Rising population and demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel are increasing competition for land. For example, new WRI research projects that by 2050, an area of land nearly twice the size of India will be converted to agriculture, while an area the size of the continental United States will be needed to meet the world’s growing demand for wood. At the same time, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted, humanity needs to protect and restore land to fight climate change, prevent biodiversity loss and sustain other ecosystem service benefits that people depend upon from nature.

This squeeze would be less of an existential issue if land were infinite. But alas, it is not. As Mark Twain once quipped about land, “they’re not making it anymore.”

WRI recommends a four-part approach to address this land squeeze in a manner that is good for people, planet and prosperity for all. We call it “Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore,” an integrated approach elaborated in our new report, The Global Land Squeeze: Managing the Growing Competition for Land.

Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore can address land-use-related issues relevant to leaders from business, government and civil society. It has important implications for food security, climate change, biodiversity, equitable rural development, bioenergy, building materials and other demands on land.

This article explains the approach, suggests goals for each of its four pillars and identifies key actions needed to achieve them. Recognizing that the four pillars are interconnected, we conclude with cross-cutting considerations.

Understanding the Global Land Squeeze

The world's vegetated land has a kaleidoscope of uses that fall into three broad categories:

  • Production areas for human goods (such as food, feed, fiber and fuel).
  • Lightly managed (or unmanaged) conservation areas and natural ecosystems (providing biodiversity protection, carbon sequestration, watershed protection, recreation and home for Indigenous Peoples).
  • Heavily human-managed built environments (including cities, transport infrastructure, large dams and surface mining).

The graphic below shows global land use by how much land each of these three categories occupies. Production areas for human goods — croplands, pastures, managed forests and plantations — dwarf other land use categories.

A graphic showing global land use in 2015

Over the past 10,000 years, the human quest for food has been the largest driver of land use change, negatively affecting stored carbon and biodiversity through conversion of natural ecosystems into production areas. By one estimate, “worldwide agriculture has already cleared or converted 70% of grassland, 50% of savanna, 45% of the temperate deciduous forest and 27% of tropical forests.” Additionally, approximately 50% of the world’s wetlands have been drained for agriculture.

In other words, people have converted much of nature to meet their growing needs for food. Croplands and pasture occupy roughly half of all vegetated land today. Between 1962 and 2010, almost 500 million hectares (1.2 billion acres) of forests and woody savannas (an area two-thirds the size of Australia) were cleared globally for agriculture.

If not managed, the land squeeze will increase in the future, with corresponding implications for other land-use goals, as shown in the graphic below. Under a business-as-usual scenario, WRI projects that to feed a growing population, agricultural land is likely to expand by 600 million hectares — nearly twice the size of India — between 2010 and 2050. Wood demand is likely to grow as well, requiring harvesting an area of 800 million hectares of forest between 2010 and 2050, roughly the size of the continental United States. And cities will also expand by another 80 million hectares during that time.

Even as the world works to meet growing demand for food and other land-based products while housing an increasingly urban population, humanity will need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, protect biodiversity and empower Indigenous Peoples to continue to be stewards of their own lands.

Land Squeeze Graphic.

All IPCC pathways for averting the worst impacts of climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels rely on dramatic reductions in natural ecosystem conversion, large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal measures via carbon storage on land and vegetation (or sequestration in geological reservoirs), and reduced demand for land dedicated to food, feed crops and pastures. Some scientists maintain that ending conversion and degradation of natural ecosystems and restoring large swaths of degraded areas to natural ecosystems are critical to achieving the world’s climate and biodiversity objectives. Expansion of agriculture, forestry and cities makes achieving these goals more difficult.

According to our research, projected agricultural expansion between 2010 and 2050 would use up 25–40% of the maximum carbon dioxide emissions “budget” for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C–2 degrees C (2.7 degrees F-3.6 degrees F). Business-as-usual global wood harvests are projected to add 3.5 to 4.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere annually over the coming decades — equivalent to roughly 10% of recent annual emissions of carbon dioxide. And urban expansion is projected to add another 0.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent during this time as well.

