Saving land to feed a growing population: consequences for consumption of crop and livestock products

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Purpose The expected increase in demand for food raises concerns about the expansion of agricultural land worldwide. To avoid expansion, we need to focus on increasing land productivity, reducing waste, and shifting human diets. Studies exploring diet shifts so far have ignored competition for land between humans and animals. Our objective was to study the relation between land use, the share of animal protein in the human diet, population size, and land availability and quality. Methods We used linear programming to determine minimum land required to feed a population a diet with 0–80 % of the protein derived from terrestrial domestic animals. Populations ranged from 15 million to the maximum number of people that could be supported by the system. The agricultural system in the Netherlands was used as illustration, assuming no import and export of feed and food. Daily energy and protein requirements of humans were fulfilled by a diet potentially consisting of grain (wheat), root and tuber crops (potato, sugar beet), oil crops (rapeseed), legumes (brown bean), and animal protein from ruminants (milk and meat) and monogastrics (pork). Results and discussion Land is used most efficiently if people would derive 12 % of dietary protein from animals (% PA), especially milk. The role of animals in such a diet is to convert co-products from crop production and the human food industry into protein-rich milk and meat. Below 12 % PA, human-inedible products were wasted (i.e., not used for food production), whereas above 12 % PA, additional crops had to be cultivated to feed livestock. Large populations (40 million or more) could be sustained only if animal protein was consumed. This results from the fact that at high population sizes, land unsuitable for crop production was necessary to meet dietary requirements of the population, and contributed to food production by providing animal protein without competing for land with crops. Conclusions A land use optimization model including crop and animal production enables identification of the optimal % PA in the diet. Land use per capita was lowest at 12 % PA. At this level, animals optimally consume co-products from food production. Larger populations, furthermore, can be sustained only with diets relatively high in % PA, as land unsuitable for crop production is needed to fulfil their food demand. The optimal % PA in the human diet depended on population size and the relative share of land unsuitable for crop production.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)677-687
JournalThe International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Animal production
  • Competition for resources
  • Crop production
  • Human diets
  • Land use
  • Optimization


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