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Global land use implications of dietary trends

Global food security and agricultural land management represent two urgent and intimately related challenges that humans must face. The authors quantify the changes in the global agricultural land footprint if the world were to adhere to the dietary guidelines put forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), while accounting for the land use change incurred by import/export required to meet those guidelines.

They analyze data at country, continental, and global levels. USDA guidelines are viewed as an improvement on the current land-intensive diet of the average American, but despite this the results show that global adherence to the guidelines would require 1 gigahectare of additional land—roughly the size of Canada—under current agricultural practice.

The results also show a strong divide between Eastern and Western hemispheres, with many Western hemisphere countries showing net land sparing under a USDA guideline diet, while many Eastern hemisphere countries show net land use increase under a USDA guideline diet.

The authors conclude that national dietary guidelines should be developed using not just health but also global land use and equity as criteria. Because global lands are a limited resource, national dietary guidelines also need to be coordinated internationally, in much the same way greenhouse gas emissions are increasingly coordinated.


Increasing pressures on land and other natural resources such as water is largely attributed to the increase in demand for agricultural products [1]. The agricultural sector is extremely resource-intensive and continues to transform itself as populations grow. Global food production is the largest user of fresh water and uses approximately 38% of the land on Earth [1,2]. An estimated 62% of the remaining global land surface is either unsuitable for cultivation on account of soil, climate topography, or urban development (30%) or is covered in natural land states like forests (32%), so very little land is available for agricultural expansion that does not destroy native land states. Hence, more efficient agricultural production is urgently needed [3].

However, approximately 12% of the world remains undernourished [2]. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the world will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to meet increased demand [3]. The global food system is at a point of change where a thorough understanding of the relationship between food consumption patterns, agricultural production and distribution is required to improve the overall sustainability of the system [4]. It has become important now more than ever to make global agricultural production both sustainable and equitable.

The global distribution of diet may play a major role in achieving this goal. Food consumption patterns vary widely between countries. Read the full text open access article here.

Secondary Source:  If the world ate the USDA-recommended diet, there wouldn't be enough land to grow it

The researchers also analyzed the current yield data by country and continent and found:

  • Australia, Brazil and the United States could spare the most land, while India, Mozambique and Saudi Arabia required the most land to meet the USDA guidelines.
  • North America, South America and Oceania could spare significant amounts of land if they adhered to the less land-intensive diet, while Africa, the European Union and Asia would require more agricultural land.