Current Cropland Area may be able to Meet Growing Biomass Demand through 2050

by Caroline Hays

With population growth and a growing middle class demanding more land-intensive products, especially meat, the ability of the world’s current cropland area to meet these demands is a pressing question. Studies have predicted that from 2005 to 2050, global agricultural production will need to approximately double. Cropland expansion to meet this growing demand has the negative consequences of decreasing biodiversity and releasing greenhouse gases. In a recent study, Mauser et al. (2015) note that sustainable agricultural intensification and optimal cropland allocation are preferred methods to cropland expansion for increasing biomass production There have been recent studies, however, that cast doubt on whether growing demand can be met without cropland expansion. Mauser et al. (2015) investigate the potential of cropland intensification to meet growing demand, taking into account a number of economic, societal, and technological factors in their estimates. They predict that, given multiple harvests and efficient land use decisions, the productivity of current cropland can, in fact, rise to meet projections of future demand. The authors find that 39% of the overall potential increase in productivity results from increasing the intensity of crop production, and 30% from redistributing crops across regions to their profit-maximizing locations. The major implications of this finding are that rising demand may not necessitate expansion of cropland area. Additionally, the authors’ model does not include genetically modified (GM) crops, and suggests therefore that GM crops are not necessary to meet growing demand.

This study takes into account factors such as improving farm management skills that the authors assume will accompany improved crop management skills. The study also includes economic assumptions, such as the prediction that increasing demand for biomass will cause farmers to improve market access and intensify trade. Essentially, as demand grows the authors predict that the market will become more efficient because of the increasing incentives to make it so. Given these factors, the authors find that there is the most room to improve cropland productivity in Latin America and Africa as well as parts of China and South America.

Intensified production may, however, result in other issues such as nutrient leaching, soil degradation, negative effects of pesticide use, and biodiversity loss. The authors suggest that cropland intensification should focus on sustainability, and yield productions should take into account climate change. Additionally, the tradeoff between the effects of intensification and expansion of cropland on biodiversity, carbon stocks and flows, and social factors should be considered.

Mauser, W., Klepper, G., Zabel, F., Delzeit, R., Hank, T., Putzenlechner, B., Calzadilla, A. 2015. Global biomass production potentials exceed expected future demand without the need for cropland expansion. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms9946


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