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Land for food production

A short article about the availability of land for food production and how allocation has and will change between 1900 and 2050

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Overall, relatively little new land has been brought into agriculture in recent decades. Although global crop yields grew by 115% between 1967 and 2007, the area of land in agriculture increased by only 8% and the total currently stands at approximately 4,600 million hectares.

While substantial additional land could, in principle, be suitable for food production, in practice land will come under growing pressure for other uses. For example, land will be lost to urbanisation, desertification, salinisation and rising sea levels, although some options may arise for salt-tolerant crops or aquaculture.

Also, while it has been estimated that the quality of around 16% of total land area including cropland, rangeland and forests is improving, the International Soil Reference and Information Centre has estimated (2009) that of the 11.5 billion hectares of vegetated land on Earth, about 24% has undergone human-induced soil degradation, in particular through erosion.

In addition, with an expanding population, there will be more pressure for land to be used for other purposes. And while some forms of biofuels can play an important role in the mitigation of climate change, they may lead to a reduction in land available for agriculture.

Increasing population = decreasing land availability

Increasing population = decreasing land availability

Source: United Nations

Hectares of available land per person to live on and to grow the food we require is decreasing

The diagram shows how the amount of available land that each and every one of us has to live on and to grow the food changes over time. With population growth, this area decreases each year.

Despite the fact that 90% of the growth in crop production is projected to come from higher yields and increased cropping intensity, arable land will have to expand by around 120 million hectares in developing countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

Arable land in use in developed countries is expected to decline by some 50 million hectares, although this could be changed by the demand for biofuels.

Globally, there are still sufficient land resources available to feed the future world population. FAO cautioned, however, that much of the potential land is suitable for growing only a few crops, not necessarily the crops with highest demand and it is concentrated in a few countries.

Much of the land not yet in use also suffers from chemical and physical constraints, endemic diseases and lack of infrastructure which cannot be easily overcome.  Therefore significant investment would need to be undertaken in order to bring it into production.

Part of the land is also covered by forests, or subject to expanding urban settlements. A number of countries, particularly in the Near East/North Africa and South Asia have already reached or are about to reach the limits of land available. 

Source: BIS (Foresight) and FAO

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