Zero Hunger

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Land-Use Change Scenarios

  • Amir AhmadpourEmail author
  • Mohamad Reza Shahraki
Living reference work entry



Land use refers to how people make use of the land. It also refers to specifying how land is used. Land use encompasses patterns, activities, and inputs that are utilized by people in a certain type of land cover for production operation or its change and protection (Jansen and Gregorio 1998). Land-use change means changes in how a land is used. This change is not necessarily confined to the changes in land surface, but it includes the changes in land density and management too (Ziari 2007).


The earth is the place where human activities are done. The use of this resource is called land use that provides different situations depending on goals like food production, shelter supply, and material extraction and processing, as well as biophysical characteristics of the land (Mehrabi et al. 2013). Land use is dictated by two components: basic living requirements of human being and bioenvironmental attributes and processes. Currently, the concepts of land and space have undergone a qualitative change both in natural and socioeconomic aspects. Consequently, the concept of land use has extended to cover a wider range of aspects and goals. Obviously, the use of land and space as a public, vital, and commonwealth source should be vigorously regulated (Ziari 2007).

Land management in a comprehensive planning system Moudon and Hubner (as cited in Motavaselie et al. 2016)

Presently, land use and land cover have turned into sophisticated processes that include diverse variables and factors at various social and spatial levels (Valbuena et al. 2010). As such, a special attention has been paid to the control of the changes in land use and land cover, mostly focused on the regulation of policies on land use. This requires access to continuous information on land-use change as to why, when, how, and where (Khakpour et al. 2007). The study and recognition of factors, impacts, and consequences of land-use change can provide a clear perspective and path for decision-making.

The significance of the subject matter becomes clearer when the vital role of land in people’s life, especially in rural people’s life, is considered because most poor people of the world will still inhabit the rural areas and will rely on subsistence farming at least until 2040 (The World Bank 2010). So, it is of crucial importance to consider land-use transformation, particularly in the field of agriculture.

The Notion of Land-Use Change

In its broadest concept, land use refers to the present status of how land is used, and this encompasses all uses in agricultural and natural resources, and industrial sectors (Amirnezhad 2014; Ghaffari 2015). Land use in human activities for tangible profit does not convey the concept of land use. Land use in rural areas (agriculture, forestry, etc.) differs from that in urban areas (industry, trade, house building, etc.), which is sometimes called functional land use (Manesizadeh and Khoshhal 2005). Land-use change results from a complicated interaction of various factors, such as politics, management, economics, culture, environment, and, above all, human activity (Ziari 2007), and it has turned into one of the most important challenges of the modern time due to the lack of sound planning, inattention to sustainable development, lack of sustainable management, and ignorance of environmental limitations (Dehghan and Falsafian 2018).

The Trend of Land-Use Change

Since more than a third of the land area is used for the production of the agricultural crops and forage, it can be claimed that the use of the lands for farming has turned into the biggest force for changing the Earth surface (Billington et al. 1996). The pace of agricultural land change has been quickened in the last 300 years so that it has increased from 3–4 in 1700 to almost 15–18 million km2 in 1990. Evidence suggests the formation of an important trend – a trend that has resulted in the gradual shrinkage of the lands due to the development of human residential areas and urbanization (Barati et al. 2014; Lambin and Geist 2006). Some believe that land-use change induced by population growth has been initiated with the change of 64% of agricultural lands since 1850 (Heald and Geddes 2016). In the USA alone, about 10 million single-family houses were built in the suburbs and lands around rural and urban areas between 1945 and 1960 (Anderson 2012). This process has entailed a wide range of problems and challenges, such as the loss of the crop production, water pollution, the increase in local runoff, flooding, and the loss of habitations and biodiversity (Mylott 2009).

