We're Running Out of Wilderness

©. Ilana E. Strauss

Almost half of the land on Earth is now farmland.

When you picture the world, you might imagine vast jungles, meadows, and untouched wilderness. But if you find yourself driving past a whole lot more corn fields than forests, you’re not just imagining things. Nature is disappearing.

That’s what Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer at the University of British Columbia, told me. Ramankutty and his colleagues use satellites to figure out how much nature is left on the planet. What he found could ruin your lunch break. Fair warning.

40 percent of land on earth is being used for farmland

© Ilana E. Strauss

Humans use almost half of the land on Earth for agriculture. And keep in mind, “land on Earth” includes Antarctica and the far north. In fact, most of the land that hasn’t been farmed is either too cold for most plants (think penguins and polar bears) or too dry (the Sahara desert). The only real lush natural areas left are forests like the Amazon, and even these are dwindling.

“That's a huge footprint,” explained Ramankutty.

Crops cover a third of the land being farmed, while cows and other animals graze on the other two thirds. That means we use more land to “grow” (raise?) animals than we do to grow everything else altogether. Since it takes so much food to bring an animal to adulthood, we must be pouring tons of resources into these animals.

As cows, corn, soybeans, and other farmed species take over most of the places where stuff can grow, the wilderness melts away. An awful lot of plants and animals are going endangered in what scientists are calling the planet's sixth mass extinction (the dinosaurs died in the fifth), and this is a big part of the reason why: wild species have nowhere to live. There are more tigers in zoos and people's homes than in the wild.

“We are basically destroying the planet for our own survival,” Ramankutty said. “This is not very sustainable.”

Still, he’s not a cynic. Problem-solving is humanity's specialty. For instance, Ramankutty gave me the data to make this infographic, which could theoretically spread awareness. So, you know. Progress.

“We just need to be more wise about how we use our land,” he went on. “We can imagine an ultimate future that is much more hopeful.”