Including Land Use as a Criteria Item for Sustainable Production

In order to assess the sustainability of products that innovators may submit to this competition, we are developing a set of criteria to define the Life Cycle Assessment from cradle to gate in order for applicants to advance in the competition. Currently this assessment will include both Global Warming Potential (GWP) and water usage. We also have a criteria item that looks at the renewability and ethicality of the raw material, aka sustainability of feedstock for scale.

Should we add land use to the assessment for applicants to advance in the competition?

Agricultural land use is one of the largest contributors to habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss, as well as being a major source for environmental pollutants if the land is not managed properly. Should we add land usage to our Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) or is it adequately addressed through the flexible material renewability criteria? why? If land is added to the LCA, do we risk limiting certain innovators? What would need to be considered to make sure land use is properly covered in our current criteria?

Here’s our new discussion on land use - @akb, @barbswartzentruber @ErnieRogers @thanku @schalkj @iduaolunwa @austinclowes any initial thoughts?

I would like to put forward the idea of large-scale food production that has no requirements for land use, fertilization, or water. Would that be acceptable?

I think it can be included with minimal weight. Even if it is not weighted, it may provide information that can be useful. I think.

Neither Nick or another has told me to stop, so I will continue. I think we can say that the natural human carrying capacity of the earth was fulfilled by 8000 BC, with a total world population of about five million people. The population-limiting element was food–what could be obtained by a hunter-gatherer existence. It was at about that time that agriculture was invented, the single most important branch of technology for our existence. We learned to husband the land. With that innovation, world population began to grow. It has only been in the last 100 years that we have developed today’s high-intensity agriculture that has allowed us to provide enough food for the 7.8 billion people we now have on earth. Now, we have a desperate situation–all the land we might use is in cultivation, nature is being squeezed out, and climate change and resource depletion (energy, water, minerals) are serious threats to our continued existence. We can let nature solve the problem–population die-off–or we can find a solution.
Half the earth’s surface, the oceans, are still in a hunter-gatherer existence (and suffering from over-fishing). Consider moving a portion of the ocean surface to husbandry. Let’s consider the prospects. About 80% of the ocean’s surface contains very little life because required mineral nutrients are missing–those are primarily iron, phosphorus, and nitrogen. (These “ocean deserts” do have plenty of water and sunshine.) This mineral deficiency ONLY EXISTS AT THE SURFACE, in the photic zone. At a depth of 800 meters, ocean water is loaded with just the right mixture of nitrogen and phosphorus to create abundant life. (Read, for example, Chemical Oceanography by Wallace S. Broecker.) The sea floor is rich in iron and ultramafic mineral.
Here in the presently less productive parts of the oceans are widely-recognized potential solutions to—
(1) improved ocean health
(2) a new, large-scale food supply
(3) a partial solution to climate change–a productive ocean can vastly increase CO2 uptake
(4) ocean acidification–ultramafics and photosynthesis increase ocean pH.
We learn to manage the oceans even better than we have managed the land.
/Ernie Rogers

@nmgraham and @NickAzer Yes, including land in the environmental impact assessment makes sense.

The area and quality of land available is critical to survival and quality of life. Land provides an area to capture sunlight and rainfall [two fundamental resources], supports ecosystems and agriculture, provides habitat, and underpins the infrastructure and activities of human civilisation. However, the availability of good quality land continues to be under threat. There are issues with: pollution; soil degradation and erosion; flooding; water availability, quality and demand; mono-culture plantations; and the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity.

We should be aware that unconventional approaches to the production of food, materials, packaging and other products may arise in an XPRIZE challenge and so any assessment framework should support their evaluation too. For example, an industrial type approach might use buildings, renewable energy, nutrients, and a water supply (but no soil) - such as modern hydroponics. Or a similar approach might grow products in a vat. Different contexts may also appear, such as “growing” products in facilities in a desert [lots of renewable sunshine energy in the hot ones], or in the oceans.

On the subject of oceans, we have to be particularly careful that we don’t repeat the (land based) mistakes of the past at sea, because its (potential) pollution and ecosystem disruption might initially be less apparent to us land dwellers. This could mean we are late to ring the alarm bells and take action [again]. But more importantly, it is very difficult to control what happens in the oceans - once the genie is out of the bottle. I would suggest that we adopt the Precautionary Principle.

