Some foods take more land to produce than others.
In this guide, we outline both the individual foods, as well as the food diet types that take the most and least land to produce.
We also look at how to potentially decrease the land footprint in a food diet based on this information.
This guide is complementary to our separate guides about what the most sustainable animal meats might be, and what the most sustainable overall foods and diets might be.
Summary – Foods & Food Diet Types That Take The Most Land To Produce
Taking into account the different indicators of agricultural land use, animal products like meat and dairy tend to use more land than plant based foods
When the crop land used to grow animal feed is added to the grazing/pastureland used for livestock, meat and dairy’s total land use increases
Of the different meats, beef in particular tends to use the most land, along with lamb/mutton being one of the more land intensive meats as well
It’s worth noting that sometimes the feeding operation can impact land use, such as CAFO vs open pasture/grazing operations, where a CAFO might be more land efficient (but may have other tradeoffs such as animal welfare issues, just as one example)
There are of course different ways to measure land efficiency of different foods, and even whole food diet types
When it comes to diet types, plant based diets can be more efficient per capita, but diets with more animal products in them can move up the rankings when measuring units of protein produced, and animal agriculture might be able to utilize land (such as grazing land) that crops can’t
Total Square Area For All Foods
In terms of specific foods, beef is the food that uses the most total square area of agricultural land worldwide
Total Square Area Of Cropland
When zero’ing down specifically on plant based crops, wheat, maize, rice and barley are the crops that take up the most total crop land worldwide
Per Gram Of Protein Produced
Per gram of protein produced, beef and lamb/mutton use the most average square land area by a significant margin over other foods
Chicken and pork as meats are more land efficient than beef and lamb/mutton, but still require more land than most plant based crops
Pulse, maize (corn) and rice use the least land
Animal meats tend to use the most, and plant based foods the least on average
In some instances, animal products and dairy products like cheese can rate high in land use above some meats like poultry
Per Calorie Produced
Once again, per calorie produced, cattle/beef requires the most land – more than other meats, and more than plant based staple foods
Something worth noting is that animal feed has to be converted to animal products (like meat and dairy), which then goes to humans for consumption (and sometimes to other livestock).
The more energy conversion stages there are, the more energy that sometimes has to be used or can be lost to produce certain foods.
A food like beef might take more energy to make than other meets and certain plant based foods when looking at certain measureables.
Some crops that go straight to humans for direct consumption (some estimates put the total number of crops that go straight to human at 55%) might go through less energy conversion stages, and lose less calories and energy as a result
Comparing Land Use To Calorie & Protein Provision By Different Foods For The Population
Another way to measure land use is to look at the amount of land a particular food requires for agiricultural production, and look at the % of nutrients like calories and protein it provides to the population, and compare those numbers and their proportions to other foods.
It can help figure out which foods are providing the most nutrients whilst being most land efficient (but – due diligence should still be done beyond these numbers to make sure foods are compared like for like with their nutrition, with just one example being the type of protein a food offers, and it’s amino acid profile breakdown)
Going on the raw land use and calorie/protein intake numbers for the population, beef uses up nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land (most of it for grazing, and a small % for animal fed according to one estimate), but accounts for less than 2% of the calories intake, and less than 5% of the protein intake of the world population.
Other meats like pork and poultry use less land.
Crops and plant based foods overall use far less land, and provide a proportionally bigger % of the world calorie and protein intake.
Comparing Beef To Other Meats & Plant Based Crop Foods
In the guide below, we outline how beef can be inefficient compared to other meats like pork and poultry from a land resource use perspective when comparing the % share of total meat consumption each meat type is responsible for, the total amount of agricultural land they use, and the % of world calories and protein they provide.
The same can be true when comparing beef to plant based foods.
Food Diet Types
There are different types of food diets, with an average American diet, an omnivorous, an ovolacto vegetarian, a lacto vegetarian, and vegan diet all being some of the range of options.
According to one study analysing the carrying capacity of US agricultural land …
– More plant based diets such as vegetarian and vegan based diets tend to use less land per capita compared to the average American diet and other diets with more animal products and additives like artificial sweeteners in them
– On a per unit of protein produced basis, some animal product diets can be more land efficient and move up the land efficiency rankings
– Animal product based diets and plant based diets both use about the same amount of cultivated land, but animals can make use of perennial and grazing land that crops can’t
So, there can be some advantages to some types of animal product diets in some instances
Decreasing The Land Footprint Of A Food Diet
Eating less animal meat in total, and specifically beef and lamb/mutton, is one way to lower the land footprint in a diet
Another way could be substituting beef for a less land intensive animal meat like chicken/poultry
Reducing other animal products like dairy can be another way
Lastly, adding more plant based edible crop foods to make up a higher % of the overall diet can help lower the diet land footprint
Amount Of Food Consumed
In addition to the types of foods eaten in an average diet, the amount of food eaten and the amount of calories and other nutrients consumed can all contribute to a person or country’s overall food land use footprint.