4 Pillars for Addressing the Global Land Squeeze

To manage society’s competing demands on the finite resource of land, the world simultaneously needs to:

  • Produce more food, feed and fiber on existing agricultural lands and some working forests.
  • Protect remaining natural and semi-natural ecosystems (e.g., primary forests, secondary forests, wetlands, grasslands) from conversion and degradation.
  • Reduce projected growth in demand for land-intensive goods, particularly by high consumers.
  • Restore degraded ecosystems and marginal agricultural land (with limited improvement potential) back to nature.
A graphic explaining the Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore" Approach
How does Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore relate to Nature-based Solutions?

“Nature-based solutions” (NBS) are defined as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. NBS aim to address a range of societal challenges, such as climate change mitigation and adaptation, water security, human health, food security, disaster risk, and social and economic development. “NBS for climate” are nature-based solutions that focus on mitigating climate change (e.g., reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon) and/or helping people and nature adapt to climate change.

Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore describes multiple steps necessary to achieve NBS. NBS relies on protecting and restoring ecosystems even in the face of rising demands for food and fiber. Because land area is fixed, doing so requires more efficiently producing goods on existing production areas and reducing demand for land-intensive products, such as ruminant meat and bioenergy — all supported by greater innovation, more finance and better governance. To be successful, NBS should not be equated solely with “markets for carbon credits” but rather encompass a broader set of actions aligned with Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore. While NBS typically may emphasize natural measures, the Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore approach encompasses both natural and technological measures (e.g., plant-based meat alternatives).

For each of these four pillars, WRI’s research suggests a goal, a suite of strategies and some observations:

1) Produce

Humanity needs to produce enough food, fiber and feed to meet the needs of nearly 10 billion people by 2050 on the same (and ideally less) working land area that now provides for roughly 8 billion. This requires boosting yields while minimizing unintended environmental impacts and increasing urban density.

Levels of rice paddy fields with mountains in the background.
Terraced rice fields within a mountain range. Photo by elbanco/Adobe Stock

A Goal

To meet projected food demand by mid-century and avoid further conversion of natural ecosystems, the world needs to boost productivity of both crop and livestock production. Crop calorie demand is projected to grow by 56% between 2010 and 2050, and meat and dairy demand to grow by nearly 70%. It follows that goals to increase crop yields (output per hectare or acre) by 56% between 2010 and 2050 (1.2 times the historical yield growth rate from 1960 to 2010) and boost ruminant meat (from grass-eating animals such as cattle, sheep and goats) and dairy yields per hectare or acre of pasture by approximately 70% from 2010 to 2050 (1.6 times the historical yield growth rate from 1960 to 2010) could help food production “keep pace” with demand growth without requiring additional land clearing. Such improvements, if combined with the reduce strategies below, even could liberate more than 600 million hectares (1.5 billion acres) of current agriculture land for restoration (more on that later).

In addition, wood demand is projected to grow by 54% between 2010 and 2050, necessitating an expansion of timber plantations and/or natural forest harvest.

Some Strategies for Sustainably Producing More Food

Several strategies can enable growth in yields. To be sustainable, such strategies also should minimize or eliminate unintended environmental consequences and support improvements in rural livelihoods. Some measures for boosting meat and dairy yields include:

  • Increasing pasture yields by managing planted grasses better, using appropriate amounts of fertilizer, and intermixing legumes and grasses;
  • Improving livestock grazing practices (such as rotational grazing) and increasing the use of silvopastoral systems (trees amidst pastures) to provide shade, improve soil quality, generate livestock fodder and deliver other benefits;
  • Providing higher yielding, more nutritious fodder to cattle in stall-fed systems;
  • Improving livestock breeding to encourage hereditary traits that increase the conversion of fodder and feed to meat and milk; and
  • Improving livestock veterinary care.

Some measures for boosting crop yields include:

  • Using climate-resilient and higher-yielding crop breeds;
  • Improving water and soil management practices;
  • Improving input technology and application practices (for example, by making them more precise, less excessive and less biologically harmful);
  • Expanding agroforestry practices (trees integrated into crop lands); and
  • Increasing farmer access to training, tenure, credit and markets.

