We are experiencing a global crises in land use.
"0ur land use and agricultural practices rival climate change as a global environmental threat." (Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies)
Forests are complex ecosystems that are essential to our quality of life.
Forests mitigate climate change, provide habitats, benefit water cycles, stop runoff and erosion, and more. (Live Science)
Deforestation has increased rapidly in the past 50 years.
About half of the world's tropical forests have been cleared – an estimated 18 million acres annually and 36 football fields worth of trees every minute. (Live Science)
The catostrophic impacts have been underestimated.
A growing body of research suggests the impacts of deforestation could in many continental interiors dwarf the impacts of global climate change. (Yale Environment 360)
It is estimated that more greenhouse gases have been emitted from land use changes than from the burning of fossil fuels (Earth Transformed) and that restored forests alone can sequester ALL of the greenhouse gases emitted during the fossil fuel age (research published in Nature).
What is the top driver of the global land use crises?
As the largest land use system on earth – and also a terribly inefficient one – animal agriculture is driving the global land use crises.
As discussed throughout this site, animal-based food production has a much higher material cost than plant-based food production and therefore requires far more substantial areas of land.
For example, the US Great Prairie has been reduced to corn and wheat belts. Although it even doesn't occur to most people, most US "amber waves of grain" from sea to shining sea are now just animal feed.
A paper published in the journal Current Biology finds that growing as much food as possible in a small area may be our best bet for sustainably feeding the world's population without harming the environment.
Another peer-reviewed research article published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE calls meat "land-intensive foods" and vegetables "land-sparing foods," concludes that reducing heavy meat consumption in wealthy countries shows strong potential for sparing land.
Animal Farming Uses Almost 80% of Global Agricultural Land
To understand the extraordinary scale and inefficiency of this monopolization of global land resources, we need only look at the facts.
Land currently used by animal agriculture:
Global: Livestock is the world's largest user of land resources, representing almost 80% of all agricultural land (UN FAO) and 45% of the entire global surface area (International Livestock Resource Institute).
EU: Over 71% of all EU agricultural land is dedicated to feeding so-called livestock – including 63% of its arable land, which is being used to produce animal feed instead of food for people – and nearly a fifth of the EU's total budget goes to supporting animal farming. (2019 Greenpeace report)
UK: Animal-based foods take up 85% of the UK food supply's land footprint (62.7% grazing / 21.8% feed crops). (Research published in Global Environmental Change)
US: There’s a single, major occupant on US land: cows. Between pastures and cropland used to produce feed, 41 percent of U.S. land in the contiguous states revolves around livestock farming. Gathered together, pasture and rangeland would cover most of the Western US and cropland would take up more than a fifth of the 48 contiguous states. Most cropland is used for livestock feed, exports or is left idle to let the land recover. More than one-third of U.S. land is used for pasture—by far the largest land-use type in the contiguous 48 states. (USDA via Bloomberg)
AU: 56% of the Australian continent is used for animal agriculture and less than 3% is used for food crops for people to eat. (Australia is about 770 million hectares, or Mha. 429 Mha or 56% are used to graze beef, sheep and dairy, 3 Mha for fodder crops for farmed animals, and 4 Mha for grain for farmed animals while only 20 Mha are used to grow vegan plant foods for humans.) (Beyond Zero Emissions Land Use Report (BZE LUR) & agriculture.gov.au, as compiled by Vegan Australia)
WWF conservation scientist Dr Martin Taylor makes it clear: "Most deforestation in Australia is just for livestock pasture." He elaborates: "Urban sprawl is a problem in the areas where it occurs but it's a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of forest destruction just to produce livestock for pasture."
According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
"Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of all agricultural land. Feed crops are grown in one-third of total cropland, while the total land area occupied by pasture is equivalent to 26% of the ice-free terrestrial surface."
According to Our World in Data:
"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. Despite being dominant in land allocation for agriculture, meat and dairy products supply only 17 percent of global caloric supply and only 33 percent of global protein supply. In other words, the 11 million square kilometres used for [vegan] crops supply more calories and protein for the global population than the almost 4-times larger area used for livestock."
Use of agricultural land worldwide
What is the top driver of deforestation?
Since animal agriculture uses the most land on Earth, it's not hard to understand that it also causes the most deforestation.
Per WWF and Union of Concerned Scientists, among others, animal agriculture is the number one cause of deforestation.
Along with land, more forests are being continually cleared to provide yet more room for grazing "livestock" and growing their feed crops than any other purpose.
Land used for grazing is often on land that was originally forest or woodland, usually cleared before use and sometimes regularly re-cleared or burnt to make it more suitable for cattle and sheep grazing.
