Towards national reporting on agricultural land use change in Australia

11 Oct 2013

This report provides the latest available information on national land use and land use change in Australia.


Land use describes the purposes assigned to land. It refers to the purpose for which the land is committed. It is fundamental to understanding landscapes, agricultural production and the management of natural resources. Land use can include the production of goods (such as crops, timber and manufactures) and services (such as defence, recreations, biodiversity and natural resources protection). It also includes urban and rural settlement. Land use choices have a major effect on food production, the natural environment and communities.

Land use change is central to much current debate in Australia around agriculture and food and fibre security, forestry, water management, mining, climate change mitigation and adaptation, population, urban expansion, biodiversity protection, community development and landscape aesthetics.

This report provides the latest available information on national land use and land use change. It draws heavily on the ABARES time series of national scale land use maps and Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) agricultural statistics as these are the most reliable and consistent for reporting on land use change at the national level. The strength of the ABARES national scale land use maps is that they combine ABS agricultural statistics with other land use information into one complete spatial dataset for Australia.

The broad trends in agricultural land use change are as follows:

  • Agriculture remains Australia's dominant land use, covering around 456 million hectares (ha) or 59 per cent of the continent in 2005‐06, a decrease of around 18.8 million ha (4 per cent of the agricultural area) since 1992‐93.
  • The most common agricultural land use by area is grazing on native vegetation and modified pastures which occupies 428 million ha or around 56 per cent of Australia and occurs mostly in the arid and semi‐arid regions of inland Australia.
  • The area of grazing decreased by 6 per cent between 1992‐93 and 2005‐06. Over the same period, the area of land used for cropping increased by 39 per cent to 27 million ha (3.5 per cent of Australia’s land area). These changes vary across the country, see Maps S1 and S2.
  • In 2005‐06, areas of minimal use, nature conservation and other protected areas including Indigenous uses occupied around 282 million hectares or 37 per cent of Australia. Based on the Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database (CAPAD), between 1992‐93 and 2005‐ 06, the area of formal nature conservation increased by 15 million ha (37 per cent). In some regions, decreases in the area of land used for grazing are associated with increases in the area of land used for cropping and nature conservation although locations where direct conversions from one land use to another have occurred cannot be identified from the national‐scale data reviewed in this report.
  • The number of farm businesses decreased from 144 860 in 1997‐98 to 135 447 in 2010‐11. However, decreases by farm size were only reflected in the medium (50 to 2 500 ha) category. The number of large farms (greater than 2 500 ha) and small farms (less than 50 ha) both increased between 1997‐98 and 2010‐11. Changes in farm size can arise from a range of factors including pressures to increase economic productivity and efficiency as well as sub‐division for peri‐urban lifestyle blocks or for more intensive production.
  • While the growth in peri‐urban areas (those that lie on the fringe of the major built‐up areas of cities) can compete with agricultural land and the loss of agricultural land to urban growth is important, these changes do not necessarily translate into a decrease in the value of agricultural production. The Melbourne Statistical Division, for example, had only 2 per cent of the total area of Victoria's agricultural holdings in 2010‐11, but this area produced 13.4 per cent ($1.2 billion) of the State’s agricultural commodities by value. Mining is also expanding into agricultural lands and some new coal seam gas developments occur in areas of high value agricultural activity.
  • While the national picture suggests relatively modest changes in area for key land uses (grazing, cropping and nature conservation) over the period 1992‐93 to 2005‐06, regional land use change patterns can vary significantly from national trends. Over the longer term the impacts of increased climate variability and population pressure may strongly impact the location of agricultural and non‐agricultural activities. Changes in the location of traditional agricultural activities (grazing and cropping) are already emerging.

Australia is improving its capacity to track land use change, drawing on information sources including satellite remote sensing and statistical collections. The next national scale land use map, based on 2010‐11 agricultural census information, is due for release by ABARES late in 2013 and will provide the opportunity to analyse change across the country for a number of key land uses (grazing, cropping and conservation) from 1992‐93 to 2010‐11. It will also be possible to analyse change for a wider range of land uses between 2005‐06 and 2010‐11. This is being developed by the Australian Collaborative Land Use and Management Program (ACLUMP), a consortium of national and state agencies coordinated by ABARES.


Authored by Jodie Mewett, Justyna Paplinska, Georgina Kelley, Rob Lesslie, Phil Pritchard and Christine Atyeo.

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