Some measures for boosting productivity of managed forests include:

  • Implementing more efficient wood harvesting methods;
  • Improving forest product processing efficiency; and
  • Using managed plantations, in appropriate places and under appropriate management practices, with fast-growing tree varieties.

Efforts to boost yields should be done in a manner that not only avoids land conversion, but also decreases emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Approaches include:

  • Reducing methane emissions from ruminant livestock, particularly beef cattle and dairy cows, by achieving better feed efficiency or using feed additives that suppress methane formation in the animals’ guts;
  • Improving manure management and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from manure on pastures;
  • Increasing nitrogen use efficiency via more careful fertilizer application and synthetic or biological nitrification inhibition;
  • Improving rice management via reduced flooding periods, better residue management and low-methane breeds;
  • Encouraging more judicious use of fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs;
  • Reducing on-farm energy-use emissions; and
  • Increasing use of cover crops.

Some Observations

To avoid further land conversion, production of crops-, meat- and milk-per-hectare must rise by an amount equal to growth in demand. If agricultural yields remain frozen at 2010 levels, agricultural land will likely need to expand by more than 3 billion hectares (7.4 billion acres) between 2010 and 2050. Even if yields continue to grow at roughly the same linear annual rates of the past few decades, cropland and pasture area could still expand by 600 million hectares (1.5 billion acres) between 2010 and 2050.

Boosting yields is also critical from a social development standpoint, especially for smallholder farmers in low-income countries, where it can increase rural incomes, reduce food insecurity and provide a buffer against adverse climate impacts.

Given projected increases in food demand, it will be impossible to protect forests and other natural ecosystems globally without greatly boosting yields on existing agricultural land. Steering expansion of oil palm, soybeans, cattle and other commodities away from forests in one region would merely shift their production elsewhere, spurring forest clearing there, unless yields improve or demand declines. Even if all the world’s forests were effectively protected, agriculture would still expand into other types of natural ecosystems such as grasslands and wetlands. Likewise, large-scale restoration can only succeed if agricultural land is freed up by the Produce and Reduce approaches.

2) Protect

Humanity needs to protect remaining natural and semi-natural ecosystems — such as forests, wetlands and grasslands — from conversion and degradation to meet global goals on climate, biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

A woman from an Indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon works at a small forestry. Securing Indigenous peoples’ land rights ensures they can continue to responsibly steward their own lands.
A woman from an Indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon sustainably harvests materials from the forest. Securing Indigenous Peoples’ land rights ensures they can continue to responsibly steward the landscapes they manage. Photo by Juan Carlos Huayllapuma/CIFOR on Flickr

A Goal

Conversion and degradation of natural ecosystems needs to end by 2030 or earlier. This goal is consistent with the New York Declaration on Forests, the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, the Paris Agreement on climate change, recent recommendations by the IPCC, and a coalition of scientists and conservationists supporting Nature Needs Half.

Some Strategies to Protect Natural Ecosystems

Three categories of measures can help protect natural ecosystems.

The first category shrinks the supply of land available for conversion through measures such as:

  • Prohibiting natural ecosystem conversion;
  • Establishing protected areas that respect customary rights;
  • Recognizing/securing the rights of Indigenous Peoples so they can continue to exercise stewardship over their own lands;
  • Planning road infrastructure to avoid opening pristine areas for conversion and degradation; and
  • Integrating the above into land-use zoning and plans.

The second category makes it expensive — politically, economically, legally and/or reputationally — to convert natural ecosystems, including:

  • Enforcing the laws that many countries already have to protect natural ecosystems;
  • Implementing conversion-free supply chains (through contracts, financing, trade agreements, regulations and import bans on illegal/unsustainable harvests) of soft commodities most associated with land conversion, including soy, palm oil, beef, timber, cocoa and coffee; and
  • Increasing transparency of land-use and land-cover change, via systems such as Global Forest Watch and the Land & Carbon Lab.

The third category reduces the economic incentive to clear a natural ecosystem and/or reduces the pressures that prevent land from returning to natural ecosystems, including:

  • Boosting yields on existing agricultural land;
  • Reducing demand for land-intensive commodities;
  • Changing the relative financial attractiveness of having trees versus not having trees on land, for instance by paying for ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration or watershed protection; and
  • Introducing alternative livelihoods, such as ecotourism, that rely on or support healthy ecosystems.

Some Observations

Protecting natural ecosystems is critical to dealing with climate change, health, biodiversity and human rights. For example, conversion and degradation of ecosystems, especially forests, accounts for about 10% (net) of global greenhouse gas emissions per year and an even greater share on a gross basis. Recent research indicates that deforestation is increasing the emergence of novel zoonotic diseases with negative effects on human health. Moreover, natural ecosystem conversion can undermine the livelihoods and even the existence of Indigenous Peoples and traditional local communities.

Net figures of natural ecosystem conversion hide the much larger gross losses due to shifts in the land mosaic. For example, while agriculture is abandoned in some areas, allowing nature to recover, it expands into pristine ecosystems in other areas. These shifts go far beyond traditional subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture, which typically occurs within a watershed, by occurring across countries and even continents.

While ecosystem restoration in abandoned areas is important, it can take a long time for that recovery to approach the climate, biodiversity and cultural benefits of the original natural ecosystem. Thus, priority should be given to protecting natural ecosystems from conversion in the first place. Restoration should focus on where conversion or degradation has already occurred, but not usurp the urgency of protecting what nature remains.

Beyond natural ecosystems, highly productive agricultural land should also be protected from conversion into urban or other human uses. One recent paper estimated future growth in urban land demand at 20 million hectares (49 million acres) per decade out to 2050, noting that urban expansion often comes at the expense of prime agricultural land. Unless yields go up or demand goes down, this loss triggers conversion of natural ecosystems to agriculture to make up for lost food production caused by urban expansion. To address the land squeeze, highly productive lands need to stay highly productive.

3) Reduce

Humanity needs to reduce growth in demand for goods that have a large land footprint to enable land protection and restoration. This reduction can be achieved through more efficient use of these goods, reduction of waste, substitution with less land-intensive alternatives and other approaches, especially among those people and regions with high rates of consumption.

A bowl of plant-based curry.
 A bowl of vegetable curry. Diet shifts toward plant-based foods can help reduce the pressure on land. Photo by siajames/Adobe Stock

A Goal

All other conditions remaining the same, to avoid further conversion of natural ecosystems, the world needs to limit ruminant meat consumption to roughly 50 calories per person per day (the equivalent of 1.5 burgers per person per week) in all regions between 2010 and 2050, cut in half the rate of food loss and waste by 2030, phase out bioenergy from food and energy crops, and avoid adding new wood demand beyond existing business-as-usual projections.

Some Strategies to Reduce Growth in Demand for Land

Some measures for reducing growth in demand for land include:

  • Reduce food loss and waste: This entails countries and companies to (1) set food loss and waste reduction targets, since targets set ambition and ambition motivates action; (2) measure their food loss and waste to identify hotspots; and (3) take action on those hotspots. Public-private partnerships and business-supply chain collaborations like Champions 12.3 are good platforms for pursuing this Target-Measure-Act approach.
  • Shift diets of high meat consumers toward plant-based foods: From a land and climate perspective, a critical component of this approach is reducing growth in consumption of meat, especially beef. This entails increasing the supply of meat alternatives including plant-centered meals, plant-based foods that mimic meat and lab-grown meat. It also entails increasing demand for meat alternatives among high consumers.
  • Reduce demand for bioenergy that requires dedicated use of land: In countries where bioenergy generation is driven by government policies, reducing land-intensive bioenergy can be achieved by phasing out government mandates that encourage use of crops and biomass for bioenergy (including liquid biofuels). In countries where firewood and charcoal are harvested from natural forests, shifting to non-biomass renewables such as solar photovoltaics for electricity and clean cooking fuels would reduce the climate and biodiversity impacts of local energy generation and access. Where this shift is not feasible in the near term, an improvement upon the status quo would be to grow trees in managed fuelwood lots — to increase wood yields per hectare and circumvent the need to extract wood from natural forests — and to burn wood more efficiently, for example, via fuel-efficient stoves. Organic wastes and residues that do not require dedicated use of land and do not have alternative uses may be a sustainable energy feedstock from a land and climate perspective.
  • Avoid creating additional demand for wood products (above and beyond the already high projected growth in demand for traditional uses of wood) that directly or indirectly results in converting more natural ecosystems into working forests and plantations, degrading natural ecosystems and/or crowding out the restoration of degraded areas back into natural ecosystems. In particular, policies that promote greater use of wood for bioenergy or construction are likely to lead to even higher wood demand and increased pressures on land.
  • Increase wood processing efficiency, recycling and reuse to reduce the quantity of wood needed for a given amount of demand.
  • Promote compact, high density, livable cities through policies, zoning regulations and financial incentives.