These numbers are a general starting point only, and not definitive. There’s many variables that can impact land efficiency numbers (such as the type of land available in an area, climate, farming method, yield/efficiency and more. There’s also economic, social and other environmental factors to consider.)
The land footprint given for any particular food will vary depending on where/how the food has been produced, what data has been used, and the final unit of measurement. For example, land use could be measured on total land use, per serving, per unit of weight (pounds, kilograms etc.), per calorie or kilocalorie, per gram of protein, per gram of fat, per gram of carbohydrates, land efficiency per capita per year, and so on.
The type of farming method may matter to land efficiency – CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) tend to be more land efficient, but might have tradeoffs such as more animal welfare issues and environmental problems, compared to pasture/grazing livestock systems. Smart, well managed pasture systems might be a potential answer to CAFOs as a middle ground
The type of land used is important in a land use calculation – some geographical areas only have one type of land available (grazing land for example, and little arable land), or may have a surplus of land, and in this case, higher land use may not be as much of a problem as in other places. Additionally, when less land is used to produce a certain type of food, it doesn’t always mean that land has an alternate use. On top of this, some land with livestock farming might have more additional ways to use the land compared to land with crops which might only be able to be used for that one use.
Food waste and food loss considerations have not been included in the guide below. Plant based foods are actually wasted at a greater % than some animal products. And, plant based foods are responsible for the the waste of some agricultural resources compared to animal product foods.
Every individual ultimately has to make their own decisions about their safety, health and nutritional requirements when it comes to food and diet. Not all foods have the same macro nutrients profile, and not all proteins are the same (full proteins vs partial proteins, and having a full amino acid profile vs not). Nutrition is something we have not analysed in the guide below
Solely plant based diets are not perfect, do have their own drawbacks, and may not be healthy for some groups of people with certain nutritional requirements and health conditions
It goes without saying that an individual should speak to a health or nutrition professional before making any changes to their food diet or lifestyle. This page contains general information only. It is not professional advice.
Foods That Use The Most Total Land Area Worldwide
In terms of a specific food, nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production (ucsusa.org)
Crops That Take Up The Most Total Cropland Worldwide, In Square Area
Going beyond animals meats and dairy, we can look at the crops that use up the most cropland area worldwide too.
Wheat, maize (corn), rice and barley lead the way here
agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com has a table that shows the 18 major crop categories, their total square area (in km2) of land they take up worldwide, and what that square area is as a relative fraction amongst all 18 major crops.
The top 6 crops in order are:
Wheat – 4028 (1000’s of km squared), and 22% of all cropland as a relative fraction
Maize – 2271km2, and 13%
Rice – 1956km2, and 11%
Barley – 1580km2, and 9%
Soybeans – 927km2, and 5%
Pulses – 794km2, and 4%
[In order, the other crops (in order after pulses from most land to least were) Cotton, Potatoes, Sorghum, Millet, Sunflower, Rye, Rapeseed/canola, Sugar cane, Groundnuts/peanuts, Cassava, Sugar beets, and Oil palm fruit
Total cropland of the major 18 crops was 15,256 (85%)
Other crops not listed equated to 2664 (15%)
All cropland equated to 17,920km2]
You can also read about the geographical distribution of these crops around the world in terms of what countries they are found in the agupubs resource
Foods That Use The Most Land, Per Gram Of Protein Produced
Beef, and lamb and mutton seems to use the most average square land area by a significant margin, when considering how much land is required to produce one unit of protein produced
Plant based crops in general, but specifically pulses, maize (corn) and rice use the least land
The average land use area to produce one unit of protein by food type, measured in metres squared per gram of protein is:
Beef [& Also Mutton] – 1.02m²
Pork – 0.13m²
Fresh Produce – 0.1m²
Poultry – 0.08m²
Eggs – 0.05m²
Dairy – 0.04m²
Wheat – 0.04m²
Rice – 0.02m²
Maize (corn) – 0.01m²
Pulses – 0.01m²
Beef production requires 20 times more land … per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas and lentils.
Chicken and pork are more resource-efficient than beef, but still require three times more land … than beans.
… the type of food eaten matters as much, if not more, than how that food is produced.