Thank you @akb @ErnieRogers and @iduaolunwa! Do you have any thoughts on how the assessment for applicants around land use could or should be approached?

@eakinyi @LHanson @Joanne @Utobou @kjbradford @marsxr @bngejane @renskelynde @kcamphuis @ricardoyudi @NoraEatREAL @neillk @jcoonrod @FranckSaintMartin @Olawale @LaurenTurk @yusuke @janetlee @brandonkion @SteveK8 @ethan @ymedan - here is our new topic around Land Use, would love to see any input you might have!

I live in Bali and am surrounded by a unique land use method called Subak.

Land Use should definitely be included. But not in the way that LCA’s usually do so.

LCA’s mostly use the metric of “Land Occupation” (units = m2), where “greater land occuption” is “worse” because so much of agriculture is so damaging to ecosystems. In general, the Land Occupation metric is a good start because “m2” is tangible, easy to understand, and easily comparable across projects. HOWEVER, what’s actually important is the impact of that Land Occupation and it’s temporal-spatial context.


  • The environmental **impact** of 1000 m2 of chemical-heavy corn production is often decreased soil health, damage to biodiversity, and some GHG emissions.
  • The **impact** of 1000m2 of organically managed multi-strata agroforestry systems producing a starch crop (like breadfruit or chestnuts) is often increased soil health, greater biodiversity, and potentially GHG sequestration.
  • Both show "1000 m2" of Land Use. But the latter is healing the land, while the former degrades it. In many degraded agricultural and rangelands around the world, we want **MORE** "Land Occupation" if the impact is regenerative.
In either scenario, the preceding land use must be taken into account:
  • If intact rainforest was clear-cut 3 years ago to make room for that 1000 m2 of production, the damage done should be included in the calculations. Same for destruction of deep-rooted grasslands, mangrove deltas, etc.
  • If traditionally open agricultural or rangeland land is the preceding land use (usually a 20 year time horizon is used, I prefer 100-year or greater), then the negative land use change from e.g. deforestation is not added to the calculation.

In summary: Land Use should be included, but needs an “impact modifier” on a spectrum from “Degenerative” to “Regenerative” impact.

A few references for further reading:

  • [Regenerative Agriculture Continuum](
  • [The Carbon Opportunity Cost / Forest Delta]( (webinar recording)
  • [The Carbon Farming Solution]( by Eric Toensmeier
  • @NickAzer Environmental impact assessments are notoriously complex and difficult to perform, if a good level of accuracy is required. Land use assessment is also challenging, for example see the study on species extinction, as a result of land use [1].

    If land use impact, is judged by the XPRIZE team to be a relatively minor contribution, given other factors of the challenge’s evaluation then perhaps a simplistic evaluation mechanism can be developed for this aspect. [I’ll give this some more thought.]

    On the other hand, a successful XPRIZE solution might well result in widespread, global, adoption. That means a significant amount of land would be used for this new solution, and factors that were overlooked in a simplistic evaluation might in reality become significant issues. So, in my mind with the precautionary principle hat on, I would be tempted to recommend that this is evaluated in a detailed and professional manner. For example, consult experts in this area to assist in the evaluation, e.g. specialists at the United Nations, national bodies, and/or universities.

    With regard to an accurate and thorough evaluation, the scenario could be even more complex! As mentioned in an above post, radical innovations might use factory type production facilities that occupy relatively little land (which sounds good). However, those facilities might be dependent on external resources, utilities and services: energy supply; water supply; initial construction materials and services; transport of materials; etc. The life cycle assessment of these external factors should be taken into account also.

    [1] Land Use in Life Cycle Assessment: Global Characterization Factors Based on Regional and Global Potential Species Extinction
    Laura de Baan, Christopher L. Mutel, Michael Curran, Stefanie Hellweg, and Thomas Koellner
    Environmental Science & Technology 2013 47 (16), 9281-9290
    DOI: 10.1021/es400592q

    @NickAzer With regard to evaluating the impact of land use on ecosystems and biodiversity, it might be worth contacting your colleagues working on the Rainforest XPRIZE.

    I’ve given some more thought to my option for a simplistic evaluation mechanism @NickAzer and it seems unlikely that a simple, conventional, approach would be good enough. Even state of the art, detailed, models have limitations.

