Land Use

How is humanity using the Earth’s land? And how can we decrease our land use so that more land is left for wildlife?

The focus of this topic page is land use for agriculture. But we are also studying other uses of land, including land required for human settlement.

Agriculture is a major use of land. Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. The extensive land use has a major impact on the earth's environment as it reduces wilderness and threatens biodiversity.

Reducing the consumption of resource-intensive products and increasing the productivity of land makes it possible to produce food with much smaller inputs and reducing the impact on the environment.

See all interactive charts on Land Use ↓

Breakdown of global land use today

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

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.

How has global land use changed over the long-term?

The visualisation shows human land use over the long-term (since 10,000 BC), and details the change in total land used for cropland, grazing land and built-up/urban area in hectares. This can also be viewed by select countries and all regions using the "change country/region" option.

Agricultural land use over the long-run

Total agricultural land use

This visualisation shows total land used for agriculture (which is a combination of cropland and grazing land) over the long-term, measured in hectares. In the following sections you can find disaggregated data for cropland and grazing land change over time.

Cropland use

This visualisation shows total cropland (which does not include land for grazing) over the long-term, measured in hectares.

Grazing land use

This visualisation shows total grazing land over the long-term, measured in hectares.

How much land do countries use for agriculture?

We use roughly half of global habitable land for agriculture. But how much of total land area is utilised for agriculture across the world? In the map here we see the share of total (both habitable and non-habitable) land area used for agriculture.

There is large variability in the share of land a given country uses for agriculture. Allocation ranges from less than ten percent, particularly across countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Scandinavian region to close to 80 percent across most regions (including the UK, Uruguay, South Africa, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia). It's important to note that this metric includes both land used for arable (cropland) production and pasture land for livestock grazing; this means that agriculture can consume a large share of land area, even in arid and semi-arid regions where extensive arable farming is not possible. We will explore this difference in cropland and pastureland in the following section.

If we view the map in "chart" mode, we see how the allocation of land to agriculture has changed over time across the global regions. The share of land used for agriculture has been slowly increasing across most of the world's regions over the past few decades. However, land use across Europe and Central Asia- particularly within the European Union (EU) zone- and North America has been declining.

Arable agriculture (cropland)

There are two main uses of agricultural land: arable farming (which is land dedicated to growing crops), and pastureland (which includes meadows and pastures used for livestock rearing). In the chart here we see a global map of land used for arable agriculture (as a share of total land area).

For most countries, as we will show in the section below, land use for livestock grazing is dominant relative to arable farming. For most countries, land dedicated to cropland is typically below 20 percent, with many countries dedicating less than 10 percent. There are some notable exceptions, however;  countries in South Asia and Europe allocate a large share of land area to arable farming. India, Bangladesh, Ukraine and Denmark all dedicated more than half of total land area to cropland in 2015.

Pastureland (permanent meadows and pasture)

For most countries, the majority of agricultural land is used for livestock rearing in the form of pastureland. In the map here we see the share of permanent meadows and pasture as a percentage of total land area.

As a contrast to arable farming, land use for livestock in Europe and South Asia, in particular, is typically less than 20 percent. However, most continental regions have countries where pastureland reaches close to half of total land area. In some countries (particularly in Central Asia, including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) this can reach up to 70 percent. Livestock farming can take place across a range of diverse climatic and environmental regions (for example, ranging from cattle rearing in temperate regions to sheep farming in hilly and semi-arid terrain); meaning that this type of agriculture is potentially less geographically-constrained than arable farming.

Cropland use per person

Cropland per person over the long-term

The visualisation here shows the change in the average cropland use per person over the long-term (since 10,000 BC), measured in hectares per person.

Cropland use per person in the near-term

Global population has more than doubled over the last 50 years. To meet the demands of a rapidly growing population on a planet with finite land resources, reducing our per capita land footprint is essential.

In the chart here we have plotted trends of the average arable land use per person across the world's regions. Overall we see that the arable land use per capita has declined across all regions since 1961. Per capita land use is highest in North America-- more than double the land use of any other region. Land use in Asia-- both in South and East Asia is lowest (5-6 times less than in North America). Rates of reduction in South Asia have been the most dramatic; per capita land use in 2014 was roughly one-third of its value in 1961.

Agricultural land use per person

Agricultural land per person over the long-term

The visualisation shows the change in the average agricultural land use (which is the sum of cropland and grazing area) per person over the long-term (since 10,000 BC), measured in hectares per person.

Agricultural land per person over the near-term

If we extend our land coverage above from arable land use to total agricultural land (which is the sum of arable, permanent crops and pastures and meadows), we still see overall declines in land per person but with different rates and patterns of reduction. Overall, we see that agricultural land per person is higher than that of arable land. At the global level, per capita agricultural land use is now less than half its value in 1961.

Africa in particular has seen dramatic reductions in agricultural land per person - now less than one-third of per capita land 50 years ago. The Americas (North and South) and Africa have notably higher per capita agricultural land use relative to Europe and Asia.