[Mean land use of different foods on a metres squared of land per 100g of protein produced basis:]
[Lamb and mutton is at 185, beef at 164 and cheese at 41]
[Pork is at 11, poultry 7.1, eggs 5.7, farmed fish 3.7, groundnuts 3.5, peas 3.4 and tofu 2.2]
Foods That Use The Most Land, Per Calorie Produced
Once again, per calorie produced, cattle/beef requires the most land – more than other meats, and more than plant based staple foods
Per calorie, cattle requires on average 28 times more land … to farm [than poultry, pork, dairy or eggs]
When compared with staple plant foods, these ratios roughly double …
… So, a beef calorie requires about 50 times more land than a wheat calorie.
Beef production requires large quantities of land and water per unit of protein or calorie consumed (wri.org)
The production of meat, milk and eggs leads to an enormous loss of calories grown in fields, since cereals and oil seeds have to be cultivated to feed to animals (globalagriculture.org)
It takes about 100 calories of grain to produce just 12 calories of chicken or 3 calories worth of beef, for instance (vox.com)
Just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people … [whilst] Another 36 percent is used for animal feed … And the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses
… in the United States … just 27 percent of crop calories are consumed directly — wheat, say, or fruits and vegetables grown in California … [and] more than 67 percent of crops — particularly all the soy grown in the Midwest — goes to animal feed. And a portion of the rest goes to ethanol and other biofuels.
Some of that animal feed eventually becomes food, obviously — but it’s a much, much more indirect process.
Comparing Land Use To Calorie & Protein Provision By Different Foods For The Population
Each food uses different amounts of land, but also provides a different % of both calories and protein to the human population.
The more land and the less nutrition a particular food provides the population, the less desirable it might be from an efficiency perspective.
Based on the numbers below, animal products, and specifically beef, might use proportionally far more total agricultural land compared to the % of calories and protein they provide the world population.
Crops on the other hand use less total land, but provide a higher proportion of calories and protein to the population.
When looking at these numbers, it’s important to consider factors such as the full nutritional and amino acid profiles and breakdown of each food, and look at the actual amount of suitable land each type of agricultural product has available.
If there’s far more grazing land available in the world that cropland for example, then it’s natural that far more livestock are going to be grazed than crops grown because of what land resources are available.
[Compared to the rest of agriculture, farmed animal products provide 18% of calories and 37% of protein, but use up 83% of agricultural land] (wikipedia.org)
[When looking at the 50% of all habitable land in the world that is used for agriculture …]
77% of agricultural land is used for meat and dairy production [livestock], and 23% for crops excluding feed
Meat and dairy only provides 17% of the global calorie supply, and 37% of the global protein supply
Crops excluding feed though provide 83% of the global calorie supply, and 63% of the global protein supply
The Potential Land Use Inefficiency Of Beef (Specifically), Compared To Other Meats & Foods
When comparing beef to other meats, beef might:
– Be consumed at the third highest % share, with pork and poultry both being consumed at a higher total share of all meats consumed
– But, use the most agricultural land (about 60% of all ag. land), and use more land than both pork and poultry
– And, not provide a very large % share of all calories and protein to the world’s population
So, beef may not be as resource efficient considering the output or food consumption that the world population gets back from producing it compared to other meats.
The same trend might be true when comparing beef to plant based crops/foods.
Beef vs Other Meats
Beef makes up about 24 percent of the world’s meat consumption … Poultry about 34 percent … and Pork more than 40 percent …
Beef cattle produce this meat using about 30 million square kilometers (km2 ) of land—27 million of that for grazing, and the rest for the feed and forage they eat … [and this total land equates to] 60% of the world’s agricultural land being used for beef production
But in terms of protein, less than 5 percent of what humanity consumes comes from beef, and in terms of calories, less than 2 percent.
… pork and poultry take less than 2 million km2 of land each
[one study found] that it takes about nine hectares of permanent pasture plus about three hectares of cropland to produce one ton of beef.
It compares with less than one hectare of cropland to produce one ton of poultry or pork.
[another study] calculated that ruminants (like cattle) need six hectares of land to produce a kilogram (kilo) of protein, while pork production needs only 3.6 hectares.
Beef vs Plant Based Crops
… [where it takes] nine hectares of permanent pasture plus about three hectares of cropland to produce one ton of beef … [comparatively] A totally vegetarian alternative using beans, peas, or other legumes reduces this area to 2.7 hectares (ucsusa.org)
More Information About Beef
Read more about the land footprint and sustainability footprint of beef in this guide.
The Type Of Livestock Feeding Operation Can Impact Land Efficiency
The type of feeding operation can impact land use efficiency.
