Fri, November 02, 2018   |    Download PDF of this article

We have enough fertile farmland and range lands to produce the food needed to provide a healthy diet for all Americans. A recent report showed current U.S. rangeland and farmland can support the dietary needs of 130 percent to 261 percent of the current U.S. population, depending on specific dietary patterns. The major determinant is how much meat and dairy products the typical American eats. These require relatively more land to produce but also can take advantage of the western rangelands and perennial pastures, which can support cattle and other ruminants. That said, this land capacity analysis doesn’t address the environmental attributes or negative impacts of food production.

There are three main issues regarding land and farming practices: where, what, and how. First, national carrying capacity says nothing about where in the U.S. it could be most beneficial to produce different foods relative to a variety of environmental attributes (for example, managing phosphorus and nitrogen cycles through judicious recycling) or national food system resilience. Second, on average our consumption patterns are far from those needed to promote full health— production responds to consumption to some degree. Third, how our food is produced is a vital component of environmental sustainability.

In thinking about land use and global ecosystem integrity, there is a range of considerations to be accounted for. The most useful global approach is the ‘planetary boundary’ concept, which considers nine domains including land system change. At least five strategies emerge that could improve the U.S. picture with respect to land use, farming practices, and environmental boundaries:

  • Decrease livestock production (including feed production) as currently practiced. Phosphorus runoff into the Gulf of Mexico could be reduced dramatically if the most erodible land in the Mississippi Basin were taken out of row crop (feed) production and planted into perennial crops (e.g., pasture grasses and legumes). Improving grassland management can have positive impacts on soil carbon (C) sequestration.
  • Increase regional production of plant proteins and produce, including off-season via high tunnels (vegetable production in unheated greenhouses). For example, research has demonstrated a lower relative carbon footprint of high-tunnel greens produced in the upper Midwest compared to shipping from the West Coast. In part, this can be done in and around city regions on smaller parcels of land.
  • Encourage a more seasonal diet and start driving demand away from production that is wildly out-of-step with the local and regional ecosystems—for example, buying water-intensive crops from drier parts of the country.
  • Reduce production of high-water crops in low-water environments (e.g., Romaine lettuce in the American Southwest), and distribute this production across the country.
  • Source organic products to the highest extent possible—especially plant-based products. Recent research demonstrates that a combination of 100 percent organic production, reduced food waste, and change in dietary consumption can feed the global population, with the caveat that nitrogen would be a limiting plant nutrient for sufficient production.

In the past year, there has been little substantial effort by the restaurant industry or major companies to engage in changing how farm and rangeland is used in the United States. Early efforts to even improve supply chain practices to know where food comes from might make this possible in future years.

But the continued dramatic decline in beef consumption driven largely by other concerns— and highly correlated with the public’s increased spending on meals prepared by the restaurant industry—helps make better land management possible.

Chefs need to work on three fronts to ensure that their menus feature products grown according to the most sustainable farming practices: First, they need to communicate regularly with both their local farmers and their national and global purveyors to understand their practices and in turn request and select items least damaging to the environment. In the off-season, we will never produce the same mix locally as can be done in-season. Second, chefs should work in partnership with local farmers to help plan menus for periods when produce is sparse, such as late winter, by knowing ahead of time what might come in and how they might prepare it.

Third, chefs need to share this dialogue with their consumers. Not all diners will want to know how their food is produced, but the more they understand about sustainable farming practices, the more they can then apply the same decision-making process applied by chefs in their restaurants to their purchasing practices for at-home consumption. By sharing their sourcing process strategies with regional and national media and, more broadly, with consumers, chefs can impact a demand for better practices for every sector of the food industry. This information does not need to appear on a menu, but can be provided on a restaurant’s website, for example, or framed in a waiting area.


There has been little change in how we use, or manage, farmland and ranch lands as well as soil resources in the U.S.


  • U.S. agricultural lands are capable of producing sufficient food for a large population; how many is primarily dependent on meat consumption.
  • Changes in production patterns to more fully match dietary guidelines could have positive environmental benefits if done thoughtfully.
  • There has been little change in how we use, or manage, farmland and ranch lands as well as soil resources in the U.S. Leading scientific institutions have found that crop diversity is critical, but the U.S. continues to grow and raise a small set of plants and animals on much of its land.