Inefficiencies in Global Land Use Create Waste, Health Problems and Environmental Pollution

Report Offers Solutions to Reduce Waste

Published Nov 13, 2013 Updated Nov 18, 2013

WASHINGTON (November 13, 2013) – Food is wasted on a daily basis in all corners of the globe. Steak is left on plates at restaurants, milk spoils without refrigeration, and grain is consumed by pests rather than baked into bread. These losses are substantial, but there is an even more significant type of agriculture waste that largely goes unnoticed, namely inefficient land use. The planet produces far less food and other crops than it could as a result of tremendous inefficiencies in land use, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Not only does this waste limit the amount of food available, it also has far-reaching consequences for human health and the climate.

The report, “Climate-Friendly Land Use: Paths and Policies Toward a Less Wasteful Planet,” examines different approaches to land use to minimize waste from the production of beef, palm oil, bioenergy production and the forest industry.

“There is no Planet B, which is why we need a Plan B,” said Doug Boucher, director of UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and director of climate research & analysis, and an author of the report. “We have to use the land we have more productively to eliminate waste and avoid damaging the climate for future generations.”

A common misconception is that the growing population is primarily responsible for increasing demand for food. It is predicted that the demand for food must be increased by approximately 60 percent by 2050. However, the expected growth of the world’s population to 9 billion by 2050 will only account for a 30 percent increase in demand for food.

“In fact, global population growth has been slowing for the past few decades, but as many countries develop as Western nations have, diets are changing and demand for climate-damaging foods such as beef is mounting,” said Boucher.

The real driver behind the growing demand for food is changes in consumption patterns. As purchasing power increases, consumers, such as the growing middle class in China, Brazil and Mexico, are eating more animal-based products. This so-called “nutritional transition,” is driving the increased demand for meat, other animal products, vegetable oils and sugar, while decreasing consumption of grains and root crops. This transition towards consuming more animal-based products can lead to health problems including obesity, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Raising beef is also especially problematic from a land use perspective. When compared with alternatives, like chicken and pork, beef uses larger amounts of land, requires more feed, and generates higher quantities of global warming emissions. Producing a ton of beef requires about 20 times more land on average than an equal amount of chicken or pork. Yet the beef production enterprise actually produces relatively little food. In fact, it represents less than 5 percent of the protein and fewer than 2 percent of the calories that our current population consumes.

“In terms of the most wasteful, inefficient food, beef is a chief offender. Beef might be what’s for dinner, but it shouldn’t be,” said Boucher. “Replacing beef with chicken, eggs, pork and milk will greatly reduce the amount of land needed to raise these products and eliminate some of the wastefulness present within the global food system.”

Smart policies that shift consumption and land use patterns in less wasteful directions are vital to creating a healthier and more productive planet. In addition to reducing beef consumption, the report identifies a number of other policy solutions to address the inefficiencies inherent within the land use practices for producing palm oil, bioenergy and wood products.

Oil palm is a highly productive tree crop that grows on abandoned land and can sequester substantial amounts of carbon if grown in these areas. However, rapid growth in palm oil production has instead led to a substantial increase in carbon emissions as tropical forests are cleared for new palm oil plantations. The report suggests avoiding the expansion of palm oil production onto forests and peat soils as a means of reducing carbon emissions.

Growing crops for bioenergy production, whether for electric power or biofuels, has the potential to create indirect land-use effects that lead to global warming emissions in other countries. The report recommends eliminating fixed mandates for biofuels and limiting it to lands that have low carbon stocks.

Finally, using natural forests, as opposed to secondary forests or tree plantations, for wood products represents another source of inefficiency. Producing tropical wood on plantations is estimated to produce from three to ten times as much commercially valuable wood per hectare as mature natural forests. The wood-products industry could produce wood more efficiently with fewer harmful emissions if it shifted wood production to multispecies plantations of native trees rather than disturbing natural forests.

“The waste and increases in harmful climate change emissions due to agriculture can no longer be accepted as the cost of doing business. We cannot continue to waste food, cut down forests and spew additional carbon emissions into the atmosphere without regard for the future impacts of these actions,” said Boucher. “The solutions are staring us in the face. All we must do is act.”