CAFOs might be more land efficient that open pasture based system, but they come with potential tradeoffs.
Well managed pasture systems may be a middle ground in some instances.
CAFO’s (confined animal feeding operations) tend to be more land efficient than pasture based systems
But, they come with environmental, animal welfare and social costs such as nitrogen rich manure that pollutes, airborne ammonia, the use of antibiotics which can produce antibiotic bacteria, and cruel living conditions and practices on the animals inside them
Smart, well managed pasture systems produce meat and other animal products while avoiding many of the problems associated with CAFOs
Types Of Food Diets That Use The Most & Least Amount Of Land
A 2016 study outlined the carrying capacity of US agricultural land by analysis 10 different food diet types.
These diets ranged from the average American diet which is heavier in animal meat, dairy fats, and sweeteners, through to varying degrees of omnivore meat/plant diets, and lastly, vegetarian and vegan diets.
The diets did differ slightly in their macronutrient profiles, but all apart from the baseline diet had essentially the same caloric values (kcal per day provided)
The results were that as diets become predominantly plant food based, the required number of hectares to provide food for one person per year, decrease.
Diets with more animal meat, dairy and animal based products, increase the required number of hectares of land required per person per year, to provide food for that person (partly because of the land required to both grow animal feed, and raise the livestock themselves)
For example, 1.08 hectares per capita annually might be required for the average American diet, whilst 0.13-0.14 hectares per capita annually might be required for vegan and vegetarian type diets
However, per unit of protein produced – some animal based foods can be more land efficient than plant based ones (so, when measuring the different units of macronutrients produced – some animal food products can be more land efficient than on a per person fed measurement basis)
Another important consideration though is the type of land used.
Most diets use a similar amount amount of cultivated land, but the animal product based diets use more perennial and grazing land (the vegetarian and vegan diets don’t use any grazing land for example).
This is a big difference between livestock and crops – livestock can make use of grazing and pasture land that would otherwise be unusable for some purely crop based food production (some crops need more fertile land to grow too)
The type of land required by different food diets, and different individual foods, is therefore an important consideration (especially as each country and region might only have a certain amount of each type of land)
Food waste, land waste, crop and agricultural yield (land efficiency), farming method used, and substituting individual foods into custom diets (diet composition – exactly what foods are included in each type of diet and in what %’s) could all also change land footprint for food numbers.
Farming types and farming methods could change results (and newer food production technology like lab grown meat has different factors to consider)
The elementa figures below are in hectares of land required, per person, per year:
Baseline/Contemporary American Consumption Pattern Diet – 1.08 (hectares per capita annually)
Positive Control Diet (as per baseline except intake of fats and sweeteners is reduced to make diet energy-balanced) – 1.03
OMNI 100 Diet (100% of person-meals follow an omnivorous healthy diet pattern) – 0.93
OMNI 80 Diet (80% of person-meals follow an omnivorous healthy diet pattern, and 20% follow a ovo-lacto vegetarian healthy diet pattern.) – 0.79
OMNI 60 Diet (60% of person-meals follow an omnivorous healthy diet pattern, and 40% follow a ovo-lacto vegetarian healthy diet pattern.) – 0.65
OMNI 40 Diet (40% of person-meals follow an omnivorous healthy diet pattern, and 600% follow a ovo-lacto vegetarian healthy diet pattern.) – 0.46
OMNI 20 (20% of person-meals follow an omnivorous healthy diet pattern, and 80% follow a ovo-lacto vegetarian healthy diet pattern.) – 0.25
OVO Diet (Ovolacto vegetarian – Includes both eggs and dairy products.) – 0.14
LAC (Lacto vegetarian – Includes dairy products. Excludes eggs.) – 0.14
VEG (Vegan – Excludes all livestock products.) – 0.13
[The authors of the study at elementalscience.org note that in order to move to a more plant based diet, changes that have to be considered on a society wide and agricultural level might be ‘changes in agronomic and horticultural research, extension, farm operator knowledge, infrastructure, livestock management, farm and food policy, and international trade’]
[Read the full elementa study if you want to see the full food sub group breakdown of each type of diet]
There’s also other factors like local weather and soil conditions, economic conditions, population growth and the impact of future food demand, whether food production efficiency and yield is maxxed out, the eco impact of different farming methods, and other factors to consider when assessing the foods we grow and produce, and how the agricultural industry might be best operated.