According to a report by FAO in 2012, per capita agricultural land area has decreased in all parts of the world except for some developed countries from 1970 to 2009 (so that it has been halved in 50 years) (Table 1). This decline has been more pronounced in some countries. As mentioned above, this issue is partially induced by population growth, but the land-use change of the agricultural lands to nonagricultural uses has been the main cause (FAO 2012).
Table 1

Per capita agricultural land in different parts of the world in 2009 and its variations (FAO 2012)

Geographical region

Area (1000 ha)

Agricultural land (%)

Area of arable lands per person (ha)

Percent of arable land variation per person in 1970–2009

Total agricultural land


Permanent lands

Temporary lands









Developed countries








Developing countries
































Latin America








North America
















The Types of Land-Use Change

The overall pattern of land-use change can be broadly divided into two main groups: the first group includes the expansion of agricultural lands at the expense of the degradation of natural ecosystems, especially jungles (due to the population growth and the increasing food demand), and the second group includes the agricultural land-use change to other uses (residential buildings, institutions, industrial workshops, etc.).

The Change of Forests and Pastures to Agricultural Lands

The degradation of the natural resources, such as forests and pastures, results in the shrinkage of these areas and their conversion to other uses managed by humans (Bewket and Stroosnijder 2003). This land-use change is undoubtedly the most important factor influencing the protection of the natural ecosystems (Vitousek et al. 1997) so that the increasing rate of land-use change in recent years implies that most appealing and virgin landscapes are posed to the risk of invasion and anomalous use and that the natural landscapes at global level have suffered from irreparable damages (Hassani Mehr and Shahvar 2010).

Presently, a serious concern about environmental degradation and global climate change is the conversion of forests and pastures to agricultural lands (Wali et al. 1999). Since over one-third of the lands are used for the production of the agricultural crops and forage, it can be said that land use for agriculture has become the biggest force transforming the Earth surface (Billington et al. 1996) so that land degradation and low agricultural yield are the main challenges for most countries, especially developing countries (Pander et al. 2004). In most undeveloped countries, the rural population relies on land for their livelihood. On the one hand, the rapid growth of the rural population has extensive impacts on natural resources, such as land use and cover change. On the other hand, advances in modern agriculture and technology have led to the destruction of most parts of forests and their conversion to agricultural land (Gollnow and Lakes 2014).

At the global level, about 1.2 million km2 of forests and nearly 5.6 million km2 of grasslands and pastures have been subject to diverse forms of land-use change in the recent three centuries (Spartz et al. 2015; Agarwal et al. 2002). This form of land-use change entails a plethora of negative impacts, e.g., degradation and erosion. For example, 37% of the forests of Bangladesh have been ruined by traditional land-use methods, and the loss of forest cover and inappropriate land-use methods have caused serious erosion of soil (Amsalu et al. 2007). Or, in Spain, land-use change of forest to olive lands has increased soil waste by seven times, and organic carbon of soil has been halved in the surface layer of soil (Martinez-Mena et al. 2008).

The Change of Agricultural Lands to Other Uses

The change of agricultural lands to other uses is the second type of land-use change. About 10–15% of the agricultural land has been changed to industrialized urban areas, and about 6–8% are pastures (Spartz et al. 2015; Agarwal et al. 2002). So, since cities are faced with population growth, they need more living space, but they fail to provide proper space for the added population. As such, a part of the added population is pushed to the surrounding areas. Rural settlements close to the urban areas are among the main places for attracting such a population (Ghadermazy 2012). Therefore, the population of these rural areas is enormously increasing due to the migration. This population growth entails the growth of demand for land and housing. As a result, the price of agricultural lands increases, and they are extensively changed to residential, service, or industrial uses. Naturally, delighted with high earnings, the land-owning villagers tend to a sort of effortless “rent” in that they exclude their agricultural and horticultural lands from the agricultural economy and establish their ownership or tenure on them more vigorously. As parts or even whole lands of the villagers are gradually sold or undergo legal or illegal construction, the land use is changed from agriculture to residential, commercial, or industrial uses, and rural land use is profoundly transformed. The abandonment of agricultural lands for these purposes is called “social fallow” (Hartke 1956).

