NASA’s Earth Observatory has reported that new data supplied by the University of Maryland’s Global Land Analysis and Discovery Lab (GLAD), reflects that the world’s croplands have expanded as growing populations put more pressure on farmers for adequate food supplies.
“Earth’s population grew from 6.4 billion to 7.7 billion people during the past two decades. Experts project global population will approach 10 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of new mouths to feed,” NASA said.
The globe’s land area covered by crops has expanded by 9%, or 1 million square kilometers, since 2003, according to the GLAD team’s data. This is approximately the same size as Egypt. Other natural vegetation such as meadows and forests were replaced by half of the new crops. The other half originated from the re-use of abandoned farms or pasture conversion.
“The new maps, which show changes between 2003 and 2019, are based on imagery collected by Landsat satellites and were published in the journal Nature Food. By adding NASA data on the net primary productivity of croplands, the researchers also estimated whether cultivated areas grew more or less productive over time. Net primary productivity is a measure of how much energy plants store through photosynthesis,” NASA said. “In the hands of farmers, economists, conservation groups, and policymakers, such information could make it easier to balance food production needs with the preservation of ecosystems, the protection of biodiversity, and efforts to sequester carbon and slow climate change.”
Africa gained the most agriculture of any continent, with 530 000 square kilometers. With 370 000 square kilometers of new agriculture, South America was next. Increases were seen in Southwest Asia and Australia, though they were much smaller.
“In North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia, total cropland stayed roughly the same. However, some of these areas saw significant shifts in where farmland was located. In the United States, a trend toward new corn, wheat, and soybean plantings in Great Plains grasslands offset the abandonment of significant amounts of land in the eastern U.S. In China, farmland increased in arid areas of the west even as rapid urbanization and a growing aquaculture sector nibbled away at it around eastern cities and coastlines,” the American space agency added.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia began abandoning vast swaths of farmland when the government ended subsidies that had allowed farmers to grow crops on poor terrain. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all Baltic states, had the opposite experience. As these countries became more linked into global markets, the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in substantial gains in cropland. The agriculture industry in Cuba was also affected by the breakup’s ripple effects, which resulted in a loss of subsidized access to fuel and fertilisers, as well as a shift to a less-mechanized manner of farming, which added to acreage losses over time.
“The expansion of cropland looks somewhat different when accounting for population changes. Since global population increased by more than one billion people, the amount of cropland per person declined slightly from 0.18 hectares in 2003 to 0.16 hectares in 2019. Likewise, net primary productivity (NPP) increased by 3.5% due to more intensive farming practices,” NASA concluded.