Humans have been reshaping the planet’s land for millennia by clearing wildlands to grow crops and raise livestock. This expansion of agricultural land has now come to an end. We have passed the peak, and in recent years global agricultural land use has declined.
Agricultural land is the total of arable land that is used to grow crops, and pasture used to raise livestock. Measuring exactly how much land we use for agriculture is difficult.
If all farms were simply rows of densely-planted crops it would be straightforward to calculate how much land is being used. As a result, there are a range of estimates for how much land is used for agriculture.
As you can see, they disagree on how much land is used for agriculture, and the time at which land use peaked. The world has passed peak agricultural land4 A Global Decoupling of Agricultural Land and Food Production.
Despite this reduction in agricultural land, the world has continued to produce more food. Global decoupling of agricultural land and food production7 Agricultural Land Use Is Still Increasing in Many Countries-Often at the Expense of Carbon-Rich Habitats.
The first is that agricultural land use has definitely not peaked everywhere. Agricultural land use has decreased in some countries, but continues to increase in others.
The second is the distribution of these changes in land use across the world, and their implications for biodiversity loss and carbon emissions. As I have covered elsewhere, the expansion of grazing land for beef production is still the leading driver of global deforestation.
Finally, quantifying the amount of land that is used for pasture is difficult. Here we have focused on reported agricultural land use data from the UN FAO based on census data, country reports, and expert estimates, but this comes with uncertainty.
Improving our measurement of agricultural land use, potentially from satellite data, would allow us to monitor changes more closely. Several sources suggest that global agricultural land use has fallen in recent decades. Land use is still expanding across Sub-Saharan Africa and South America.
As populations increase, and incomes rise, the pressure on land will continue. Reducing land pressures by reducing meat consumption and land dedicated to biofuels is also vital.