Underpinning Factors and Consequences of Land-Use Change

Underpinning Factors

The controversies and concerns about environmental changes have attracted serious attention to land-use change in recent decades (Al-Amin et al. 2013). So, the planning and control of land and its changes requires the identification and appraisal of its underpinning factors (Longley and Mesev 2000). In this regard, economy and population are two key factors in land-use change (Khakpour et al. 2007). In this respect, the economy is the main factor influencing land-use decisions, and income generation is among the most important economic objectives of land use. When land price increase exceeds inflation, investment in land gains more economic importance (Manesizadeh and Khoshhal 2005). In addition, land-use changes are chiefly influenced by large-scale factors, such as global economic issues and climate as well as local policies (Geist and Lambin 2002). High gross domestic product and the increased size of rural areas and transportation networks are the factors driving the shrinkage of the agricultural lands (Sali 2012). Numerous other factors play a role in land-use change. Examples are geographical factors, lack of basic conditions for planting, unavailability of production inputs to farmers, the high price of inputs, risk management, social and psychological issues, policymaking, and planning (Ahmadpour and Alavi 2014). Furthermore, tourism is a phenomenon emerged as a factor affecting land-use change in rural and agricultural areas remarkably (Manesizadeh and Khoshhal 2005). On the other hand, the lack of serious attention to major rural areas and agricultural sectors and the loss of the share of villages and rural areas in economic development and industrial development strategies have rendered the productive labor of these regions unable to meet their economic livelihood and migrate to urban and suburban areas (Mehrabi et al. 2013). Thus, as the population grows, productive lands in some countries are being changed to nonagricultural lands. The consequence is the extensive changes in land use and cover which have aggravated the environmental problems, mainly the degradation, erosion, and pollution of soil, water, and air, in recent decades (FAO 2012). All in all, a bunch of economic, social, cultural, political, and climatic factors can be listed as the factors dictating land use.

Impacts and Consequences

Land-use change can have economic consequences (changes in income, employment or unemployment, etc.) and social impacts (life quality of families, migration, out-of-village communication, familiarity with innovations, etc.) (Vasile et al. 2015) and may trigger changes in socioeconomic factors, such as crop yield, welfare, and human capital. The main economic consequences of the agricultural land-use change include the accelerated pace of agricultural land-use change due to the land price change, the reduction of the agricultural crop production, and the decrease in the agricultural income of the rural families.

Some other reasons why land-use change has been focused on include the threats arisen from climate change, deforestation, desertification, and, in general, the loss of biodiversity (Finco and Nijkamp 1997). The conversion of forests into agricultural lands has posed serious risks so that the changes in the natural uses can be blamed as a major reason for horrible floods and soil erosion. A careful review of the environmental causes of these events shows that unplanned land uses (Lorup et al. 1998), human intervention in natural cycle of water through degradation of vegetation (Loukas et al. 2000), and the development of impenetrable areas (Tommy et al. 1998) increase the risk of flood in different regions. Flood is one of the main impacts of human activities resulting from land-use change (Brooks 2003). The increasing growth of land-use change and the conversion of pastures and forests to agricultural land and the progressive agricultural conditions play a key role in sediment input into the rivers (Morgan 1980). Intensive land-use change in short run disrupts the hydrological system, both as the increase in the water content via flooding and as water loss via the reduction and/or elimination of minimum flood flow (Croke et al. 2004). Thus, land-use change affects not only surface currents but also subsurface currents and underground waters (Palamuleni et al. 2011).

As a result of the conversion of the pastures and forests into agricultural lands and tillage operations, about 430 million ha of the lands of different countries accounting for 30% of total plowed lands of the world are annually eroded and are excluded from optimal production cycle (Boroumand et al. 2014). On the other hand, the high demand for housing, the supply of wood from the forests for fuel, the industrial preparation of timber, overgrazing, and uncontrolled fires are other reasons responsible for land-use change and the loss of the natural resources in the form of deforestation and the degradation of pastures in most parts of the world (Nael et al. 2004).

Forest soils have always been attractive since they are a rich source of organic matter and they have a suitable texture, but the change in their management and use and tillage generally affects their organic matter content and other physicochemical attributes to a great extent (Yimer et al. 2007; Marinari et al. 2006). The changes induced by deforestation and agronomic operation result in the loss of soil organic matter (Rasiah and Kay 1995; Mander et al. 2000; Solomon et al. 2000; Islam and Weil 2000; Dawson and Smith 2007; Singh and Khera 2008), the loss of soil porosity and permeability (Rasiah and Kay 1995; Islam and Weil 2000), the loss of soil microbial activity (Rasiah and Kay 1995), the significant loss of soil pH, and the bulk density (Grandy and Robertson 2007).

