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Land Use, Energy, and Emissions in Agriculture

In this section, we review major environmental impacts of agriculture, including land use, energy consumption, and greenhouse gases. We review farming's water needs separately.

Agricultural Land Use

Agriculture is the largest land use impact that humans exert [11].

See our land use analysis for more information on data sources.

Since 1961, world cropland area has been steadily growing, while pasture land may have peaked [2].

Source: FAOSTAT [8].

Following are estimates of land use required by particular crops.

Area needs of plant-based crops are taken from FAOSTAT [8], with their Nutritive Factors database [7] to convert to a calorie basis. Area needs for meat is taken from Clark and Tilman [6]. Fish are assumed to be produced through aquaculture, using the area estimates to grow feedstock for the United States, as reported by Froehlich et al. [9].

Energy in Agriculture

Agriculture, including upstream energy to manufacture equipment, fertilizers, and pesticides, accounts for about 4% of world energy consumption.

Sources: Audsley et al. [1], Bennetzen et al. [4], Building Energy Codes Program [5], FAOSTAT [8], IRRI [10].

Wealthier countries tend to have higher crop yields and higher energy inputs, suggesting a tradeoff between land use and energy consumption in agriculture [12]. In 2011, energy accounted for over 30% of corn, sorghum, and rice production costs [3], underscoring the importance of energy as a factor in food affordability.

The growing of crops is just a portion of energy consumption in the larger food system.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Agriculture is responsible for about 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions.

Sources of greenhouse gases worldwide, with warming potential assessed by carbon dioxide equivalency. Source: FAOSTAT [8].

Other aspects of the world food system, such as packaging and transportation, contribute 15-25% of the emissions detailed above [13].

Following are estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from select foods.

Source: Clark and Tilman [6].

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[1] Audsley, E., Stacey, K., Parsons, D., Williams, A. "Estimation of the greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural pesticide manufacture and use". Cranfield University, prepared for Crop Protection Association. August 2009.

[2] Ausubel, J., Wernick, I., Waggoner, P. "Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing". Population and Development Review (Supplement) 38, pp. 221-242. February 2013.

[3] Beckman, J., Borchers, A., Jones, C. "Agriculture’s Supply and Demand for Energy and Energy Products". United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Economic Information Bulletin Number 112. May 2013.

[4] Bennetzen, E., Smith, P., Porter, J. "Decoupling of greenhouse gas emissions from global agricultural production: 1970–2050". Global Change Biology 22(2), pp. 763-781. October 2015.

[5] Building Energy Codes Program. "Prototype Building Models High-rise Apartment". Building Technologies Office, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U. S. Department of Energy. April 2011.

[6] Clark, M., Tilman, D. "Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice". Environmental Research Letters 12(6). June 2017.

[7] Food and Agriculture Organization. "Nutritive Factors". Accessed January 7, 2020.

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. "FAOSTAT".

[9] Froehlich, H., Runge, C., Gentry, R., Gaines, S., Halpern, B. "Comparative terrestrial feed and land use of an aquaculture-dominant world". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115(20), pp. 5295-5300. May 2018.

[10] International Rice Research Institute. "World Rice Statistics Online Query Facility". Accessed January 8, 2020.

[11] Roser, M., Ritchie, H. "Land Use". Our World in Data. Accessed March 23, 2019.

[12] Schneider, U., Smith, P. "Energy intensities and greenhouse gas emission mitigation in global agriculture". Energy Efficiency 2, pp. 195-206. December 2008.

[13] Vermeulen, S., Campbell, B., Ingram, J. "Climate Change and Food Systems". Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37, pp. 195-222. November 2012.