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We’ve been discussing global warming’s impact on agriculture. While the overall long term effect is unknown, it seems fairly clear that global warming should positively impact food production in the near term. That discussion prodded me to look at the future of agriculture more closely. With the total number of undernourished people in the world reaching 963 million in 2008 and a projected world population of 9 billion by 2050, will the international ag industry be capable of meeting the growing demand for food? Will it be able to meet projections which predict that food availability in developing countries will need to increase almost 60% by 2030 and to double by 2050, equivalent to a 42% and 70% growth in global food production, respectively.

The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2009-2018 annual report is prepared jointly by the OECD and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. You can read the whole thing if you want. I have highlighted the two items that I feel are the most relevant: Is there enough arable land? Is the productivity of land under cultivation increasing?

Fortunately, it would seem that the answer to both questions is yes.

Huge Tracts of Land?

Currently cultivated world arable land is estimated at about 1.4 billion hectares.

The total availability of land with moderate to very high suitability for rain fed crop production, is about 4.3 billion hectares (43 million square kms). Over half of the additionally available land is found in Africa and in Latin America. Furthermore, with estimates of 2.435 and 2.084 million km2, respectively, these regions account for most of the land that has the highest suitability class for rain-fed crop production.

Gross land balances (GLB) are defined as the total land that is potentially suitable for growing crops but which is not currently being cultivated. GLB estimates take into account existing soil, climate and terrain conditions in relation to major crop requirements, under various assumptions of land management.

These figures of suitable land are gross “optimistic” estimates, since they do not take into account the fact that some land has already been allocated to other competing and socially-acceptable land uses (e.g. forests, urban areas, protected areas). Suitable land resources in these latter areas are thus effectively unavailable for conversion to cropland.

The net land balance value (NLB) is derived from the GLB by excluding areas which are currently allocated to either forests, urban areas or protected areas. Some 1.56 billion hectares are effectively available for crop expansion. Most of the land available resides particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South America.

While there are significant quantities of land available for expansion, it does not reside in the currently high output zones of temperate world agriculture. Indeed, further expansion in both North America and Europe appears limited in relative terms.

  • Between 1990 and 2007 total area sown to crops declined from 117.7 million to 76.4 million hectares in Russia and from 32.4 million to 26.1 million hectares in Ukraine.
  • The developed world has also experienced the contraction in arable land: in Europe, arable land declined by 0.9% annually between 1961/63 and 2006/07. In Northern America the decline was 2% annually.

The estimates of NLB do not include another possible source of competition, which is that for growing livestock numbers. Livestock populations are growing and with higher incomes, and particularly in populous countries such as India and China, meat consumption will increase in the future. Therefore, pasture land will remain in high demand and may further limit crop expansion. Furthermore, the boom in bio-fuel demand risks to further limit the amount of cropland available for food production, as feedstocks are provided to biofuel production.

The Green Revolution Continues

The private seed industry has set as a goal doubling corn, soybean and cotton yields in the US by 2030. Average corn yield increases would need to be three times the trend growth over the 1970 to 2007 period.

For developing countries as a whole, there is some evidence that crop yield growth has actually accelerated. One recent study on developing countries found crop yield increases for the 1980-2000 period were higher than for 1961-80 for cereals (total), lentils, millet, potatoes, paddy rice, and wheat, while lower for barley, cassava, sorghum and, to a lesser extent, maize. The study concluded that the Green Revolution effects on crop yields in developing countries were not confined to the period 1960-80. In fact, yields of many key crops in developing countries actually increased faster over the 1980-2000 period.