Global Agriculture Trends: Are We Actually Using Less Land?

June 18, 2014

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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.


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.


Jon Fisher

Jon Fisher is a senior conservation scientist for the new Center for Sustainability Science at The Nature Conservancy. He is leading efforts to put rigorous science front and center in our sustainable agriculture work, and finding ways to improve sustainability through corporate practices and public policy. More from Jon

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. If only it were that easy, we’d all be flocking to the fields in an effort to grow.
    The locally owned and operated market remains a trusted resource for organic produce, natural food, health, and beauty products.
    Food may be one of the essential necessities individuals from Stone Age,
    so at the end of the morning it could make
    much sense to nibble on healthily as well as naturally
    as you can to ensure us to reside a long as well as a healthy
    life for many decades ahead. So, who do we count on. To support
    this effort, we ought to buy organic produce as well.

  8. So, what has actually happened? Where is the story set? Is it still occuring/ongoing? Who has it been caused by? Who has it affected? Why has it happened? How is it being managed?

  9. Not a single mention of the role played by GMO crops in increasing yields and allowing sustainable farming practices? Wow, what an omission. Oh, I see, “All comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.” So much for ever seeing this comment appear.

    1. Hi Steve, trying to tackle the complex role of GMOs would have made this too long to fit in one blog post. I’d refer you to the new report from the National Academy of Sciences, which came to a much more nuanced conclusion on the benefits of GMOs to crop yields and the environment.

  10. Re: the loss of land due to urbanization. What is the relative quality of the land that is being urbanized? Is class I or class II land being urbanized with replacement by class III or class IV for agricultural production? I know it might be hard to determine, but what proportion of the “lost” land is also our most productive land?

    1. It’s a good question, and I don’t think it has been answered by an existing analysis. You could likely ask the question within a single country where finer-scale data is available than you can get from FAO, but I don’t think it would be trivial. Some of the good analyses of net cropland conversion (e.g. Lark et al 2015) group all non-cropland land covers together which means they don’t address urban conversion in particular.

  11. Whether this is good news I think depends on what happened to the land that left agriculture and why it left. As the author indicates conversion to urban is one likely scenario, in which case loss of productive agricultural land to concrete is a concern as regards meeting future food demands. Similarly if agricultural land is abandoned due to degradation that too indicates an loss to meeting future food production demands. Less land in agriculture is only an environment benefit if the land released is providing greater ecosystem services than when it was in agriculture. Does the data from FAO give any idea as to what are the land-uses that have increased where agricultural land declined?

    1. I don’t believe that FAOSTAT has data on land use, although certainly there are other global land cover datasets (or better yet, national level data sets to look at areas of interest). That would be a great topic to look into further, and I’d love to hear from anyone who pursues it!

  12. It seems like less productive, less biodiverse regions are outsourcing food production to more productive, more biodiverse regions. This is only good news if you don’t value biodiversity. If you look at remote sensed data for the same period the picture for forests isn’t good.
    ‘High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change’
    ‘Are changes in global oil production influencing the rate of deforestation and biodiversity loss?’

    1. This is an excellent point. I only considered it good news relative to the dominant narrative I’d heard that cropland and pasture was expanding all over the world, in that it at least shows yield per unit area improving. But regardless the disproportionate impact on biodiversity and carbon is something I should have addressed in this blog. I have a book chapter coming out later this year which fortunately does make that point, and further explorers drivers of the expansion (finding that it’s driven by global demand for commodities rather than national-level food security)

  13. Despite the significant increase in recent years in the capacity of global digital resource assessment and the mapping of changes in land use there has not been a similar increase in the quality or reliability of the ground data received from Individual countries and State institutions. So I see no reason for celebration. What does seem clear however is that the human population is still growing -slowing down – Maybe? – and that much of this growth is in areas that cannot support this growth either by internal production or by genuine trade. e,g, Yemen, Somalia, Syria. The use of marginal land supported by engineering intervention and costly inputs may plug a gap but not for long as great care is needed when interfering with the water regimes for both the well-being of the land resource but also forced population movements. Erosion and land degradation – particularly excessive grazing – is a major cause of land loss and this aspect needs much greater scrutiny. And there are still far too many farmers globally not using or not having access to agricultural seeds and production techniques that are 50 or 60 years old if not older and post harvest losses falls into this category along with access to markets.