The Effects of Population Growth on Land Use

Cropland meets the Amazon forest /

In an article in Yale University’s Environment 360, Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute of the Environment, University of Minnesota, argues that the global community now faces a “crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilization.” While climate change has received enormous attention (rightfully, Foley argues), human population growth, and the corresponding rising global demand for meat and dairy products, as well as the growing need for bio-energy from corn, sugarcane, and other sources should be equal cause for concern. “We are putting tremendous pressure on the world’s resources.” With 70 million new people per year, Foley argues, “if we want any hope of keeping up with these demands, we’ll need to double, perhaps triple, the agricultural production of the planet in the next 30 to 40 years.”

Foley said meeting the agricultural needs of a growing global population is difficult enough, but, at the same time, countries must meet growing food production needs while mitigating the effects of agricultural production on land-based ecosystems. “Already, we have cleared or converted more than 35 percent of the earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, whether for croplands, pastures or rangelands. In fact, the area used for agriculture is nearly 60 times larger than the area of all of the world’s cities and suburbs. Since the last ice age, nothing has been more disruptive to the planet’s ecosystems than agriculture.”

Agricultural puts pressure on lands, but also on water systems. He explains in depth: “Across the globe, we already use a staggering 4,000 cubic kilometers of water per year, withdrawn from our streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. Of this, 70 percent is used for irrigation, the single biggest use of water, by far, on the globe. As a result, many large rivers have greatly reduced flows and some routinely dry up. And the extraction of water from deep groundwater reserves is almost universally unsustainable, and has resulted in rapidly declining water tables in many regions of the world. Future water demands from increasing population and agricultural consumption will likely climb between 4,500 and 6,200 cubic kilometers per year, hugely compounding the impacts of climate change, especially in arid regions.”

Not only are water and land resources put under stress, but current agricultural practices create pollution. “Agriculture, particularly the use of industrial fertilizers and other chemicals, has fundamentally upset the chemistry of the entire planet. Already, the use of fertilizers has more than doubled the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds in the environment, resulting in widespread water pollution and the massive degradation of lakes and rivers. Excess nutrient pollution is now so widespread, it is even contributing to the disruption of coastal oceans and fishing grounds by creating hypoxic ‘dead zones,’ including one in the Gulf of Mexico.” Another form of pollution results from current agricultural and land use practices: C02 emissions. According to Foley, current practices, including clearing forests for agricultural land, contribute 30 percent of the currently unsustainable C02 emission levels.

Foley points to a few possible solutions: invest in “revolutionary” agricultural practices, a new “greener” agricultural revolution, and improve agricultural production while also mitigating environmental impacts. Foley says there is room for hope. “In recent years, for example, U.S. farmers — working with agricultural experts — have dramatically improved practices in the corn and soybean belt, cutting down on erosion, nutrient loss, and groundwater pollution, even as yields have continued to increase.”

Read the article.

18 thoughts on “The Effects of Population Growth on Land Use

  1. Kent 11/11/2009 / 10:51 am

    Someday, somewhere, somehow, someone has to start talking about population control.

  2. Susan 11/11/2009 / 8:51 pm

    Kent is so right. It is naively un-PC to talk about the root cause of most of our earthly troubles. In Singapore they are actually PAYING people to reproduce. Who will be the first leader to start the ‘zero population growth movement?” ZeroPOP

  3. Marcelo 09/18/2010 / 7:14 pm

    The size of the population is not a problem per se. The amount of resources a given population uses is the major problem. Stopping population growth right now, but allowing everyone to consume as US, European and Japanese citizens do: this would be the recipe for caos.

  4. Imrul kayes 11/03/2010 / 2:22 pm

    really nice and exciting information for our planet. It will be really horrific if someday our planet does not produce enough food for us and the future generation.
    By the way, I have just completed my undergraduate program from forestry and environmental science from Shahjalal university of science and technology, Bangladesh.
    I have an enthusiasm in land use and land degradation and sustainable land use for my masters and PhD. what should I do?????