    So here’s an unconventional, thinking out of the box, type approach that may be a useful addition (irrespective of the level of detail used in the evaluation). Revisiting the circular / recycling diagram made me wonder if we could add additional criteria to the challenge that mean the evaluation is a little easier, whilst still allowing a broad range of solutions across various contexts.

    What if we specified a closed system that was fully dependent on effective recycling of all (key) resources?

    Nothing is perfect and we couldn’t recycle 100% of resources over the long term. So we might specify the recycling of a percentage of all the key resources (e.g. at least 95%). Typically, recycling requires an area of land (e.g. compost heap, digging organic waste into the soil, or allowing the species within an ecosystem to break it down naturally). So a proposed solution might be required to demonstrate this aspect of the overall process, or at least account for it using accepted evaluation practices. In other words, a real solution would require land use for the growing / production and the recycling. We would also want to be mindful of the process’ impact over time, e.g. on soil quality, biodiversity, and other aspects of the environment (local and global).

    We might also specify that solutions should provide and support the highest quality ecosystems with good biodiversity [perhaps based on the best native examples within each region currently, or over the past 100 years]. So land use might include areas for growing / production, recycling and rich ecosystems. [Note: a smart solution might be able to combine all three modes homogeneously.] This means, for example, that if land use changed to agricultural use under this new approach that the land might benefit from enhanced levels of ecosystem quality and biodiversity - depending on what its previous state was.

    For example, changing desert in this way would offer significant benefits. (However, implementing the solution in virgin rain-forest might see a net lowering of ecosystem quality, but still experience a better level than today’s approach of slash, burn and mono-culture plantations / livestock farming. But perhaps rain-forests should remain as protected regions anyway.)

    Similarly, new solutions deployed in urban areas would be expected to bring those benefits of enhanced levels of ecosystem quality and biodiversity.

    In a traditional sense, allocating only part of the “agricultural” or urban land to the growing of food (and other parts to high quality ecosystems) is economically inefficient and sometimes unfeasible. So the innovative challenge here would be for XPRIZE participants to find out how to provide all of these benefits in a way that is socio-economically and environmentally sustainable. Those solutions might be different for different contexts (urban, rural, desert and at sea).

    @ErnieRogers @akb @Ethan @iduaolunwa - Thank you for your great insights; there is definitely a strong yes for the criterion! with varying and exciting approaches. Indeed, whichever way we may encourage or promote, we should do our best to minimize the unintended consequences.
    @Ethan - very interesting to rethink how to assess land, definitely lots to unpack there. Thanks for the links!

    I’m curious to get your views on a specific question. We have another criterion, renewable resource material to ensure sustainable feedstock at scale; can this criterion sufficiently account for land challenges? Or land assessment via the LCA (possibly revised to reflect the complexity) is warranted in addition?

    I think it is very likely that both are important and should be used in tandem. Why? Because “renewable resource material” usually has a pretty weak definition. For example, corn and sugar would generally be classified as “renewable resource materials” but can cause soil erosion, high pesticide impact, high water use, significant GHG emissions, deforestation and other negative biodiversity effects.

    Like the “Land occupation” metric, “Renewable resource material” should be assessed on a spectrum of what a material’s actual impacts are. It’s not the material itself that determines this - it is HOW the material is produced.

    That said, some materials (e.g. ones from perennial tree crops) will have a better chance having net-positive impacts than others (e.g. annual tillage crops, fossil-based petrochemicals). HowGood has created rapid assessment proxy systems based on this concept that are very useful and can be backed up by hard outcomes-based data.

    @Ethan That’s an excellent point that can manifest in the competition. Currently, our renewable resource material is a pass/fail category. We can expand it to acknowledge the complexity. And so we will introduce additional scoring to the category to acknowledge resources (and their production) that push towards net-positive impact. I think that can align with what you were proposing above; what do you think?

    and thank you for the input!

    @Eti Yes that sounds like a good direction; definitely a move away from Pass/Fail will provide more interest and insight. Let me know if you want review on the specific criteria / scoring / metrics you choose - you want them more comprehensive, but not overwhelming to report on.

    @NickAzer i like what both @Ethan and @akb speak about. Great insights. I don’t have anything novel to add…