To feed just one omnivorous human requires more than three acres of land while it takes one-sixth of an acre for a vegan (smithsonianmag.com)
Another study actually finds that higher quality diets that include a lot of plant based food (fruits and vegetables) actually waste less cropland compared to lower quality processed food, sweeteners and animal feed (essentially – the “Western diet”, characterized by high intake of refined carbohydrates, added sugar, sodium, and animal products, and low intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains)
The Average Diet Can Differ By Country
ourworldindata.org has a resource that outlines how the different average food diet composition varies by different countries.
They also indicate that per capita meat consumption rises as a country gets richer
They identify Japan as an outlier of some sort in that they are a high income country, but consume higher rates of seafood than other countries.
Decreasing The Land Footprint In The Foods An Individual Eats
Below is an outline of how it might be possible to decrease the land footprint in an individual’s diet, by identifying the types of diets and also individual foods that take more or less land to produce.
It should be noted though that this is theoretical only, and not advice or a recommendation.
There’s the options to reduce the intake of, substitute or eliminate certain foods from a diet.
1. Reducing beef intake, as well as lamb and mutton
2. Switching from beef or lamb/mutton, to a meat like chicken
3. Reduce intake of animal meat and animal product based food altogether (like dairy), and consume more plant based foods
4. Eating a predominantly vegetarian or vegan food diet (involving pulses, corn, rice, wheat, eggs and possibly fruits and vegetables) might use the least total land, or be the most land efficient diet.
5. Eat foods from land efficient agricultural systems that also place emphasis on animal welfare and environmental impact
… substituting beef with chicken would reduce the land footprint of your dietary meat source 10 to 15-fold (ourworldindata.org)
Types Of Food Diets
1. When talking about reducing the number of hectares of land required to feed each person, per year, plant based diets (vegetarian and vegan) might be more land efficient than animal product based ones and more Americanized diets (high in animal meats, added fats like plant oil, dairy fat and animal fat, sweeteners, etc.). Other sources categorize Westernized diets as having a high intake of refined carbohydrates, added sugar, sodium, and animal products, and low intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Plant based diets might include foods like grains, fruit and vegetables, beans and lentils, peas, rice, fruits, cow’s milk, nuts, tofu (some of these foods may not have a low land footprint by themselves, but as part of a whole plant based diet, they can contribute to a lower total land footprint)
It is worth noting though that animal products can have higher land efficiency in some instances on a per unit of protein bases, or where predominantly only non cultivated land is available.
More Info On Decreasing Food Diet Land Footprint
ourworldindata has more info available and charts available in their resource
Decreasing intake of beef, lamb/mutton, cheese, dairy, milk and pig meat – might be some of the most land intensive foods per 100g of protein produced.
Farmed prawns, tofu (soybeans), peas, groundnuts, fish (farmed), grains, eggs and poultry might be some of the least land intensive.
Two Case Studies On Decreasing Land Footprint Through Diet
Below are two wri.org case studies on decreasing land footprint through diet
Case Study 1
The writer notes that 85 percent of the GHG emissions and 90 percent of the agricultural land use associated with the average American diet come from animal meat and dairy, and about half of the emissions and land use are from beef alone.
The land required for this food and the greenhouse gas emissions produced (for an average American diet) is nearly twice as high as the world average.
Shifting from beef to chicken, and cutting meat, dairy, fish and egg consumption by half – will decrease your environmental impact of your diet by 15%, and almost 50% respectively.
Case Study 2
Diets with beef reduction scenarios can reduce per person land use and greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent (replacing one-third of beef consumption with other meats or legumes) to 35 percent (reducing beef consumption by 70 percent, down to the world average level).
The average American could cut their diet-related environmental impacts by nearly one half just by eating less meat and dairy, or by cutting meat/dairy/fish/egg consumption in half
Eating less beef protein and animal protein could save between 310 and 640 million hectares (766 million to 1.6 billion acres) of agricultural land, with a vegetarian diet even more.
Reducing consumption of animal-based foods among the world’s wealthier populations could free up significant amounts of land—possibly enabling the world to feed 10 billion people by 2050 without agriculture further expanding into forests.
Land Footprints Of Specific Foods
We’ve written sustainability footprint guides elsewhere on the site that include land footprint information:
Read more about the land footprint and sustainability footprint of chocolate in this guide.
5. Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2018) – “Yields and Land Use in Agriculture”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/yields-and-land-use-in-agriculture’ [Online Resource]
21. Peters, C.J., Picardy, J., Darrouzet-Nardi, A.F., Wilkins, J.L., Griffin, T.S. and Fick, G.W., 2016. Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios. Elem Sci Anth, 4, p.000116. DOI: http://doi.org/10.12952/journal.elementa.000116 (https://www.elementascience.org/articles/10.12952/journal.elementa.000116/#)