Competition for land – a challenge for the 21st century

9 jan 2012

A summary of the two seminars about the 3F

KSLA organised two well-attended seminars during the autumn of 2011 on the need to produce more food, bioenergy and wood fibre.

To set the scene – the global distribution of land

The earth’s total land area is some 13 billion hectares, of which some 4.1 billion hectares (or 31 percent) is considered forested land (of which 7 percent is planted forests), around 1.5 billion hectares (or 12 percent) is currently under crop cultivation, and 3.4 billion hectares (26 percent) are used for pasture.

Food prices are driving the development

The competition for land was aggravated by the financial and food price crises of 2007-08. Some aspects of it are referred to as “land grabbing”, or as “farmland investment” in more formal contexts. Food-importing countries with constraints on land and water but rich in capital (such as the Gulf States), and countries with large populations, food security concerns and booming economies (such as China and India) are seeking land abroad for the purpose of production of food and biofuel crops.

A limited scope for large-scale area expansion

The dramatic revaluation of land and water resources imposes both threats and opportunities of a complex nature, not all of which can be foreseen at present. What many foresee, however, is that the trend of increasing global land competition will continue. Recent projections speak indicate this:

  • Global population will surpass 9 billion by 2050 and will have to be fed;
  • Renewable energy sources will have to play a central role in a sustainable energy path;
  • Demand for wood and fibre products will continue to increase;
  • Climate change will reduce crop yields in many countries;
  • Agricultural demand for water is expected to increase dramatically.

There is limited scope for large-scale area expansion. Researchers do not know with any certainty how much land is available for increasing production, although calculations suggest that about ten per cent of the total land area is available, mostly grass and degraded land.

Demand and supply of food in the next 20-40 years

Global food demand will increase by at least 70 % between now and 2050 and by 50 % between now and 2030. The trade system will have to accommodate a greater share of global food production being traded across borders. An open trading system, which rules out export bans, is needed, as are adequate buffer stocks. There is widespread agreement that increasing yields on existing agricultural land, and especially on cropland, is a key component for minimising further expansion of agricultural land. The demand for animal protein is a crucial concern since livestock production is by far the most resource-consuming agricultural activity. A substantial reduction in negative impacts on the environment from agriculture would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products. The issue of waste is also a considerable challenge, because 30 – 40 per cent of crops are lost post-harvest.

Demand and supply of fibre & fuel in the next 20-40 years

There is a general consensus that global demand for wood and fibre will continue to increase faster than population growth, owing to growth in China and other emerging markets. It should be noted that three times Sweden’s current productive forest area with fast growing plantations would, in theory, suffice to meet predicted demand for wood products. The question is whether natural forest management will be competitive when compared with the fuel and food sectors?

Although future supply and demand for bioenergy are harder to predict than for food and fibre, the growing demand for biofuels will accentuate the competition for land even though only 2 % of global cropland is currently used to produce biofuels.

A need for a broad holistic approach with local solutions

There was a general consensus that local solutions addressing the global challenges are the way forward. Globally there are about 500 million smallholders, with families constituting about a third of humanity and the vast majority of people living on less than one or two dollars per day. Secure tenure and access to financial services are the key to success when smallholders move from subsistence farming to market integration. This development indicates a need to take a broad holistic approach, integrating technical, social, political, economic and ecological dimensions of land use. This implies a need for institutional capacity building in research and on applying and enforcing guidelines.


Text: Lisa Holmgren & Fredrik Ingemarson, SIFI

Photo: Nilsson, September 27, Based on