Our Agricultural Footprint Can’t Go On Like This

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

When you break down how land in the U.S. gets used, acre by acre, almost half of the country is dedicated to livestock

  • Add up the space used for pasture and grazing plus the agricultural land used to grow livestock feed crops, and 41% of the country is dedicated to animals, mostly cows that people will eventually eat. 

This land used to be wild, and it could be wild again. However, the trend is currently moving in the opposite direction. Croplands expanded by 1 million acres a year from 2008-2016, but that land is less productive than the national average and is exceedingly harmful to wildlife. 

Why this Matters: If land cleared for agriculture expands at its current trajectory, feeding everyone on earth alone would wipe out the rest of our forests, drive thousands of species to extinction, and release emissions that would far exceed Paris Agreement targets, according to a report by the World Resources Institute, the World Bank, and the United Nations. Avoiding that fate means both increasing food production without expanding agricultural land and restoring ecosystems. Simultaneously reducing meat consumption and rewilding the land once needed for it would both reduce emissions and create new carbon sinks. 

Vertical farming for livestock: One solution to using less land for livestock feed crops? Vertical farms

While many of these warehouses lit by colored LED lights are growing greens like lettuce, one agriculture tech company is using 857 square feet to grow the feed of 35-50 acres. “[If] we’re going to feed 2.5 billion more people in the next 30 years than we have today, and we have to do it with arguably less land and less water because of climate change, this technology is profoundly important,” Steve Lindsley, the president of Grōv Technologies, told Smithsonian Magazine

However, there’s a caveat to any indoor vertical farm, whether for livestock or greens: it’s replacing free sunlight with the energy cost of running lights for 12+ hours a day. The farms use more energy, cost more money to run, and therefore tend to produce food that’s even more expensive than organic items. 

Go Deeper: Pondering the ethics of your favorite meat-based meal? The Counter, a nonprofit newsroom that’s focused on how and what America eats published a series on the carnivore’s dilemma and the environmental, labor, and economic issues that intersect around meat, including a deep dive into the question “can you really be a conscious carnivore?” 


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