Overall, it can be asserted that land-use change entails a wide range of impacts on the economy (economic growth, income level, income distribution) and natural resources, such as biodiversity, ecosystems, water, and soil (Muller and Zeller 2002). The social impacts are also an undeniable dimension of land-use change (Vasile et al. 2015).

Land-Use Change and Food Security

Land-use change poses a threat to the agricultural sector and can jeopardize food security and self-sufficiency in the near future. Food security is a multidimensional concept that is dictated by the interaction of a set of biological, economic, social, agricultural, and physical factors. Resource constraints on the one hand and the growth of population and human spaces on the other hand put a growing pressure on land use. Obviously, raw material production is directly related to land. Food scarcity is one of the biggest challenges for human, so it is imperative to manage food production in proportion with food demand increase with population growth (Irankhah and Momeni 2017) as this has been considered by international agencies and organization. For example, the UN has addressed such issues as hunger and poverty in 2030 agenda and has stressed out that the countries should prioritize them.

In this regard, an approach to make a balance between population and sustainable food production to satisfy the growing needs of the human communities is to prioritize the expansion of the agricultural activities through more production, taking into account the considerations of sustainable development (Dehghan and Falsafian 2018). The preservation of the agricultural lands is the main factor guaranteeing community security and is an integrated component of the rural economy. As well, reasonable planning for organizing and maintaining agricultural land use plays an undeniable role in the sustainable development of agriculture and balanced development of the society (Dehghan and Falsafian 2018).

According to what was mentioned, land-use change for agriculture cannot be a good solution for the supply of food security and self-sufficiency. Thus, we need to identify alternative approaches to establish sustainable food security. It seems that sustainable agriculture can be an appropriate and efficient approach. Sustainable agriculture is an operation that keeps fertility at an acceptable level and, by satisfying the needs and requirements, is matched with future needs of human on the basis of increasing the capacity of the basic resources (Bewket and Stroosnijder 2003; Quétier et al. 2007; Ronggui and Tiessen 2002). Sustainable agriculture is capable of satisfying the growing needs of human communities by enhancing the productions of the agricultural sector and making a balance between population and sustainable food production.


Land use can entail multiple consequences and impacts in economic, social, and environmental aspects. Although land-use change may potentially bring about satisfactory and appealing results for people in the short run, its destructive impacts in long term cannot be denied.

There is no doubt that land-use change in agricultural lands and natural resource landscapes, especially in forests and pasture, can influence people’s life so that land-use change of agricultural lands and natural resources can jeopardize food security for a large number of people by disturbing spatial planning management and changing landscape and environment.

On the other hand, population growth will aggravate the pressure on the limited resources including agricultural lands. Based on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Goal 2 states that by 2030 we should end hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition. It seems that land-use change cannot be a comprehensive and sustainable solution to meet the growing need of people for food resources and sustainable food security. This would be accomplished by increasing agricultural productivity by ensuring sustainable food production systems and improving land and soil quality. In this regard, management, planning, and providing the practical policies, the development of sustainable agriculture practices, and the sustainable development of agriculture can contribute to solving this problem and can be a good and suitable alternative for the problem of agricultural land scarcity and the prevention of land-use change. This can be accomplished by focusing on such issues as the increased investment in the agricultural production, the establishment of an appropriate space for the investment by public and private sectors, the development of rural infrastructure, and the expansion of public education (particularly for local communities, women, and children) so as to mitigate vulnerability to an important human challenge (hunger and poverty) and to help advance human development.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Agricultural Extension and Education, Sari BranchIslamic Azad UniversitySariIran
  2. 2.Department of Natural Resources and Watershed Management of Golestan Province and M.Sc. Student of Rural Development, Gorgan University of Agricultural Sciences and Natural ResourcesGorganIran

Section editors and affiliations

  • Mohammad Sadegh Allahyari
    • 1
  1. 1.Dept. of Agricultural ManagementRasht Branch, Islamic Azad University, RashtRashtIran