Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture

More than three-quarters of global agricultural land is used for livestock, despite meat and dairy making up a much smaller share of the world's protein and calories.

The most visible mark that humanity has left on the planet is the transformation of wild habitats into farmland.

If we rewind 1000 years, it is estimated that only 4 million square kilometers — less than 4% of the world’s ice- and desert-free land was used for farming.

In the visualization, we see the breakdown of global land area today. Around 10% is covered by glaciers, and a further 14% by deserts and other barren land. The rest is what researchers call ‘habitable land’.

Almost half (44%) of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture.1 In total it is an area of 48 million square kilometers (km2). That’s around five times the size of the United States.2

Croplands make up one-third of agricultural land, and grazing land makes up the remaining two-thirds.3

However, only half of the world’s croplands are used to grow crops that are consumed by humans directly. We use a lot of land to grow crops for biofuels and other industrial products, and an even bigger share is used to feed livestock.4

If we combine global grazing land with the amount of cropland used for animal feed, livestock accounts for 80% of agricultural land use. The vast majority of the world’s agricultural land is used to raise livestock for meat and dairy.

Crops for humans account for 16%. And non-food crops for biofuels and textiles come to 4%.5

Despite the vast amount of land used for livestock animals, they contribute quite a small share of the global calorie and protein supply. Meat, dairy, and farmed fish provide just 17% of the world’s calories, and 38% of its protein.6

Series of 6 bar charts showing the breakdown of global land. 45% of habitable land is used for farming. 80% of this is for livestock.

We can also see the simple breakdown of how the world’s land is used in the chart below. As you can see, the area of land used for livestock — including grazing land and croplands for animal feed — is as large as the entire Americas.

Croplands — used for direct human food and non-food uses such as biofuels — are as large as the land area of China.

Single bar chart showing the breakdown of global land use. Land for livestock is equal to the entire Americas. Croplands are equal to China.

The world can use much less land for farming

The long-run historical trend of expanding farmland does not have to continue. There are ways that we can cut agricultural land use — by a lot.

By shifting towards more plant-based diets, we would save large amounts of land through reductions in grazing land, and croplands for animal feed. By moving away from biofuels we would free up land that is currently used to grow cereals, vegetable oils, and other feedstocks.

And by improving the productivity of land use — whether using more efficient grazing lands or increasing crop yields — we can continue to produce more food, using less land.

This would be a huge win if we want to preserve the world’s biodiversity. Food production is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss across the world. This was true for most of our history and is still true today.


  1. This data is sourced from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Other studies confirm this distribution of global land: in an analysis of how humans have transformed global land use in recent centuries, Ellis et al. (2010) found that by 2000, 55% of Earth’s ice-free (not simply habitable) land had been converted into cropland, pasture, and urban areas. This left only 45% as ‘natural’ or ‘semi-natural’ land.

    Ellis, E. C., Klein Goldewijk, K., Siebert, S., Lightman, D., & Ramankutty, N. (2010). Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 19(5), 589-606.

    The major uncertainty — and explanation for discrepancies — in these assessments is the allocation of ‘rangelands’: in some regions, it can be difficult to accurately quantify how much of rangelands are used for grazing, and how much is free from human pressure. Despite this uncertainty, most analyses tend to conclude that close to half of habitable land is used for agriculture.

  2. The land area of the United States is around 9.2 million km2. Multiplied by 5, gives us 46 million km2. Note that when inland water bodies and coastal waters are included, the surface area of the US is 9.8 million km2. Agricultural land would then be 4.9 times the size of the US.

  3. This data is also from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Cropland area is around 16 million km2 (1.6 billion hectares), which is one-third of 48 million km2.

  4. The UN FAO does not provide breakdowns of the amount of land directly devoted to feed, food, and industrial production. It does provide this in tonnage terms, however, converting this to area estimates is complex, especially when co-products are considered.

    To get the breakdown of cropland areas, we have combined the UN FAO land use areas with the share of area given to food, feed, and non-food uses from the 2018 paper in Science from Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek. It is the largest meta-analysis of global food systems to date, covering 38,700 commercially viable farms in 119 countries and 40 products representing around 90% of global protein and calorie consumption.

    Poore and Nemecek estimate that 50% of croplands are used for human food; 38% is for livestock feed; and 12% is for non-food uses.

    You can find this breakdown in table S10 of the paper’s Supplementary Information.

    This is very similar to the animal feed figures reported in a separate UN report, which estimated that one-third of croplands are used for feed production. We chose not to use these figures directly since they are unreferenced, and don’t provide further context of food and non-food uses. However, it does provide a useful cross-check that these sources find similar results.

  5. Grazing land for livestock can also be split between food and non-food products such as leather, hides, and other industrial products. Poore and Nemecek (2018) estimate that 87% of grazing land is for meat and dairy production, and the remaining 13% is for non-food uses.

  6. All of the following numbers come from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They can be found on its FAOSTAT database.

    40% of the world’s protein comes from animal products, and 60% from plant-based foods. However, seafood is also included in animal products here. Around 57% of this comes from aquaculture — which requires some land to grow fish feed — while the other 43% is from wild catch, which does not use land.

    Excluding seafood, animal products account for 36% of the world’s protein supply. Based on FAO data, the average supply of protein from non-seafood animal products is 28 grams per person. From plant-based products, it’s 51 grams. That gives a breakdown of 36% from animal products and 64% from plants.

    However, we need to include seafood from aquaculture as aquaculture requires land, as mentioned before. The average protein supply from seafood is 5.6 grams per person per day. If we assume 57% comes from aquaculture, that’s 3.2 grams of protein from seafood from aquaculture. Adding aquaculture protein to the protein supply from meat and dairy sums up to 31 grams of protein per person. The breakdown, then, is 38% protein from animal products, and 62% from plants.

    When we calculate these numbers for calories in the same way, we get 18% from animal products when all seafood is included. However, when we exclude wild catch, this drops to 17%. The remaining 83% comes from plant-based foods.

    This is very similar to the results presented by Poore and Nemecek (2018), which estimate that 18% of calories are from plants and 37% of protein is from animal products.

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Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) - “Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture” Published online at Retrieved from: '' [Online Resource]

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    author = {Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser},
    title = {Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2019},
    note = {}
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