  5. Reza 08/14/2011 / 5:21 pm

    The main problem in the world is the war. US is stealing the resourses of other countries. If each country can use its resourses they will never be in problem. The African and some asian countries are in this terrible situation because US and israeil and some others want so.

  6. Olony Paul 03/18/2012 / 9:30 am

    Was quite good but brief

  7. Apuroopa 10/02/2012 / 12:12 am

    The growth in population has increased food production which led to the Green revolution in the 20th century. More and more land is being taken over for human settlements. So,to conclude,there is a severe effect on the environment due to growing population.

  8. Bernie McCune 11/03/2012 / 10:36 am

    “Already, we have cleared or converted more than 35 percent of the earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, whether for croplands, pastures or rangelands.”

    This is a very broad statement. I wonder what it actually means in specific terms. Does this mean that nothing of natural pasture or rangeland now exist in the percent of land used by man in pastures and rangelands of the world? I would assume that the noted percent of cropland (what actual percent is it, by the way?) has been thoroughly disturbed by humans. This may not be true in the case of pastures and rangeland. Some sort of percent disruption of those very large surface areas would give a better picture of human land use than is broadly described by the above quote.

  9. sen 11/04/2012 / 4:43 am

    well i believe someday the earth won’t be able to support us… the carrying capacity is just not sufficient

  10. Sarah 02/25/2013 / 1:34 pm

    Maybe the world should think of a way to combine population control, and learn to use their resources wisely. One without the other is only a short fix, as most humans of today’s generation are naturally greedy, without reason to be.

  11. mani 09/27/2013 / 4:03 am

    population is not a big fact we are wasting our resources by unequal and inefficient allocation or use of resources. we have lot of land which can be used for agriculture purposes but we are wasting it……in the same way constructing roads, houses and with similar activities land is going to be scarce …in response to this we are facing food shortage…we can’t feed the more population….we should have some checks on land use

    • MUNEZERO EDMOND 12/02/2013 / 12:25 pm

      The comments are totally true but do not forget that infrastructure is also important. Let us conclude that different countries should select rules and policies that limit rapid population growth.

  12. Mortgage qualification 04/17/2014 / 7:49 pm

    Whoa! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a completely
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  13. Reece Elder 05/19/2014 / 1:10 pm

    One day people are going to over populate the Earth. People will have to ony have one or two kid so the Earth doesn’t die.

  14. Andrew Innocent Okure 07/17/2015 / 4:27 am

    Dear Brothers and Sisters, all in all Population Regulatory policies have to be formulated and adhered to if we are to avoid the possible outcomes of the fore-casted Population Explosion figures ahead of us.

  15. bill 11/03/2015 / 6:49 pm

    ….population is a very big problem, since most of the development that is occurring indirectly or directly is basically done to cater for the ever increasing rate of population, green revolution, enhancement of soil fertility through modern techniques and others are just the means and ways to control population growth. if an optimum population could not be attained or achieved, then i suggest that we look harder in finding something to control the situation without doing further damages.

  16. Delta Landscape 07/13/2016 / 11:32 pm

    We produce a surplus of food globally. Access to food is the problem, not supply or demand. This has been well documented in the literature, hasn’t it? Why is there still this misconception that there is a dearth of food? Is Foley arguing that population is outpacing production trends? If it is a long-term issue, then how is it a crisis?

    There was a green revolution already, and that had some negative impacts worth remembering and learning from.

    Agricultural issues in developed and developing countries are so different. Water resources, social issues, economic structures, etc vary across geography as well. It seems hard to consider “agriculture” on a global scale in a meaningful way.

    Is agriculture really the biggest problem for our water resources? It seems like fracking and water privatization would be right up there, arguably even greater problems. There are straight forward cultural practices that can be implemented to reduce runoff and leaching, but once you blow up an aquifer it is gone for good, you know?

    I wonder if Foley’s definition of “agriculture” includes biofuels.

    Is there some reason that pesticide impacts are omitted from the discussion?

    I could go on, but I won’t.

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