How can we achieve a turnaround in land use, agriculture, food and forestry?
Land is fundamental to our lives. We use it to grow food for ourselves and feed for livestock. We use it for forests that absorb carbon dioxide and yield timber. We benefit from its ability to store water and cool the air. And last but not least, we live and work on it.
Yet despite it fulfilling such key functions, we are neither prudent nor far-sighted in our use of the land base available to us. Around the world, at least 100 million hectares of healthy and productive land were lost between 2015 and 2019 alone. Only 17 percent of the global land base is protected. In theory, Germany has already met the EU Biodiversity Strategy's target of granting protective status to a total of 30 percent of terrestrial and marine areas by 2030. However, environmentalists criticise the fact that the level of protection offered by protected landscape areas, for example, is not sufficient to truly preserve biodiversity or ecosystems.
But the issue is about much more than creating nature reserves. It's about the way we treat the land as a whole. It is about soil sealing, substance inputs, land-use intensity and the efficient utilisation of biogenic resources. Day after day, huge areas are covered with impervious surfaces for settlements and transport infrastructure. The farming sector uses too many agrochemicals and fertilisers, damaging the environment and soils. Our food supply requires far too much land. And sustainable management does not pay off for forest owners.
A transition in land use is urgently needed, not least because of the fierce competition for land, both here and around the globe. Strategies and solutions in four key areas can foster more sustainable land use and thus advance land-use transition.
Turning talk into action
In recent years, various commissions have been established with a view to developing joint strategies involving farmers, policymakers and environmental representatives. Such processes have clearly shown that positions are not irreconcilable and agreement can be achieved. They include in Germany the Commission on the Future of Agriculture (Zukunftskommission Landwirtschaft, ZKL), the recommendations issued by the Competence Network for Livestock Farming (Kompetenznetzwerk Nutztierhaltung) and the recently published recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on "Nutrition in Transition" (Bürgerrat “Ernährung im Wandel”). Even more important than the establishment of such commissions is their recommendations’ genuine implementation, as was the case with the “Coal Commission” (the German Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment), for example. While the Commission on the Future of Agriculture is continuing its good work, not many of its recommendations have been implemented since the publication of its report in June 2021. Ongoing dialogue with stakeholders in all areas of land use is essential, but results should also be implemented swiftly.
For farmers and forest owners it is crucial to have a reliable framework for long-term operational planning that offers them economically viable prospects for deploying greener production methods. And this can’t be funding that is suddenly dropped after three years due to shifting political priorities. The instruments discussed in this paper need to be embedded in a long-term, coherent framework with clear objectives.
Key recommendations for action
To reduce land consumption, it is necessary to
- consider land conservation and land recycling (brownfield redevelopment) in the planning processes of towns and municipalities,
- build awareness and expertise on the impact of land consumption, and
- focus more strongly on inner urban development.
This can be achieved by means of
- instruments that reduce external development, such as the abolition of subsidies,
- interdepartmental organisational structures for the protection of lands and effective landmanagement, and
- specific planning aids for decision-makers in towns and municipalities.
A more sustainable farming sector needs to
- reduce competition for cropland due to livestock feed production by giving priority to grassland-based feeding for dairy and beef herds and increasing the use of crop residues in cattle fattening,
- reduce competition for land due to the production of energy crops by collecting more residual biomass and making better use of it for energy generation,
- increase the farming sector’s climate resilience through wide crop rotations with a higher proportion of leguminous crops and the establishment of agroforestry systems,
- increase the proportion of land under organic management and of biodiversity areas,
- rewet peatlands for climate change mitigation,
- reduce livestock numbers and establish a new livestock husbandry structure that places greater emphasis on animal welfare and favours closed nutrient cycles, and
- reduce the use of pesticides as well as excess nutrients levels.
This can be achieved by means of
- adjustments to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): fewer climate-damaging subsidies and extensive compensation for services to the public good such as biodiversity measures,
- additional national funding for the restructuring of agriculture, such as a surcharge/levy system modelled on the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG),
- an obligatory linkage of dairy and cattle enterprises to a grassland base and of any livestock enterprise to an agricultural land base,
- adjustments to the legislation on fertiliser use, such as stricter maximum levels for nitrogen surpluses.
