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

Our World in Data presents the empirical evidence on global development in entries dedicated to specific topics.
This blog post draws on data and research discussed in our entry on Land Use.

For much of human history, most of the world’s land was wilderness: forests, grasslands and shrubbery dominated its landscapes. Over the last few centuries, this has changed dramatically: wild habitats have been squeezed out by turning it into agricultural land.

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

In the visualization we see the breakdown of global land area today. 10% of the world is covered by glaciers, and a further 19% is barren land – deserts, dry salt flats, beaches, sand dunes, and exposed rocks.1 This leaves what we call ‘habitable land’. Half of all habitable land is used for agriculture.2

This leaves only 37% for forests; 11% as shrubs and grasslands; 1% as freshwater coverage; and the remaining 1% – a much smaller share than many suspect – is built-up urban area which includes cities, towns, villages, roads and other human infrastructure. 

There is also a highly unequal distribution of land use between livestock and crops for human consumption. If we combine pastures used for grazing with land used to grow crops for animal feed, livestock accounts for 77% of global farming land. While livestock takes up most of the world’s agricultural land it only produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of total protein.3

The expansion of agriculture has been one of humanity’s largest impacts on the environment. It has transformed habitats and is one of the greatest pressures for biodiversity: of the 28,000 species evaluated to be threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, agriculture is listed as a threat for 24,000 of them.4 But we also know that we can reduce these impacts – both through dietary changes, by substituting some meat with plant-based alternatives and through technology advances. Crop yields have increased significantly in recent decades, meaning we have spared a lot of land from agricultural production: globally, to produce the same amount of crops as in 1961, we need only 30% of the farmland.

With solutions from both consumers and producers, we have an important opportunity to restore some of this farmland back to forests and natural habitats.

Global land use graphic