A new study using information from FAO since 1961 to now, has demonstrated that the world has around 3 billion hectares of land not in competition with food.
Population and income growth determine increasing demand for agricultural products, especially food products; and agricultural production requires land. Preoccupation about how to feed an increasing population, and concern about possible scarcity of suitable land, are frequently expressed in the context of food security.
The article was presented as a discussion paper at the University of Pacifico (Lima, Peru). the author, Dr. Hector Maletta, is a highly reputed researcher and FAO consultant for 40 years with dozens of books published on this matter.
Dr.Maletta analyses historical trends in growth of agricultural production (total and per capita, at world level and for major regions) during the half century since 1961, and the relative contributions to such growth coming from additional land and from increased land productivity, and summarises the latest studies on availability of extra suitable land.
FOOD SECURITY: LET’S SEE WHAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM
The author found that farmland has increased very little (at the world scale) since 1961, expanding by just 10% in half a century, with almost all the increase occurring up to 1993, whereas agricultural output more than trebled in the same period. Thus the growth of agricultural output should be explained mostly by increases in productivity. Farmland productivity, in relation to total agricultural production, is here defined as the ratio of farm output value (crops and livestock products valued at constant and uniform prices) to total farmland (i.e. the sum of arable land, land with permanent crops, and per7anent meadows and pastures).
CROPLAND EXPANSION AND EXPANSION GROWTH
The above refers to total agricultural output (crops and livestock) and total agricultural land (arable, permanent crops, and permanent meadows and pastures). The same general conclusion may obtain if the analysis is limited to crop output and cropland. Additional cropland at constant cropland productivity contributed just a small fraction (5.7%) of cumulative crop output growth since 1961 (Figure below), whilst 94.3% of gross crop output growth was due to increased cropland productivity,
i.e. more output per cropland hectare. This estimate is based on gross output, including amounts used as animal feed (and also amounts used as seed, but these are very minor compared to feed).
Farmers across the world, including those in Asia, Africa and Latin America, are changing their product mix; using more inputs like fertilizer and improved seeds; expanding irrigation or impro-ving its efficiency; using short-cycle crops to get two or more crops per year on the same piece of land; adopting no-tillage methods of production for extensive crops, thus reducing soil erosion and saving on machinery and fuel; and generally trying to catch up with growing market demand and available opportunities for improvement.
CHANGES ON FOOD CROPS YELDS
FOOD SECURITY AND SUITABLE OR MARGINAL LANDS
FAO’s World Soil Map and other soil-related studies (http://www.fao.org/soils-portal/en/), and the related Global Agro-Ecological Zones (GAEZ) programme (http://www.fao.org/nr/gaez/en/) com-bining soil and climate, have been used by FAO and IIASA to identify land areas across the world with different current uses and various degrees of crop suitability, assessed in relation to various crops if grown under rain-fed conditions.
SO, WHAT TO DO ON THOSE ALMOST 3 BILLION HECTARES WORLDWIDE?
Of course rotations and reforestation will be huge potential for renewable energies. Sustainable management is an option with right policy and short rotation forestry should be always considered as well as perennial grasses for biomass.
But, is it possible to improve food security further through sustainable bioenergy crops?
The conclusions are mostly positive:
- Increasing yields is the key to combat hunger,. no land availability. Giving technology and resources to Africa should be a goal.
- Usable additional cropland is abundant.
- There is little demand for additional farmland, and for additional cropland.
- Farmland productivity is the dominant driver of agricultural output growth.
- Cropland productivity is the dominant driver of crop output growth.
- Increasing physical yields of the various crops (more tonnes per harvested hectare) are the main factor behind increased cropland productivity.
- Expected agricultural growth to meet future demand does not imply using much addition-al cropland
Production has been growing steadily ahead of population, causing a rising tendency in agricultural and food output per capita; such growth has been achieved with very little addition of extra land; land use for agriculture peaked around 1990 and has been stagnant or declining since; extra land contributed just about 5% of agricultural output growth from 1961 to 2011, and almost nothing in the latest decades. On the other hand, land suitable for rain-fed crop production that is not forested, not built-up, not otherwise protected, and not yet cropped, is quite abundant. Projections of future agricultural growth under very conservative hypotheses do not envisage much increase in the use of extra land anyway.
The world produces more than enough food relative to the needs of the world’s population, and is very far from running out of land to sustain agricultural growth in the future, even if progress in productivity should slow down in the coming decades. Hunger regrettably exists, albeit with decreasing prevalence, but it is not due to insufficient production of food or to scarcity of agricultural land.
The entire document can be downloaded here.
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