Total global agricultural land footprint associated with UK food supply 1986–2011

Heine Richard De Ruiter, Jennie I Macdiarmid, Robin B Matthews, Thomas Kastner, Lee R Lynd, Pete Smith

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Over the coming decades the global demand for food, and especially for animal products is projected to increase. At the same time, competition for agricultural land is projected to intensify due to a wide range of drivers, including a growing world population, changes in food consumption patterns and bioenergy production. It is therefore vital to understand the relationship between global agricultural land use and the consumption of food. Here we use the United Kingdom as an example to show the agricultural land footprint of a highly developed country over the period 1986 – 2011. Our analysis shows that the total land footprint of the UK has decreased over time from 25,939 kha in 1987 (3-year mean) to 23,723 kha in 2010 (3-year mean), due to a lower grassland footprint resulting from lower ruminant meat supply. Cropland use has increased slightly from around 8,400 kha in 1987 to about 8,800 kha in 2010, but has decreased slightly on a per-capita basis as the UK’s population increased over time. Our analysis shows that 85% of the UK’s total land footprint is associated with meat and dairy production, but only 48% of total protein and 32% of total calories derive from livestock products. Our results suggest that, if countries reduce their ruminant product consumption, land could be freed up for other uses, including bio-energy production, forest regrowth, and biodiversity conservation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)72-81
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Early online date10 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017

Bibliographical note

This work was supported by a University of Aberdeen Environment and Food Security Theme/the James Hutton Institute PhD studentship, and contributes to the Scottish Food Security Alliance-Crops and the Belmont Forum supported DEVIL project (NERC fund UK contribution: NE/M021327/1). J.M. and R.B.M. acknowledge funding from the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science Analytical Services Strategic Research Programme. T.K. acknowledges funding from the European Research Council Grant ERC-263522 (LUISE).


  • land use
  • food supply
  • croplands
  • grasslands
  • sustainable diets


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