A few facts about livestock and land use
Consumers rarely know about the contributions of livestock to our land and the positive aspects of grazing. Instead, livestock farming is often perceived as simply exploiting our soils and using more and more land to grow feed for animals that could be better used for crop cultivation for people.
So, let’s take a look at the facts. Firstly, in Europe, the land used for farming and livestock grazing has remained almost constant over the last 60 years. Secondly, much of the land used for grazing livestock cannot be directly used to grow crops.
The total agricultural land currently used globally for livestock farming is 2.5 billion hectares, about 50% of the world’s agricultural area and about 20% of the total land on Earth. Livestock farming takes place on large land areas, mainly used for grazing and growing animal fodder. The largest part of this area, which is 2 billion hectares, consists of grasslands used by animals.
A further 1.2 billion hectares of grasslands are not grazed by livestock because they are marginal, poor or at high altitude or because they consist of steppes and shrub ecosystems. However, these lands unsuitable for grazing play an active role as carbon sinks for carbon sequestration from the atmosphere.
Of the 2 billion hectares of grasslands currently used by cattle, about 0.7 billion hectares could potentially be converted into arable land for crops. The remaining 1.3 billion hectares of land are not convertible due to several limiting factors, such as the steep terrain, the marginal depth of soil, or the too-short vegetative cycle growth. For this reason, the most productive way to utilise these areas is to produce human food through livestock farming, particularly ruminants such cattle, buffaloes, sheep and goats.
In addition to pastures, livestock farming relies on arable land for crops for fodder and feed production. The total arable land used for animal feed is about 0.55 billion hectares, corresponding to 40% of the global arable land for crops. Most of these lands are primarily used to cultivate cereals for human consumption. Cattle can use co-products from oilseed processing or residues from cereal harvesting for feed.
Animals also consume 20% of global biomass (which is 6 billion tonnes of dry matter annually). In fact, 86% of animal feed is composed mainly of plant materials rich in cellulose, which cannot be directly used as food by humans, such as grass, hay, crop residues and the co-products of crop processing.
On top of this, ruminants are great upcyclers thanks to their complex, specialised digestive system: converting non-edible fibrous plant materials indigestible to humans into animal proteins of high nutritional quality with all essential amino acids. In essence, products that otherwise would not be used and therefore disposed of as waste, with an additional environmental impact, are transformed into nutritional meat, milk and eggs.
Check out this video for more info on biomass use: