Global Agriculture Trends: Are We Actually Using Less Land?

© Bridget Besaw

© Bridget Besaw

By Jon Fisher, spatial scientist

Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.

When you consider that we will need 70% more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70% increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).

That’s why I was surprised to find what appears to be good news lurking in global data (from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO 2014) while I was doing research for a chapter in an upcoming book (Agricultural Resilience: perspectives from ecology and economics – coming from Cambridge University Press later this year).

I found that, while the global food supply per person has increased over the last 15 years, we have simultaneously decreased the total amount of land we’re using to produce it.

Here’s why my finding could be read as good news:

♦  It means that, compared to a few decades ago, agriculture is the driver behind less terrestrial habitat loss. For example, in the Eastern United States, significantly more agricultural lands are being converted to forest than vice versa (Loveland and Acevedo 2006.)
♦  It also means that the overall intensification of agriculture — producing more crops in the same or even smaller areas — is continuing. And intensification is sometimes a process that can be made environmentally sustainable, by reducing both the use of resource-intensive inputs (e.g., fertilizer, pesticides, and fresh water) and negative outputs (e.g., water pollution and soil loss).

It also means that the widespread assumption among many environmentalists that agriculture is just chewing up more and more habitat at a faster rate each year is simply not correct.

But the story isn’t all rosy, and there’s a lot of work left to do:

♦  Not all agricultural intensification can be made sustainable, and it is likely that much of the intensification to date represented in the global trend was not; the data show that the total area of “conservation agriculture” has oscillated wildly over the last 15 years (FAO 2014). Overall, agriculture has a long way to go to become truly sustainable.
♦  The levels of intensification which have happened to date are not sufficient to meet the projected demand for food by 2050, and in some places crop yields have stopped increasing (Ray et al. 2013).
♦  The global trend masks local and regional trends. So while agricultural area is down for the United States and Poland, it’s up for Argentina, Indonesia and Vietnam (see the map below for more). And deforestation and other land clearing is a continuing serious problem.
♦  Climate change will bring new challenges for agriculture, as more extreme weather conditions are expected to negatively impact yields (Lobell et al. 2008). Fortunately, many sustainable agriculture practices should also result in higher resilience meaning we can help protect against yield losses at the same time as we improve environmental performance (Lal 2006).

This is why The Nature Conservancy has been emphasizing the sustainable intensification of agriculture wherever possible. If we can’t produce more food on existing farms and ranches (while simultaneously reducing environmental inputs and impacts), we can expect that even more habitat will be cleared in the future. We also need to ensure that existing farmland capable of high yields with sustainable practices will keep being farmed, rather than converted to other uses (which could help drive more habitat loss).

The Surprising Global Trend

The following figures show how much land is being used for agriculture around the world (row crops, ranches, and permanent crops like orchards and vineyards), and how much food is being produced in terms of calories per person. Note that 1 kilocalorie (kcal) is equivalent to 1 Calorie as reported on American nutrition labels, and that y-axis of the charts do not begin at 0 (to make it easy to see the relatively small changes in recent years).



While agricultural expansion was pretty steady on a global scale for over 30 years, in 1995 we saw the first recorded decrease in agricultural land area. It peaked in 1998, and has been lower ever since. In fact, until 2011 (unfortunately the latest year this data is available from the FAO) it was continuing to decline slightly over time.

At the same time we have managed to produce more food on less land, and are keeping ahead of population growth (although that doesn’t mean we have addressed inequity in food distribution and nutrition).

From 1998 to 2009 (the latest year global food supply data is available from FAO) we saw a 4.4% increase in global calories produced per capita (from 2,713 kcal/capita/day to 2,831) while total agricultural land area dropped by 0.8% (although this may be too small a change in area for this data to reliably detect; see data disclaimers section below). About 32% of the increase came from animal products (mostly meat and milk), with another 27% from vegetable oil and 26% from fruits and vegetables.

What the Global Trend Doesn’t Tell Us

On the other hand, we don’t know whether this intensification was done sustainably or not. The increasing production is mostly in relatively resource-intensive foods rather than more efficient grains and legumes, and these data don’t tell us anything about how soil health and water quality may have been impacted by these changes.

More importantly, the fact that global agricultural area hasn’t increased doesn’t mean that there isn’t conversion of natural habitat for agriculture occurring. In some countries like the United States, for instance, conversion to agriculture is still occurring, but it is outpaced by conversion from agriculture (e.g. to urban development). In other words, good news on a national scale doesn’t mean we aren’t seeing problems locally.

This caveat is even more relevant when considering the global pattern. The decline of agricultural land in much of the world (e.g., New Zealand, Mongolia, and Poland) hides significant agricultural expansion elsewhere (like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Argentina), as shown below.

global ag map

It shouldn’t be too surprising where most expansion is taking place; you have likely heard about palm oil in Indonesia and soy in South America. Also, as environmental regulations get tighter in developed nations it is possible that this provides an incentive for agriculture to shift to developing nations with less restrictions. We need to do a better job of ensuring that we focus on increasing productivity on existing agricultural lands rather than continuing to clear new lands.

Why the Drive to Make Agricultural Intensification Sustainable Is so Important

As noted above, it’s also critical that we continue to work on the “sustainable” side of “sustainable intensification.” While increasing crop yields and livestock density is important for reducing the pressure to clear more habitat, TNC is also working around the world to achieve that in ways that also result in better environmental outcomes in terms of soil health, water use, and water quality. Even without the need to increase yields, agriculture has a long way to go before we can call it sustainable, as the scale of problems like the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico (largely resulting from nutrient runoff from farms, Diaz and Rosenberg 2008) demonstrates.

It may seem like a lofty goal, but we know it is possible: a review of 198 sustainable agriculture projects in the developing world reported a mean relative yield increase of 79%, while also reducing pesticide use and increasing water use efficiency (Pretty et al. 2006).

What does this mean for the future? Several people have provided a vision for us to feed the world in sustainable ways (Jon Foley’s “Feeding the World” article in National Geographic is a good place to start), and there has been a lot of debate about which strategies are actually feasible.

The data tell us that we are capable of increasing food supply without a net expansion of agricultural lands, although again it is unclear how much of that intensification was achieved sustainably, and how much of the increase helped to address hunger and malnutrition (as opposed to fueling obesity in the developed world). It remains to be seen whether the increase in agricultural land in 2011 was a delayed response to the 2008 jump in food prices (meaning we will likely see more expansion as prices have remained relatively high), an anomaly, or the result of other factors.

While there remain plenty of challenges to solve going forward, and conversion to agriculture remains a major threat, the data show that we are finding ways to produce more on less land, and that is at least a start. As we improve our metrics of agricultural sustainability, it should be increasingly possible to track how sustainable this intensification actually is.

What do you think this data means? Want a copy of the data and our calculations? Let us know in the comments!


Diaz, R. J., & Rosenberg, R. (2008). Spreading dead zones and consequences for marine ecosystems. Science, 321(5891), 926-929.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). (2011). The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture. Viewed 1 May 2014.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). (2014). FAOSTAT. Viewed 1 May 2014

Lal, R. (2006). Enhancing crop yields in the developing countries through restoration of the soil organic carbon pool in agricultural lands. Land Degradation & Development, 17(2), 197-209.

Lobell, D. B., Burke, M. B., Tebaldi, C., Mastrandrea, M. D., Falcon, W. P., & Naylor, R. L. (2008). Prioritizing climate change adaptation needs for food security in 2030. Science, 319(5863), 607-610.

Loveland, T. R., & Acevedo, W. (2006). Land cover change in the Eastern United States. Status and Trends in Eastern United States Land Cover. Pretty J, Noble AD, Bossio D, Dixon J, Hine RE, Penning de Vries FWT, and Morison JIL. (2006). Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries. Environmental Science and Technology, 40(4), 1114-1119.

Ray, D. K., Mueller, N. D., West, P. C., & Foley, J. A. (2013). Yield trends are insufficient to double global crop production by 2050. PLoS One, 8(6), e66428.