Some Observations

Reducing consumption of ruminant meat in high-consuming countries (typically high-income countries) is critical since the pastures used to produce ruminant meat comprise two-thirds of all agricultural land. Ruminants use 20 times more land per gram of protein than plant-based protein sources. As such, they have much higher land-based greenhouse gas emissions per ton of meat or milk.

Although some ruminant meat production occurs on native grasslands, one-third of global pasture area is on lands that were once forests. Because native grasslands have long been occupied by domesticated animals, it is forests and woody savannas that tend to be cleared as demand for ruminant meat grows. These pastures converted from forests are often targets for large-scale global reforestation estimates, which means that if forest restoration is to succeed at scale, the world must also reduce ruminant meat demand and produce more meat and milk per hectare on existing pastures.

Reduction in ruminant meat demand should come first from the 20% of the world’s population — mostly in North America, South America, Europe and Oceania — that consumes large quantities of beef and lamb. These people have abundant protein from other sources. The rest of the world, too, would benefit from increasing production of virtually any form of protein other than ruminant meat because these other sources generate more food per hectare. Even if the world’s high beef consumers greatly moderate their consumption, a large market will likely continue to exist for livestock producers, further highlighting why efficiency gains in the livestock sector are vital. 

Approximately one-third of all food intended for human consumption is lost or wasted from the farm to the fork each year. An agricultural area larger than China is therefore used to produce food that is not eaten. Besides the food security implications, this inefficiency has significant impacts on deforestation, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, water and the economy.

Expansion of bioenergy would dramatically add to global land demand. For example, to produce just 2% of the world’s energy through liquid biofuels would require agricultural production to increase by another 30% by 2050 (measured by energy or kilocalories). To produce an additional 2% of the world’s energy from wood, the global annual commercial wood harvest would have to double. Put another way, supplying 20% of global energy from bioenergy by 2050 would require a quantity of biomass equal to all the world’s crops, crop residues, livestock forage and wood that was harvested and used in 2000. These demands for land are high because the amount of usable energy generated by biomass is low per hectare. Even on the best lands for bioenergy, a hectare of modern solar photovoltaics can generate approximately 40 to 100 times the amount of usable energy as biomass per hectare.

The world is likely to demand about 50% more wood by 2050 relative to 2010, including 70% more industrial roundwood. To produce 50% of new urban construction from wood globally from 2010 to 2050 — on top of the business-as-usual wood demand growth — would likely require overall industrial roundwood harvests in 2050 to increase by more than 130% from 2010 levels.

In general, the world should avoid policies designed to stimulate growth in demand for land-based goods until humanity has demonstrated that it can meet food, feed and fiber needs without additional clearing of natural ecosystems.

4) Restore

Humanity needs to restore land that is degraded or no longer required for production into healthy natural ecosystems to help meet global goals on climate, biodiversity and Indigenous rights.

A group of volunteers planting a young tree.
A group of volunteers plant a young tree. Photo by AS Photo Project/Adobe Stock

A Goal

Even if the goals for the Produce, Protect and Reduce approaches are met, the world still needs to get into the process of restoring 600 million hectares (1.5 billion acres) of forests, along with approximately 40 million hectares (100 million acres) of peatlands (the ecosystem with the most embedded carbon) by 2050 to help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C below pre-industrial levels.

Some Strategies to Restore Degraded Landscapes

Measures for catalyzing restoration include:

  • Motivating restoration through a Target-Monitor-Act approach, including establishing baselines of degraded land, setting restoration targets and monitoring progress;
  • Creating an enabling environment that puts in place the ecological, market, policy, social and institutional conditions conducive to restoration; and
  • Supporting implementation by making technical know-how, local leadership, financing and incentives readily available.

