Our basic need for food creates one of the largest "footprints" on the planet. We already use 15 million square kilometers—an area about the size of South America—to grow crops. Another 32 million square kilometers—an area the size of Africa—are used as pasture and rangeland for our animals. Taken together, our cities, croplands and pastures use about 40% of Earth's total land surface. Much of the remaining land, being too dry, cold or remote, is not suitable for food production. And, as global climate changes, many places that were productive crop and pasture lands may no longer support agriculture.
Researchers at the Global Landscape Initiative at IonE are working to understand exactly where and how people are using land across the world. Our population is growing, but Earth isn't, so we need to use available land as efficiently as possible. Planting appropriate crops for a particular region, using the right amounts of the right kinds of fertilizer, and employing irrigation methods that use no more water than necessary will help us to get more food from a smaller area.
IonE is also studying the natural impacts of agriculture. Food production involves much more than just the area of land used—extensive irrigation can drain waterways, and too much fertilizer can run off and pollute them, and while clearing land for agriculture can release massive amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, proper planting can help recapture much of it. All of these factors must be considered when developing strategies for a sustainable, well-fed future population.