Right now, we are using 11% of all the land on Earth for farming.
And, that percentage is likely to go up. There are approximately 360,000 babies born per day and 15,000 births per hour worldwide, which is more than twice the number of people who die each day. How do we find land to produce enough food for the growing population when the amount of land available is shrinking year by year? Unfortunately, we can’t just stick a shovel in any plot of land to grow food – the land must be arable enough to sustain the growth of crops.
Significant amounts of our planet’s land are currently dedicated to various types of agriculture, while other tracts are available for farming but currently unused. However, the majority of Earth’s land isn’t suitable for farming at all.
What is “Arable” Land?
The definition comes with a bit of variation – the two most common terms being “arable land” and “agricultural land.” Arable land is land that is temporarily used for crops, meadows, or pastures, which includes land purposefully left temporarily fallow. Fallow land has been plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production. It is also worth noting that the definition of arable land doesn’t include land that is potentially cultivable – it must be currently and actively fertile and able to sustain crops.
On the other hand, agricultural land includes arable land in addition to land used for permanent, long-term edible crops that don’t need to be replanted yearly, as well as permanent meadowland and pastureland. Agricultural land includes fruit and nut trees and orchards, but does not include trees grown for timber, as they are an inedible crop.
As of 2016, the World Bank reported that 37.43% of the world’s total land area was considered agricultural land, while 11.06% was considered arable.
A recent Sciencing article describes how a variety of factors influence the amount of farmable land available for us to use today: many of the reasons are due to Earth’s natural geography and climate. Massive portions of Canada, Siberia – and not to mention the entire continent of Antarctica – are blanketed in ice, while much of northern Africa and the Middle East consist of desert. In geographical areas like these, agriculture is impossible. Other natural factors inhibiting agriculture include soil composition and altitude, as plants and crops need rich, fertile soil and fair levels of oxygen to thrive.
However, not all of the factors contributing to land being farmable are natural. Human activities have also limited the amount of farmable land, and arguably more-so than natural conditions. Humans have decreased the availability of arable land as a result of urban development, pollution, landfills, deforestation, and soil salinization. Furthermore, human-influenced climate change may lead to events such as desertification and rising sea levels in the future.
Change Over Time
Historically, humanity’s demand for farmland was only a fraction of what it is now. In 1700, only seven percent of Earth’s land was being used for agriculture, but the amount of land being used for farming has increased over time to meet the needs of the growing population. As the world’s population continues to rise, the need for farmland will continue to do so as well.
The rise in demand has not been linear; rather, it has grown more severe in recent decades as humanity has urbanized at an unprecedented rate. Scientists estimate that during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, farmland increased by roughly 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles) per year. This rapid expansion of farmland, however, comes at a cost, as it encroaches on land formerly used or that could potentially be used for other purposes, such as forestation.
Current estimates put the remaining amount of farmable land at about 27 million square kilometers (10.5 million square miles), and around 90% of this is in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. However, much of the arable land in Latin America is forested. So essentially, when we talk about unused suitable arable land we are mainly talking about sub-Saharan Africa. There is a little in Asia, but virtually none in Europe or North America.
Land and Food Production in the US
For each person added to the US population, one acre of natural habitat or farmable land is converted to built-up space or highway. More than 99.5% of U.S. food comes from the land, while less than 0.5% comes from aquatic systems.
Of the nearly 470 million acres of arable land that are now in cultivation in the U.S., 1.5 million acres are lost each year due to urbanization, multiplying transportation networks, and industrial expansion. In addition, about 2 million acres of prime cropland are lost annually by erosion, salinization, and water logging. According to John Piotti, President of American Farmland Trust (AFT), just in the last 20 years, we’ve lost 31 million acres of farmland – which is equivalent to all the farmland in Iowa.
If present population growth and other trends continue, over the next 60 years, both degradation and urbanization will diminish our arable land base of 470 million acres by 120 million acres. Only 0.6 acres of arable land per person will be available in 2050, whereas more than 1.2 acres per person are needed to provide a diverse diet (currently, 1.6 acres of arable land are available). The projected growth of the American population will only accelerate the need for food. For every 1% increase in food demand, the price at the farm gate increases 4.5%.
Hope for the Future
Fortunately, the next generation of farmers, engineers, and scientists are working towards a more hopeful outlook for the future of mankind. In very recent years, high-tech compact indoor farms have been tested and developed as a solution to the world’s food production problem.
A new, sustainable method of farming has emerged, and it has been dubbed “urban farming”. Also known as “urban agriculture” or “urban gardening”, urban farming is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around urban areas. Thanks to the further development of hydroponic technology, growers are now able to grow produce in open air without the use of soil, and with less water than traditional farming. And, these facilities don’t require Earth’s precious arable land to grow – as they can be built within large cities and urbanized areas.
Unlike vast traditional farms, many of these compact urban farms grow up rather than out. Growers stack their produce on vertical shelves to maximize space, which is called “vertical farming”. In current vertical and hydroponic indoor farms, one acre is equivalent to about 4 to 6 acres of traditional farmland.
However, to compete directly with traditional farming, urban farmers must produce a minimum of 7 times the amount a traditional farm does per square foot. AgriFacture’s vertical farming methodologies set a new standard for urban farming. AgriFacture methodologies and processes increases that 7:1 ratio by a factor of 3, through horizontal compression and vertical density – producing 21 times more per square foot than traditional farms.
Traditional methods of farming that humanity has relied on for years are not going to cut it in the future. With new agricultural methodologies, we don’t need to use 11% of our planet’s total land for farming. The future of farming will be compact, controlled, and clean.
AgriFacture is a family-owned business that has spent the last decade developing cutting-edge methodologies to change the entire dynamics of agriculture. AgriFacture’s model of controlled environmental agriculture allows consumers to enjoy local, fresh, pesticide-free, nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and herbs year-round, regardless of where they live.
AgriFacture currently utilizes a 10,000-square-foot research and development facility in Flat Rock, NC and plans to build an even larger 40,000-square-foot indoor farm. Unlike other commercial vertical farms on the market today, AgriFacture changes the dynamic by utilizing robotics and automation to control the entire process – from seed to fork.