Around half of the habitable land on the planet is now used for agriculture. A millennium ago—or more recently, in the case of many countries—it was mostly wilderness. Soon, technology could reshape that balance again, bringing back acres of trees as tools to fight climate change.
A new project from the global design firm Stantec looks at how ancient forests and other ecosystems could come back, through “rewilding,” if we produce food differently. Raising cattle, for example, takes up vast swaths of land for grazing or growing cattle feed. (In the U.S., pasture occupies around a third of the lower 48 states; these maps illustrate just how much of the country is used for grazing.) But as plant-based burgers and bioreactor-grown dairy continue to become more common, and eventually cheaper and tastier than the versions from animals, it could make more space available for forests to return. Similarly, indoor agriculture is more efficient than traditional farming and so could help free up space.
Jonathan Riggall, the director of energy and natural resources at Stantec, researched how technology might enable rewilding in the U.K. and Europe. Riggall had begun thinking about the historical landscape when he studied environmental archaeology as a university student. “My first introduction to the concept that Europe had a wildwood was through the archaeological record,” he says. Over the years, as he worked in the climate change sector, he noticed a disparity in how that past was discussed—developing countries would be criticized for cutting down forests to farm, but few people talked about the fact that the same thing had happened earlier in Europe at a massive scale, and again when Europeans arrived in America.
Now, he argues, the fourth industrial revolution—from genetic engineering to robotics and artificial intelligence—could make it possible to change land use at a large scale. Vertical farms, including systems that plant, grow, and harvest food autonomously, can use as little as 1% of the land that a conventional farm would use to grow the same amount of food. The systems are still at a relatively early stage and expensive, but beginning to prove that they can be profitable. Right now, vertical farm companies focus on leafy greens, which make the most sense financially, but berries and vine crops will soon follow. Other indoor agriculture facilities, like a large, state-of-the-art greenhouse now growing tomatoes in Appalachia, use one-thirtieth of the land used in traditional farming. A new vertical wheat farm grows as much in 850 square feet as could normally grow on 30 to 50 acres.
Alternatives for meat production make an even larger difference. Impossible Burger, one of the pioneers of plant-based meat that tastes nearly identical to the real thing, uses 96% less land to make a burger than if it had been made from beef. A lifecycle analysis of Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger, also made from plants, found that it used 93% less land. So-called “cultured or “cell-based” meat, grown from animal cells in bioreactors, also shrinks land use and is poised to soon come to market, with the first regulatory approval recently announced. Companies working on dairy equivalents—such as vegan cheese that uses lab-grown milk proteins—can also eliminate the need for huge pastures. (If people voluntarily choose to eat less meat and dairy, that would also reduce land use, but it may be an easier sell to provide options that just have less impact on the environment.)
Areas that were once forested and no longer needed for farming could be restored to wilderness. The idea of rewilding is already on some government agendas. In the U.K., where Riggall works, the government recently pledged to restore woodlands on 30,000 hectares of land per year as part of a larger plan to fight climate change. “What I find interesting is that they didn’t really necessarily align to new agricultural practices,” he says. “And those two things are so interlinked, because you can’t have land-use change without figuring out where you’re going to feed people.”
The United Nations has projected that as the global population grows, world food production will need to nearly double by 2050—so some gains in using land efficiently will likely be offset by demand. Still, there’s opportunity to rethink current farmland. Riggall hopes that by visualizing how land can be used differently, the Stantec project can help designers begin to make new choices when planning multi-year developments that will be in place for decades. The project “helps people look forward,” he says, “because we’re designing things now.”