Data disclaimers:

There are several potential concerns with the data used for this analysis. It is reported to the UN by each country, and it is possible that the methodologies used to generate the data within each country vary over time (especially as governments change). By looking at the percentage of global land area devoted to agriculture and the total land area devoted to agriculture, you can see that the FAO estimate of global land area varies by about 2%. This is troubling as global land area should be relatively static (with small changes coming from sea level rise, coastal erosion and deposition, etc.). On the other hand, some of the errors in each country’s data may average out in the global summary, and this is the best data available. Finally, saying that we would need 34 million new km2 of farms and ranches is useful as a thought experiment, but is certainly not intended to be an accurate prediction. I simply multiplied current total agricultural area by 0.7 to get the estimate, despite the fact that the actual suitability of newly converted lands for agriculture would vary widely, and that many other factors would influence how much land would be needed. Some of the pasture included in that figure could be viable grassland habitat, just as TNC manages several ranches which are grazed as a conservation management strategy.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.


Posted In: Agriculture

Jon Fisher is a spatial scientist for The Nature Conservancy. He has studied forestry, environmental biology, stream ecology, environmental engineering and how technology and spatial analysis can improve wildlife management at airports. His current work mostly revolves around spatial analysis, sustainability, and web mapping. He also loves vegan cooking, biking, and finding ways to inject science into everyday life.

Comments: Global Agriculture Trends: Are We Actually Using Less Land?

  •  Comment from Lynn David

    One aspect of this that you seem to have forgotten is that the loss of agricultural lands in America and perhaps many temperate regions is not due to a reversion to forests or other ‘wild’ lands but to urbanization.

  •  Comment from Jon Fisher

    Hi Lynn, that is a good point, I do mention it (right above the map) but could have spent more time on it. The point is simply that the need to produce more food is not as much of a driver of conversion as is typically thought. If we lose ag land to urbanization in some places, and create more ag land elsewhere, it means that we need to look carefully at urban areas rather than thinking that food demand is the root cause. That being said, cropland abandonment to grasslands or some other form of unmanaged land is happening in some places around the world as well.

  •  Comment from rachel

    Thanks Jon, interesting article. Another aspect to look more closely into is loss of food produce at harvest and post-harvest. Whether this has been improved overall or not I don’t know but know that in Asia, this is still a big issue with up to 20% of the yields lost post-harvest due to storage bugs and other damages.

  •  Comment from Jon Fisher

    Loss at harvest, in storage, and other forms of waste (throughout the commercial supply chain and at home) is indeed a major problem. On a side note, a few people have asked for more information on the upcoming book this chart will appear on. Here is a link with a bit more information:

  •  Comment from Chris Oestereich

    Thanks for sharing this. Lots of interesting info to chew on. One question that comes to mind is whether efficiency in the field might lead to inefficiency away from it? In other words, by squeezing more production out of our fields, is it possible that we end up using more energy in transport and storage?

  •  Comment from tom roche

    There are other developments, gene mapping in livestock, allowing faster selection for desirable traits.Semen sexing is eliminating the production of poorer performing male livestock from the dairy industry thus carrying cows to produce beef calves will be reduced.
    Technologies to identify, 1. optimum time of insemination, 2.raised temperatures etc, all drive efficiencies.

  •  Comment from Clyde Israel

    Great article, thanks. Please send me the data.

  •  Comment from Tass

    Hi Jon,

    thanks for taking the time to write this article. All these analyses are quite nice and not so new too, but I think the critical question is, will we be able to adjust the current mostly unsustainable agricultural practices before the natural basis for many of them are irreparably lost. This happens in many paces of the tropics already and for example in Vietnam you find erosion down to the bedrock on some steeper slopes and although the problem is known for more than 10 years, political interests keep policy makers from doing something about it. I personally believe that we will not be able to fix this problem in time.
    The other thing that you seem to overlook is that potential productivity in the tropics is much higher than in the temperate zone, as is erosive potential and the chance of extreme weather events, combined with generally shallower fertile soil layers. And it is in the tropics were the race for land just starts. I think it hardly matters from a global point of view if Poland or the US plant a couple of trees while the Mekong and other deltas (on which massive food production depends) become increasingly saline due to raising sea levels and inappropriate river management. Same accounts for dropping ground water levels in India and China. Where will the food come from once these resources have been damaged?
    Don’t get me wrong, I think it would be great news if due to increased urbanization less people live of the land and more areas can be re-naturalized. But I see strong forces threatening vital food systems and the contribution of these systems will have to be replaced from somewhere.

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