from the same land. We can rebalance the amount of land given over to animals and growing food for animals, and grow more food for people directly.

A third of the world’s grain is fed to animals. So is a quarter of all the caught fish, because fishmeal is an important protein source in lots of animal feeds. According to a study earlier this year, the food fed to animals could feed another billion people. Feeding food to animals is an inefficient way to use resources. It takes 16 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of beef. If people eat the grain themselves, you can feed more people with the same amount of food.

This is just one of several reasons why plant-based diets are a useful response to climate change. They’re also a useful response to animal suffering in industrial farming. And we don’t need everyone to be vegetarian or vegan if they don’t want to be. There’s room for livestock as part of a sustainable food system if people want it, but not as much as some people eat today.

So, farming fewer animals and reducing food waste are two ways we can get more food out of the existing system. But what about the second approach? Is there any way to expand the land we use for producing food?

We’ll come to that in part 3.


  1. I wish you had noted that, 1) vast areas of cropped land are contributing to global warming through the use of chemical fertilizers, not only because these are derived from fossil fuels but also because they degrade the soils wherever they’re used, and degraded soils sequester very little carbon; and 2) properly grazed animals can help offset bad agricultural practice and in fact be part of the solution.
    For their own health and the health of those who eat them, herbivores (rabbits, goats, sheep and cattle) should not eat grain, and can live off grassland that is unsuitable for cropping. Given proper management (through the use of strip grazing or in the case of rabbits movable hutches) herbivores improve the soil’s microbiome, mycorrhizal network and humus content amazingly quickly. This means that a – the vegetation pulls down more carbon into the soil, and b – the soil absorbs and retains more water and loses fewer nutrients. These improvements can over time make some grazed soils suitable for cropping.

    1. I did note chemical fertilisers in part one of this three part series, and I mention grazing in forests in part three. But it’s not a comprehensive list of solutions, that’s true – so thank you for mentioning this.

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