Global Land Use: Another Ignored Crisis?

Now that climate change is getting the attention it deserves, environmentalists are concerned that other issues such as water scarcity are not. In this Yale Environment 360 essay, climate scientist Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota worries about the crisis in global land use. He writes:

“Our use of land, particularly for agriculture, is absolutely essential to the success of the human race. We depend on agriculture to supply us with food, feed, fiber, and, increasingly, biofuels. Without a highly efficient, productive, and resilient agricultural system, our society would collapse almost overnight.

“But we are demanding more and more from our global agricultural systems, pushing them to their very limits. Continued population growth (adding more than 70 million people to the world every year), changing dietary preferences (including more meat and dairy consumption), rising energy prices, and increasing needs for bioenergy sources are putting tremendous pressure on the world’s resources. And, if we want any hope of keeping up with these demands, we’ll need to double, perhaps triple, the agricultural production of the planet in the next 30 to 40 years.

“Meeting these huge new agricultural demands will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. At present, it is completely unclear how (and if) we can do it.”

Foley concludes:

“Providing for the basic needs of 9 billion-plus people, without ruining the biosphere in the process, will be one of the greatest challenges our species has ever faced. It will require the imagination, determination and hard work of countless people from all over the world, embarked on one of the noblest causes in history. But the first step is admitting we have more than one problem.”

Read the full article here.

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10 Responses to “Global Land Use: Another Ignored Crisis?”


  1. 1 Julian Leung 07/10/2009 at 8:57 am

    Jonathan Foley’s advocacy for an orphaned environmental cause, lost in the furor over global climate change, and impassioned assertions of an impending food crisis is reminiscent of previous Malthusian predictions of doom and gloom. Although, thankfully, Malthusian forecasts of societal collapse due to the depletion of resources have time and time again been discredited, most notable of them being the Simon-Ehrlich Wager, it is still beyond dispute the Earth has finite resources and therein, as the bard would tell us, lies the rub. Agriculture is inherently the antithesis of biodiversity and therefore the further allocation of land towards agriculture would be contrary to the goals of the environmental movement. It would therefore, make sense to take steps to improve the yields of existing farmland. Yet it is intensive farming which is accelerating the degradation of precious arable land and the basis of much of the environmental complaints of agriculture. With this catch-22 among others, it seems assuring food security for the future will be no easy feat.

  2. 2 Triston Xun Cui 07/10/2009 at 5:43 pm

    Jonathan Foley’s article called on public attention on the issue of global land use. As he said in the article, the impact of global land use crisis rivaled the impact of climate change. It includes ecosystem degradation, freshwater decline, widespread pollution and greenhouse gas emission, which in author’s view, are all “clearly threatens human well-being and the health of the biosphere as much as global warming”.
    Admittedly, the earth we live meet more than only one climate change problem, and the abuse of land is also a serious problem we need to focus on. Therefore, it is necessary to arose public attention on the problems we have not yet pay much attentions on. How to effectively and efficiently use farmland and avoid overuse of chemical pesticide are all problems we indeed need to focus on.
    However, the essay make a blunt comparison between climate change and the crisis of land use in many aspects, including the attention each problem attracted, the impacts of each problem, the situation each problem is in, etc, which make me feel uncomfortable. The focus of the author is to ask for public and government attentions on the crisis of land use, rather than compare everything with climate change. In the essay, along with author’s stressing on the importance of increase the focus on the land use problem, I have also notice author’s dissatisfaction that the climate change attract too many public attention and resources, though he did not say it directly.

  3. 3 Rosie Macgill 07/10/2009 at 9:24 pm

    I can’t help feeling that the author is missing something when he says by increasing attention towards climate change we are neglecting ‘a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security and sustainability of our civilization. I think the two are not separate but very closely linked. I feel that our attitude towards what we eat is going to have to change drastically in the next few years in response to concerns about climate change and global land use, in the same way that our attitude towards flying everywhere may well have to.
    In 2006, the UN issued a report entitled ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, directing attention towards the effects the meat and dairy industry have on global warming. And in September 2008, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, listed some shocking statistics about land use in relation to global warming.
    Meat-eating is continuously rising in popularity even though statistics say a vegan living for 70 years will pump an average of 100 tons less CO2-equivalent into the atmosphere than someone eating meat and dairy products. A farmer can feed up to 30 people throughout the year on one hectare with vegetables, fruits, cereals and vegetable fats. If the same area is used for the production of meat, milk or eggs, the number of persons fed varies from 5 to 10. If we continue to eat meat at the rate we do, we would have to double the amount of meat produced, however 70 per cent of all agricultural land and 30 per cent of the world’s surface land area is already given over to livestock.
    Eventually something will have to be done to change our attitude towards what we eat.

