Peak farmland?

Nearly 40% of the land surface of the earth, or 5 billion hectares, is used for agriculture. Crops are grown on 1.5 billion hectares and there are 3.5 billion hectares of pasture and meadow.

According to FAO land use statistics, global agricultural land area peaked in 1998. This apparent fall is due to a decrease in area used as permanent pasture and meadow, while the area classed as “arable land and permanent crops” has been relatively static.

FAO also collate annual harvest area data for 178 crop types. Total harvest area of all crops may give a truer picture of the trend in demand for cropland. It turns out that global harvest area has continued to increase strongly (8.1 MHa/y i.e. about the area of Ireland per year), even though the nominal cropland area has grown much more slowly (1.4M Ha/y) over the past two decades. The increase is due primarily to oil crops such as soybean (often used as animal feed).

The two measures of cropland area give rise to alternative “global agricultural area” curves shown below. The upper curve suggests that “peak farmland” occurred in 1998, while the lower curve shows no peak. The curves cannot cross because harvested area is always lower than the cropland area.

 

The recent convergence trend between nominal cropland and actual harvest areas indicates increased pressure on croplands. It raises doubts whether peak farmland has really been reached yet.

data: FAOSTAT