1823: Thousands of acres of trees were cut down to graze sheep for merino wool production, which required more land than growing wheat and grain. (New England Historical Society)
1960s: "The majority deforestation in the Amazon Basin since the 1960s has been caused by cattle ranchers and land speculators who burned huge tracts of rainforest for pasture." (Mongabay Rainforests)
1970s: "But conversion to cattle pasture isn't limited to Brazil — in the 1970s and early 1980s vast tracts of rainforest in Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador were burned and converted into cattle pasture lands to meet American demand for beef." (Mongabay Rainforests)
1980s: "Impacts of cattle ranching and deforestation were publicized by conservationists in the early 1980s and coined 'the hamburger connection.'" (Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies)
"Producing livestock, including cattle, goats and sheep, for human consumption is the single largest driver of habitat loss and deforestation worldwide." (Evelyn Perez, Florida International University, summarizing published research)
"Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates." (Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies)
Soy cultivation is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin. Seeds from the soybean plant provide high protein animal feed for livestock, and 80% of Amazon soy is destined for animal feed; smaller percentages are used for oil or eaten directly. (Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies)
"Of the four major deforestation drivers, beef has by far the largest impact." (Union of Concerned Scientists, page since removed)
In the Huanuco region of central Peru, which now has the highest concentration of deforestation in the country, "the main deforestation driver is likely cattle pasture." (Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project)
"Most deforestation in Australia is just for livestock pasture." WWF conservation scientist Dr Martin Taylor
Deforestation drivers in Latin America
As is the theme with the "livestock" industry, there is also a total lack of accountability. Per the Guardian, "A recent analysis by Forest 500 found that despite cattle production being the biggest driver of tropical production globally, only 17% of assessed cattle companies had a policy addressing forest production."
How would a shift to plant-based diets change the situation?
Plants and trees are needed to provide habitats, draw down the carbon already in the atmosphere, and much more. Plant-based diets require far less land for food production, resulting in more land and more trees.
This is why the Vegan Society's Erika Cook declared on the BBC back in 1776: "A vegan culture is a tree culture."
Because fewer land and trees being cleared for food production would benefit species while creating carbon sinks and supporting a healthy water table, this topic is tied in with Species Extinction, Climate Change, and Water Scarcity. Research recently found that deforestation has double the effect on global warming than previously thought, and tackling deforestation should be higher on the climate change agenda.
So how can this happen?:
Researchers have found that 42% of the total emissions reductions that could be achieved from reforestation depend on reducing pasture land.
Other researchers found that if the land currently used for grazing farmed animals were returned to the native forests that existed on that land in 1800, those forests could sequester more carbon on just 41% of that land than all the carbon added to the atmosphere since 1750.
Another recent study names "large-scale grazing and other uses of grasslands, as well as forest 'management'" as being "just as substantial as deforestation" on land use changes contributing greatly to climate change.
As you can see, large amounts of reforestation and re-wilding simply cannot happen without masses of people – especially in developed and developing nations – switching to a plant-based diet simply because of the excessive land requirements to rear and feed farmed animals.
Land that could be freed up with a plant-based shift:
Eliminating just feed production: A global vegan shift would reduce the land needed for crops by 21% – roughly the size of India. (New Scientist)
Eliminating just grazing: "If whole populations shifted their diets away from beef, it could free up nearly 300 million hectares of grazing land—an area nearly the size of India—and reduce agricultural pressure on forests." Note - this doesn't even account for the land used by any non-cattle grazing farmed animals.(World Resources Institute)
Just replacing beef with beans: Substituting beans for beef alone would free up 42% of US cropland. (Research published in Climactic Change, summarized by The Atlantic)
A US vegan shift: "Greg Litus, a horticulturist at Colorado State University, used U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics for land use to determine how much land would be required to grow enough plant-based food to meet the caloric needs of every American. Based on a vegan diet that includes a range of vegetables, fruit, legumes and grains and using veganic farming methods, he found that it would require 100 million to 200 million acres a year. U.S. farms currently take up 1.1 billion acres, with 700 million devoted to animal grazing. That doesn’t include all the land used to grow grain to feed animals." (Summarized here)
A global vegan shift (3 estimates):
Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. (The most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet, published in Science)
Only 37% of the current cultivated croplands would be required if we shifted to a plant-based diet. (John Halley, Associate Professor of Ecology at University of Ioannina, per the book Eating Earth by Lisa Kemmerer)
Per the United Nations Environmental Programme, a varied vegan diet requires about a third of the land needed for conventional Western diets. (UN page since removed, but reported here)
Animal Agriculture & Deforestation/Land Use (our ongoing updated collection of relevant articles)
The Other Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis in Global Land Use (Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies)
Yields and Land Use in Agriculture (Our World in Data)
Cattle Ranching's Impact on the Rainforests (Mongabay)
Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region (Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies)
MAAP #37: DEFORESTATION HOTSPOT IN THE CENTRAL PERUVIAN AMAZON DRIVEN BY CATTLE PASTURE (Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project)
This is How Animal Agriculture Causes Deforestation (One Green Planet)
Conserving Forests Could Cut Carbon Emissions As Much As Getting Rid of Every Car on Earth (World Resources Institute) – says that 42% of the total emissions reductions that could be achieved from reforestation depend on reducing pasture land, including by reforesting all grazing land in forested ecoregions
Land Use: Reducing Emissions and Preparing for Climate Change (UK government’s Committee on Climate Change)
Global land use implications of dietary trends (scientific research article published in PLoS One)
Above study media coverage:
Our current global land use crises spills into forests, which are complex ecosystems essential to our quality of life. Animal agriculture is the largest land use system on Earth and therefore is the top driver of deforestation. Plant-based diets require far less land for food production and could not only help stop deforestation, but allow for large-scale reforestation and re-wilding. A plant-based shift is needed to stop our global land use and deforestation crises.