  4. 4 Marcus Ho Man KO 07/10/2009 at 10:59 pm

    The supply of farmland has been limited while the demand for food has been increasing due to the population boom. But urbanization is also an unstoppable process, meaning that more and more agricultural land would become parts of the cities. And so, how do we provide the global population with more food or at least prevent them from being starved?
    We try to invest in technology like gene modification while we keep the cost of production low. But GM food’s heath impact is unknown and so, people are skeptical about it. Also, the mass production of crops and meat are often monopolized by some big companies which have been accused of exploiting farmers and being cruel to animals – consumers are not able to obtain information concerning the manufacturing process.
    Moreover, we know that agricultural activities pose bunches of negative effects on the environment, causing soil erosion, emitting greenhouse gases and upsetting the nature. Surely, the expansion of these activities would aggravate these problems. Regulations have been set up to provide a fair environment for the producers to exploit the nature in a sustainable way. For example, fishing quotas have been assigned to different EU countries to ensure fishermen fish in a sustainable manner.

  5. 5 Liu Ka Yu, Athena 08/10/2009 at 12:09 am

    Thanks for uploading such a good topic and inspiring me a lot in thinking global problems or issues more.

    Ranging from the topics of slavery to water til now, global landuse, what inspires me most is the role played by the awareness of the public in all these global issues. Slavery, water scarcity and food problem seem so far away from me before I realize how serious they are and how they are now so close to us and our living environment.

    If I am not a student studying global studies, I will never have a chance to understand or have a look in all these global issues, which help me to broaden my thinking and my knowledge. I am wondering how can we arouse more public awareness. Sure, with more people get known to these problems, more attention and discussion will be resulted. More awareness will be aroused.
    Education is the key to global issues. Without education, it woulld be hard to promote the importance of humanity and human rights.

  6. 6 Wong Ching Hung 08/10/2009 at 4:16 am

    After reading this article, I had a strong sense of helplessness as it seemed all the problems in our world are intertwined in such a way that they cannot be dealt with separately. How can we on one hand meet the demand of food for the growing population and on the other hand control the adverse effects it brings to our climate? It truly needs countries’ co-operation and efforts as the problem is affecting us all.

    From the fourth report from the IPCC, it introduces the ideas that a lower population growth and a switch in diet from meat to crop can help lower the food demand, thus making an initial step to reduce effects produced by agriculture on global climate. On cropland practices, the report also draws attentions on various methods to create agricultural sustainability. For instance, it promotes rice management, as cultivated wetland rice emit significant quantities of methane. Methods like only draining wetland rice once or several times during growing season and water management in off-rice season by keeping the land as dry as possible and preventing water-logging can help reduce the adverse effects.

    And just now I read about some news knowing that the head of the Hong Kong Observatory spoke in a function concerning the rise in sea level. He warned us that some low- rise areas in Hong Kong such as Sheung Wan can be submerged if the sea level rises up to 2m as predicted globally. We really must face the problem immediately.

  7. 7 Cheung Wai, Irene 08/10/2009 at 10:23 pm

    We surely have more than one problem. Indeed, we’ve got so many problems in this world that require global colloboration to cope with.

    In the global arena, climate change has been considered as the most urgent problem and it has drawn global attention. So many films and documentaries are talking about this issue. The write suggests that climate change is important but global land use is as important and it’s being ignored in the world whereas everyone is talking about climate change.

    I do agree with the writer that “we now face a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilization”. It’s just like a cycle that never ends if we don’t take any action. I would say the environmental problem has much to do with the argricultural and landuse problem as well.