Restoration can include a variety of approaches, including:

  • Assisted natural regeneration: This involves letting trees and other plants regrow naturally after people reduce obstacles such as soil degradation, invasive species or recurring disturbances such as fires, grazing and wood harvesting. For assisted natural regeneration to occur, soil, water, climate and fire conditions must be suitable for natural recovery; plants and animals — invasive species and cattle, for example — that otherwise would impede ecosystem recovery must be removed or absent; native source populations such as remnants of natural forest and root stocks of native trees must be located nearby; and competing productive use of the land like crops and livestock must be low or declining, resulting in low opportunity costs for the land.
  • Active restoration: This requires significant human intervention to reintroduce natural vegetation like trees, including seed collection, nursery management, transportation, planting and maintenance. Since land targeted for restoration typically has been used for other economic purposes, active restoration often requires tangible incentives for landholders to shift land use. These incentives must be sustained over time to avoid reverting back to non-natural conditions. Several factors are important if active restoration is to occur at a large scale: land and/or natural resource (e.g., tree) tenure are secure; local people who tend the land are able to reap the benefits of restoration, such as improved food security or higher incomes; national and/or local champions provide vision and perseverance to drive implementation; and restoration know-how is transferred via peers, farmer cooperatives, extension services or other means.
A mangrove nursery in Pulau Dua Nature Reserve, Indonesia. The area is vulnerable to aquaculture and industrial development, but active restoration is reintroducing natural vegetation.
A mangrove nursery in Pulau Dua Nature Reserve, Indonesia. The area is vulnerable to aquaculture and industrial development, but active restoration is reintroducing natural vegetation. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR on Flickr

Some Observations

In the near-term, lands targeted for restoration to natural ecosystems should generally avoid land needed for food and fiber production, because restoring ecosystems in one place poses a high risk that other ecosystems will be converted to make up for the foregone production. Restoration is most appropriate for abandoned farmland or agricultural areas where food production is marginal and unlikely to improve, such as on steep slopes. Exceptions include areas where restoration provides exceptional biodiversity benefits and drained peatlands, which generate such high greenhouse gas emissions that their restoration offers huge climate mitigation benefits even if there are food production trade-offs.

Given projected increases in demand for land-based goods, restoration of areas to natural ecosystems at scale will depend on the ability of the Produce and Reduce pillars to shrink land-use demands and liberate less productive land for restoration.

Opportunities also exist for synergies between the Produce and Restore pillars. For example, restoring trees in and around farms to create silvopastoral and/or agroforestry systems can increase food production and diversify livelihoods for rural communities.

5 Cross-cutting Considerations for Managing the Global Land Squeeze

The enormous challenge of meeting human needs from land while achieving environmental goals is generally underappreciated. Proposed solutions typically focus on single pillars or single sectors, while the Produce and Protect pillars are sometimes seen as challenges rather than solutions. For instance, some environmentalists decry the adverse impacts of food production while people focused on food security may see ecosystem protection as a barrier to development. At the same time, the Produce and Reduce pillars are rarely considered enablers of nature-based solutions. In practice, however, all four pillars are intertwined and interdependent, so the following cross-cutting considerations should be kept in mind:

1) All 4 pillars should be pursued simultaneously.

The relative importance of each pillar will vary between and even within countries, and implementation should be locally appropriate. Nonetheless, given the scale of the land squeeze, all four should be pursued simultaneously as an integrated strategy because:

  • Progress on one pillar can help with others. For example, shifting from meat-centered to plant-rich diets creates space for restoration, more sustainable food production and/or land protection. Likewise, improving farm yields can raise farmers’ incomes, which dissuades land conversion triggered by high poverty levels.
  • Pursuing pillars in parallel helps avoid rebound effects: Yield gains reduce the amount of land needed to feed the world’s population and make it possible to spare a larger area of natural habitat from being converted on a global scale. But evidence indicates that yield gains don’t necessarily lead to local land sparing if they give that local area a competitive advantage for growing a particular commodity. High yields can lead to higher profits per hectare, which in turn can encourage farmers to clear more hectares to make more income. The result can be a shift in where food is produced, leading to deforestation of valuable, carbon-rich habitats. Combining Produce strategies with successful Protect strategies would avoid this competitive production rebound effect. Yield gains also can help keep the price of food from rising, which is generally desirable to make food more affordable to the world’s poor. Pursuing Produce, Protect and/or Reduce pillars in parallel would mitigate any such consumption rebound effects on agricultural areas — a version of Jevon’s Paradox, where input efficiency gains lead to lower costs, which in turn trigger increases in overall demand.
  • Pursuing pillars in parallel helps garner political support: Supporting Produce strategies can help shore up political support for Protect and Restore strategies. Agricultural interests and governments focused on food security or agricultural revenues are more likely to support protection and/or restoration if production goals can still be met.
  • Climate equity calls for it: Many low-income countries now face significant land-use change and the emissions that go with it, while their economies depend on agriculture and their people need more food. Global equity considerations call for the international community to support their agricultural development — the Produce pillar — in return for protecting their remaining natural landscapes — the Protect pillar. Global equity also calls for Reduce strategies in countries that consume disproportionate quantities of land-intensive foods, such as meat, or that have disproportionate levels of food waste.
  • Progress on any pillar should not be assumed: For example, some modeling studies call for massive restoration efforts, assuming that unprecedented shifts in diets and/or productivity gains will happen. But the world cannot bank on dietary or other changes occurring fast enough or at all. In fact, the world has never witnessed transformations at the scale and pace described in our goals.

2) Link the pillars where possible.

There are a number of ways to link the pillars:

  • Finance: Development agencies and international banks can link agricultural production assistance with ecosystem protection and/or restoration. Carbon finance can link payments for ecosystem protection/restoration with efforts to increase production. Given the history of global development, the burden of financial (and technical) assistance is especially upon richer nations to support lower-income nations.
  • Carbon markets for nature-based solutions: To more effectively avoid leakage, carbon credits generated by nature-based solutions (NBS) should link nature protection or restoration (the dominant focus of NBS credits to date) with agricultural yield enhancements.
  • Land-use planning: Many governments set objectives and codify uses of land via national or subnational land-use plans. Such plans can delineate areas for production, ecosystem conservation and restoration, and the built environment. To be effective, land-use plans should be developed via participatory processes that involve transparent data and local community engagement.
  • Conversion-free supply chains: Companies in soft commodity value chains should avoid purchasing commodities from recently cleared natural ecosystems and work with their suppliers to increase yields on existing agricultural land, thereby freezing or even reducing their overall land-use. This approach could involve conversion-free contracts and financing conditions. Governments can enact conversion-free (or Produce-Protect) trade agreements, regulations, import bans on soft commodities illegally harvested in the country of origin, and agriculture assistance programs.
  • Jurisdictional approaches: This is a comprehensive method for land-use governance, decision-making and zoning across a legally defined jurisdiction (a nation or state, for example). It considers what is happening across the entire landscape as opposed to focusing narrowly on a single project area, facilitating linked approaches to the four pillars.

3) Pay attention to spillover effects.

Because any given tract of land can only do so much and because the amount of land is finite, using land to meet one need can have spillover effects that should be heeded.

  • Taking high-yielding land out of production is rarely a climate solution: If countries with highly efficient agriculture and timber systems take land out of food production and instead import the foregone production from countries with less efficient systems, the likely result will be higher overall greenhouse gas emissions and global land footprints.
  • Reducing yields to achieve on-site benefits can create off-site costs: Practices that lower yields on working lands to generate local carbon or biodiversity benefits can trigger agricultural expansion elsewhere — often in the tropical zone (the current global frontier of land clearing) which, on average, has higher biodiversity and carbon costs — to make up for the foregone production.
  • Most land use has a carbon cost: Left alone, most land areas receiving enough precipitation and heat would support vegetation and thereby sequester carbon. In nearly all cases, the carbon stocks of native ecosystems are higher than the carbon stocks on agricultural lands. Any productive use of land should factor in the foregone carbon sequestration when assessing the net climate impacts of that land use. For example, grazing cattle on pastureland that was once forest is not carbon-free because without cattle, it could revert to forests and store more carbon. Wood production is not carbon-neutral if one accounts for the reduced size of the post-harvest forest sink and the fact that carbon payback periods can take decades.
  • Greenhouse gas accounting rules needs to be fixed: Accounting systems for greenhouse gas emissions can distort incentives by not rewarding reductions in consumption or failing to recognize the benefits of increased yields. For instance, a farmer’s greenhouse gas inventory would show a reduction if the farmer used less fertilizer. But if doing so leads to lower yields, someone else will need to increase their fertilizer applications or clear land to make up for the lost production. These local-to-global implications will be addressed in a forthcoming GHG Protocol Land Sector and Removals Guidance.