Land use by crop

In the chart here we see the global area of land use in agriculture by major crop types, from 1961 to 2014. Overall, we see that the majority of our arable land is used for cereal production; this has grown from around 650 to 720 million hectares (an area roughly twice the size of Germany) over this period. The total land area used for coarse grains has remained approximately constant over this 50 year period, and is the 2nd largest user of arable land.

The most dramatic increase in land allocation is in the production of oilcrops. Total land area used for oilcrop production has increased almost 3-fold since 1961-- an area just short of the size of Mexico. All other crop types take up less than 100 million hectares of global area.

Land use by food type

The amount of land required to produce food has wide variations depending on the product--this is especially true when differentiating crops and animal products. In the chart here we have plotted the average land required (sometimes termed the "land footprint") to produce one gram of protein across a range of food types.

At the bottom of the scale, we see that cereal crops typically have a small land impact per unit of protein (although such protein is often lacking in some essential amino acids). At the upper end of the spectrum we find meat products, with the land required for beef or mutton up to 100 times larger than cereals. However, it's important to note the differences in land required across the meat products: poultry and pork have a land footprint 8-10 times lower than that of beef. This means individuals can make notable reductions in the environmental impact of their diets simply by substituting lower-impact meat products for beef or mutton.

Arable land needed per unit of crop production

This visualization shows the index of the arable land area needed to produce an equivalent aggregate of crop production, relative to the land area needed in 1961 i.e. values in 1961 are equal to 1.0. For example, globally in 2014, the index value was 0.3; this means only 30% of the arable land area was needed to produce the same quantity of crops relative to 1961. 70% less land was needed.

This data can be viewed for other countries and regions by selecting 'add country' on the chart.

The crop production index (PIN) is the sum of crop commodities produced (after deductions of quantities used as seed and feed). It is weighted by the commodity prices. The FAO explains the construction of the PIN in detail here.

The idea for this chart is taken from Ausubel, Wernick, and Waggoner (2013).7

The authors write:

A combination of agricultural technologies raised yields, keeping downward pressure on the extent of cropland, sparing land for nature.

Countering the global rise of population and affluence by parents and workers, consumers and farmers restrained the expansion of arable land by changing tastes and lifting yields. The noticeable shrinkage in the extent of cropland as a function of the Crop Production index since 1990 provides encouragement that farmers will continue sparing land.


Land use categories

The following discussions on global land use (particularly in relation to agriculture) cover a number of definitions and combined categories. It is therefore useful to understand the differences between land use terminology; for example, the definition of "arable land" versus "agricultural land".

To provide some clarity on the definitions used here (and the common terminology within the literature) we have visualised these land use categories and groupings in the chart shown here. Also shown are the definitions of each. The groupings and definitions shown below are based on the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and should therefore be consistent with most international data sources.

Definitions of agricultural land use

The Land Area of the World is 13,003 million ha. 4,889 million ha are classified as 'agricultural area' by the FAO (this is 37.6% of the Land Area).

The agricultural area use is divided into 3 categories: arable land (28% of the global agricultural area), permanent crops (3%) and permanent meadows and pastures (69%) which account for the largest share of the world's agricultural area.8

What do these words mean?

The agricultural area is the sum of arable land, permanent crops, permanent meadows and pastures.

The FAO definition for arable land is land under temporary agricultural crops (multiple-cropped areas are counted only once), temporary meadows for mowing or pasture, land under market and kitchen gardens and land temporarily fallow (less than five years). The abandoned land resulting from shifting cultivation is not included in this category. Data for “Arable land” are not meant to indicate the amount of land that is potentially cultivable.'9

The same source defines permanent crops as follows: 'Permanent crops are divided into temporary and permanent crops. Permanent crops are sown or planted once, and then occupy the land for some years and need not be replanted after each annual harvest, such as cocoa, coffee and rubber. This category includes flowering shrubs, fruit trees, nut trees and vines, but excludes trees grown for wood or timber. And again from the same source the definition for permanent meadows and pastures is 'land used permanently (five years or more) to grow herbaceous forage crops, either cultivated or growing wild (wild prairie or grazing land).'

The FAO definition for fallow land is 'the cultivated land that is not seeded for one or more growing seasons. The maximum idle period is usually less than five years.'

Data Sources

FAO Statistical Database (FAOstat)

Interactive charts on land use


  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 uncertainties – 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 cropland area is 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 in Poore and Nemecek (2018) which estimate 18% of calories from plants and 37% of protein from animal products.

  7. Jesse H. Ausubel, Iddo K. Wernick, Paul E. Waggoner (2013) – Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing. Population and Development Review, Volume 38, Issue Supplement s1, pages 221–242, February 2013. DOI: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2013.00561.x. Online here.

  8. These numbers are taken from FAO (2013) – Statistical Yearbook. Table 4. Online here.

    For comparison: The area of the USA, Canada and China are all short of 1,000 million ha (USA 963 million ha, China 932 million ha, Canada 909 million ha).

  9. This is the definition given by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in their glossary that is online here.

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    author = {Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser},
    title = {Land Use},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2019},
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