    But, given limited resources, would the countries put this into priority ? I mean, climate change alone is hard to solve and takes up so much money and resources already. Taken state interest into consideration, I just think that this problem will again take long years before it gains people’s awareness becuase it must involve cooperation, negotiation and compromise.

    By the way,I just have one thought. China, has so much land for agricultural purpose and it has the largest population. I just wonder what China will say about this problem.

  8. 8 Chiu Tsz Yin Rachel 09/10/2009 at 12:28 am

    Rapid population growth hence a stronger demand for fd and water is inevitable, The most important issue is as what Jonathan Foley has said in his article, we must be aware of these problems. Even decades ago we know that tropical deforestation is detrimental to the ecology system, yet it received little support because the problem did not feel as close. By educating the next generation of the harm that could be done to our environment and how it could directly influence our lives is important. Also, the outrageous demand of food could be reasonably reduced in order to help land use; for example the Grease Goblin published an article, ‘A Fact Sheet For Restaurant Waste Reduction’ has shown that, a report carried out by the National Restaurant Association, 20 percent of all food prepared commercially in the United States goes to waste. Perhaps we could encourage restaurants in providing different portion of dishes so customers are welcomed to choose smaller portion instead of wasting food. This allows cost saving of the restaurants and also reduce the demand of food which would be of assistance to the limited land use.

  9. 9 Veronica Cheung 09/10/2009 at 1:54 pm

    I agree that Global climate change and land use are closely linked together. The population of the Globe is ever increasing, people are struggling for places to live, food and water to intake and etc. Land use changes drastically over the past decades from agricultural to commercial and residential use. I think this changes is socially constructed for people linking making money with industries other than agriculture. With more skyscrapers and motor vehicles on the road, we are hampering the environment by contributing to air pollution. With environmental change, it posts great difficulties for farmers. I think the government should consider to give more incentive on investing into agricultural business and subsidising research and development on farming methods in order to attain a sustainable way. Increasing agricultural land or stoppage of further urbanization are also things that government should consider becuase land use control can improve the environment as well. Educating people that improving the place we are living in is a social responsibility that everyone should engage in, government can consider adding these topics starting in junior levels of schools and should widely spread the message to the general public.

  10. 10 Andrew Shen 09/10/2009 at 4:16 pm

    To be honest, I find the woes and warnings of environmentalists to be overstated and quite blown out of proportion. Often times tactics employed by environmentalists prey on human empathy and call for action now to prevent the impending doom of the world and the cries of future generations.

    This is not to say, however, that I don’t think something should be done about these environmentalist problems. I do agree that the excessive consumption of the human race does come at a price and that something should be done but there are other more pressing concerns elsewhere. Foley’s statement that “providing for the basic needs of 9 billion-plus people, without ruining the biosphere in the process, will be one of the greatest challenges our species has ever faced”, is one that I cannot agree with.

    I do agree, on the other hand, that awareness of these issues is of some importance. More and more of the world’s undeveloped land is being used for agriculture, the freshwater supplies are dwindling, and air pollution is definitely something that is getting out of hand. This is inevitable, however, due to rapid growth in human population. But at the same time, human ingenuity and greed will also inevitably bring about new technological developments that can possibly offset these issues.

    Agricultural scientists are constantly coming up with ways to improve crop yields per acreage, automotive engineers are constantly improving clean emissions technology, and as to freshwater waste and consumption, I’m certain that somewhere in the world, someone is trying to come up with an efficient method to make saltwater usable. Whether the people working on these developments are truly concerned with environmental issues or are simply motivated by the prospect of profit is something that should not matter in the least. In the end, land will be used more efficiently and with less waste. Isn’t that what Foley this exactly what Foley is calling for?

    It is one thing to be aware of these issues but to say that nothing is being done to alleviate them is denying individuals across the globe of due credit. The human race, when provided with proper incentive, is capable of great things.

    Furthermore, I am a firm believer that should a person have the means to obtain something, he or she should not be barred from obtaining it, assuming that the object of discussion is within legal boundaries. Moderation of consumption is an absolutely silly idea to me. If I should decide to work long hours in a cramped cubicle so that at the end of the day I can have a Big Mac meal with a Super Sized Fries and a Coke, just let me be selfish and enjoy my meal!


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