4) Prosperity should be an integral part.

The four pillars should be implemented in ways that help people, especially the most vulnerable, prosper by:

  • Reducing poverty by making food affordable: The price of food is a dominant variable influencing how many people are in poverty and the extent of their deprivation. Gains in agricultural productivity can reduce food prices, providing nourishment to more people.
  • Improving livelihoods through rural employment: Investments in land-based sectors can generate socio-economic benefits where they are most needed. At least 70% of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas, mostly in the tropics. In sub-Saharan Africa (outside of South Africa), 41% of people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2015. Agriculture serves as a source of livelihood for the majority of people in this region.
  • Empowering women: Farms operated by women on average have lower yields than those operated by men, due in part to inequitable access to inputs and lack of secure property rights. Empowering women will help boost food production and generate co-benefits, as women are more likely to devote their income to food and children’s needs.
  • Respecting Indigenous Peoples’ territories: Indigenous Peoples manage one-quarter of world’s land surface, and two-thirds of this is natural ecosystems. Establishing and respecting the integrity of these lands is not only morally appropriate, it also is an effective strategy for protecting natural ecosystems.

5) Innovation is essential.

It is not possible to address competition for land without major innovations in a variety of areas, including:

  • Technology: A number of Produce and Reduce strategies, in particular, will require game-changing technological innovations regarding fertilizers, food waste, alternative proteins and more.
  • Practices: Some innovations in land management practices, such as rotational grazing and agroforestry, may not necessarily be new — and in some cases, have been used for decades or even centuries — but need to become more mainstream.
  • Finance: More financing is needed to make Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore a reality. A priority first step given their magnitude is the redirection of harmful subsidies. This can be complemented by new financing models, such as blended finance, de-risking instruments and performance-based payments.
  • Behavioral science: Recent advances in understanding how and why people make the decisions they do should be harnessed to help shift diets, reduce food waste, accelerate adoption by farmers of new practices/technologies and more.  
  • Governance and policy: Governance innovations can ensure fair political representation, prevent selected economic sectors from disproportionately capturing political decision-making, tackle corruption, ensure full participation of those affected in land-use planning, and nudge consumers toward less land-intensive consumption. These innovations would ensure that a country’s political economy and economic policies create a foundation that facilitates the rest of the strategies discussed in this article.
  • Monitoring: While systems for monitoring forests at sufficiently high resolution and periodicity exist, there is a need to monitor all land uses and types to better understand what is happening to land, target interventions, underpin financing and policy, monitor progress and adapt strategies over time. The Land & Carbon Lab is designed to fulfill this need. Furthermore, there is a need to be able to monitor the origin and flow of goods from land to their ultimate destination to enable consumers, companies and policymakers to differentiate between goods that have a large land impact and those that don’t.

A Holistic Approach to Managing Finite Lands

The global land squeeze challenge is flying under the radar. It’s time decision-makers wake up to the enormity of the problem. With a finite amount of land, how does the world meet the needs of a growing population while also addressing the existential challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation?

Produce-Protect-Reduce-Restore offers a holistic approach that may be our best bet to address these global challenges. It is an all-of-the-above strategy, with each pillar deployed simultaneously and adapted to local conditions. It can also deliver broader social and economic benefits that are the foundation of sustainable development. But such a future can only be achieved if governments, the private sector and civil society act now with urgency commensurate with the scale of the challenge.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this piece was originally published on February 14, 2022. We updated it on July 20, 2023 to reflect new research and data.