According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 12.6% of the Earth’s land surface has been converted to cropland. A further 0.6% is covered with artificial surfaces such as cities, transportation networks and mines. Together this adds up to 19 million km2, an area equivalent to the size of China, Germany and USA combined.
The Planetary Boundaries Framework (Rockström, 2009) proposed that a safe threshold for land-use would be to ensure that no more than 15% of the global land surface is converted to cropland. So, we are currently within our planetary boundary, but only just…
Yet that does not tell the full story... Whilst the ratio of land per unit of crop production has improved over the past twenty years, an new consideration is the land needed for energy crops. Further, nearly 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded and half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. Based on current rates of soil degradation, by 2067 we will not have any topsoil left.
Why land-use matters and what are businesses doing?
Land-use as a planetary boundary is relevant to many businesses, including those reliant on land for their raw materials (agricultural suppliers; commodity traders; food manufacturers; retailers; forestry, packaging, mining, oil & gas) or reliant on access to land for infrastructure (construction; transport; manufacturing).
As part of our on-going research into how businesses can translate planetary boundaries to the scale of their organisation, we reviewed the targets being set in relation to land-use by 220 of the world’s largest companies. We found sobering figures:
What can we do to improve the situation and what can businesses do?
In our research, we also spoke with 38 leading sustainability practitioners, who helped shed light on some of the challenges companies face when measuring, monitoring, and evaluating their impact on land use. These are the key points they identified.
Positively, the research did identify actions for organisations to focus on in an attempt to arrest the rapid conversion of land-use and ensure we remain within our planetary thresholds. Specific actions included.
We need to go beyond measuring our land footprint and understand the value of the land being used. In particular, we need to ensure that the land converted is not degraded. With at least 80% of the world’s food coming from 11% of the land currently in use, and populations growing, time is running out for ensuring that we remain within our Planetary Boundary for land-use.
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