One billion hectares

Humans have appropriated a lot of land for agriculture. And we are not finished.

10 million square kilometers is a big chunk of space. It is a little more than the land area of the United States, three times the size of India, and more than 40 times the land area of the United Kingdom.

It is also the upper estimate by the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment for the amount of land that will be converted from native vegetation to agricultural production by 2050.

The low estimate for conversion is 2 million km2, roughly the size of Mexico.

Here is what the official website says about the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

“The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was called for by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000. Initiated in 2001, the objective of the MA was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being. The MA has involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide. Their findings, contained in five technical volumes and six synthesis reports, provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide (such as clean water, food, forest products, flood control, and natural resources) and the options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems.”

In other words, many experienced experts reviewed what nature can offer and concluded that in a little over one more generation, we will need to use a lot more of it for agricultural production.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has agricultural land covering 38% of the world’s land area split between pastures (68%), arable land (28%) and permanent crops (3%), all up some 49 million km2.

This means that future conversion is an increase of somewhere between 4% and 20% over current land area used for food production.

Just in case you were having trouble figuring out how much land that might be,

  • one hectare is enough space for 7 average lots for new suburban homes in the United States and there are 100 hectares in a square kilometer
  • Greater London covers 1,572 km2 and New York 789 km2
  • The Mediterranean Sea has an area of 2.5 million km2

The main drivers for this huge land grab are more people to feed, the persistence of subsistence agriculture, and degradation of the existing agricultural land. In short, grow more food from

In short, grow a lot more food from less productive land.

The reason for the large discrepancy in upper and lower estimates for land conversion is that it is not clear how solutions to improve production efficiency, rehabilitate degraded land, shift demand, even out supply, and reduce waste will roll out. The economics and politics of production and trade will be key, as will the inertia of tradition that is strong in rural communities.

Even if all the stars align and food productions systems become much more efficient, it is inevitable that some new land will be needed to meet demand.

The sensible play would be to prepare options for where it is smart to clear native vegetation and where it is not.

Afterbefore specializes in predicting the future efficiency of agricultural production systems by understanding what will happen to the natural capital that supports them.

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