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Currently large areas of the world are devoted to grazing.

Many of these areas have historically been deemed incapable of more profitable food production. If there was no longer a market for animal flesh, they would stop adding food value to the world. How could these grazing areas be used to help feed the people of the world?

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Land used for grazing that was previously not used for commercial food production may be former rainforest, or hilltop regions (this may certainly not be an exhaustive list of the possibilities). At first sight these appear very different, but I believe they have common issues. Here I will only deal with hilltop areas in temperate zones as I have knowledge about it. I hope other answers can discuss different conditions.

Hilltop areas in temperate zones

I will use my native land as an example here. As pointed out in this and other articles by George Monbiot, land used for grazing on hilltops would naturally be forested in temperate areas:

In Britain, strangely, the lowlands are largely bare and the uplands are even barer. This is not a natural condition. In Norway, at the same latitudes as northern Scotland, in similar climatic conditions, trees cover the high mountainsides[3]. The uplands of Britain would once have been largely forested. But, aside from plantations of exotic conifers, there are few trees in this country above 200m.

Our bare hills are an artefact of three principal activities: sheep farming, deer stalking and grouse shooting. Sheep and deer selectively browse out tree seedlings, ensuring that existing forests cannot regenerate and trees cannot repopulate bare land.

Sheep are a fully automated system for environmental destruction. Once they are released into the hills, no further human agency is required to prevent ecological recovery.

While the rich soil of the lowlands is excellent for cultivation of food crops, the highlands have poor soil which can support trees, but is not suitable for profitable crop cultivation. It is important to note that sheep farming on this land is also very unprofitable and in my country is very heavily subsidised:

Without farm subsidies, there would be scarcely any hill farming in Europe: the activity is uneconomic almost everywhere and will remain so under all conceivable market conditions, as a result of poor soils and harsh climate. Anyone who wishes to farm there must rely on subsidies.

The loss of trees causes soil erosion from the hills and significantly increases the risk of flash flooding and drought in the lowlands. Trees and woodland retain water and soil and regulate the water cycle, thus protecting fertile lowlands and their crops from flood (which may catastrophically remove soil into water courses and the sea) and drought.

Thus, the best way to use former grazing lands to increase food production may well be to simply allow natural forest growth whether or not the soil is too poor to support sustainable cultivation.

The benefits of allowing natural forest growth extend beyond food production; it also protects settlements from flooding, regulates the water table (for drinking and other uses), and provides habitats to support biodiversity (which creates an exciting lovely world to live in for humans, if you need a justification on that basis - I think biodiversity is an end in itself). It may well be possible to introduce crops that can tolerate poor soil, exposed conditions, relative drought and so on that could be grown profitably on hilltops, or to use artificial techniques to fertilise the soil, but taking a holistic, long term view, allowing natural forest would be more sustainable and beneficial.

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    "Sheep are a fully automated system for environmental destruction." Put this sentence on a T-Shirt and sell it. – Turion Feb 6 '17 at 10:42
  • I agree that reforestation would be awesome. I still don't see how it would lead to a direct food source. – Turion Feb 6 '17 at 10:44
  • @Turion basically by regulating the delivery of water to the fertile lowlands where food is grown, and protecting those fertile lands from floods, drought and the accompanying soil loss – Zanna Feb 6 '17 at 10:47
  • Ok... that's quite indirect. Are there any studies or estimates on how big that effect is? – Turion Feb 6 '17 at 10:48
  • @Turion it's about an holistic view - difficult to measure because random events are involved. You would need long term studies and the effects would vary depending on the area. Climate change is also involved, as it will increase flood/drought issues over time. Ecology is complex and it may be difficult to predict effects of different methods and also to experiment on meaningful scales. Restoring natural forest would take no effort and is almost guaranteed not to have disastrous effects (highland forest + lowland farm configuration has been "tested" over centuries/millenia) – Zanna Feb 6 '17 at 11:03

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