To achieve a more sustainable diet it will be necessary to
- reduce the consumption of milk, meat and other livestock-based foods,
- initiate a shift towards a plant-based diet,
- avoid food waste, and
- focus on regional and organically produced food.
This can be achieved by means of
- the abolition of VAT on plant-based foods and an increase in VAT on livestock-based products with an overall net relief for consumers,
- award criteria in public procurement that promote sustainable and circular-economy-oriented nutrition,
- an educational campaign for sustainable nutrition,
- a federal programme for plant-based nutrition,
- greater support for regional value chains and the promotion of regional production, processing and marketing if these deliver social and environmental benefits, and
- environmental and climate labelling of food products.
To achieve a more sustainable forestry sector it will be necessary to
- financially promote climate change mitigation in the forestry sector,
- diversify the income streams of forest owners,
- restrict the use of wood for energy generation, and
- conserve older deciduous tree populations.
This can be achieved by means of
- greater remuneration for ecosystem services,
- attracting private investors to finance forest conservation,
- the forestry sector participating in a certificate market,
- the promotion and testing of innovative ways of using wood,
- improved timber recycling, and
- greater priority for forest conservation.
Introduction: The land-use trilemma
Several global crises have a direct impact on our land use: The climate crisis brings drought, heavy rainfall events and wildfires, among other things. Natural ecosystems, agriculture and forestry may not be able to adapt rapidly enough, which in turn jeopardises global food supplies and the supply of biogenic raw materials. At the same time, land use contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbates the climate crisis.
We are also experiencing a biodiversity crisis: According to the United Nations, one million species of flora and fauna worldwide are at risk of extinction. In Germany, almost every third species is considered endangered. The loss of genetic diversity jeopardises sustainable and long-term food security.
And another system in crisis is the global food system: In 2023, 345 million people were affected by hunger. Increasing climate disasters are destroying crops, soils, livestock and livelihoods and more and more people are no longer able to feed themselves.
Taking a comprehensive view – leveraging synergies
Land is needed to tackle the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the food crisis: for carbon sequestration, for a larger network of protected areas and for ecosystem restoration, as well as for global food security. It is therefore important not to pursue the achievement of the various objectives – i.e. climate change mitigation and adaptation, the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and food security – in isolation and as competing goals, but to develop strategies that leverage synergies and contribute to solving all three crises at the same time.
Land use at an impasse?
These problems are also rooted in the way we use land. We are constantly converting lands, such as land under forest cover, into areas for transport infrastructure or settlements. Although land take (new land consumption) in Germany has been declining somewhat since 2004, an average of 55 hectares of land are currently sealed every day for settlements and transport alone. Moreover, while a productive farming sector is necessary to ensure food security, unsustainable practices are destroying the basis of food production. In Germany as elsewhere, we find soils degraded by erosion and compaction as well as high levels of nutrient pollution in ground and surface waters in some regions. Species of flora and fauna once common in agricultural landscapes had to be placed under special protection in many places. In addition, 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from private consumption in this country alone are attributable to the production and consumption of food.
There is no doubt that action is needed. But even though we actually know enough about ecosystems and the problems caused by land use, hardly anything has changed in recent decades. This is certainly not least due to the fact that land use is part of our culture. Every single person’s actions have an impact on land use. And at the same time, every single person is affected by the consequences. In addition, we cannot simply replace land use with some new technology, as is possible when switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. What is needed is a profound change in the existing system.
Is there a way out of the land-use trilemma? And if so, where is it? We address these questions with a lens on land availability and competition for land, agri-food systems, and forest utilisation.
Further information on the land-use trilemma
- The Oeko-Institut's thematic web page on land-use transition: The sustainable management of forests, soils and waters has implications for our food, agriculture and forestry – and vice versa
- Report of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU): Rethinking Land in the Anthropocene: from Separation to Integration