The global need for food, fibre and fuel – is there enough land to satisfy the demands?

A short introduction to the subject matter of the conferences the 27 of September and 22 of November

The past few years have witnessed a sharply increased focus on the need to produce more food, bioenergy and wood fibre. It is against this backdrop that the KSLA is organizing two related seminars on the need for “food, fibre and fuel” and the land required to meet these needs. This paper is intended to serve as a short introduction to the subject matter of the conferences, pointing at some of the key figures, issues, and challenges discussed in the context of “the three F’s”.

Land competition – a challenge for the 21st century

Land suitable for cultivation is increasingly becoming a scarce commodity worldwide. The phenomenon, and the sometimes fierce competition for land it has resulted in, was further aggravated by the financial and food price crises of 2007-08. Some aspects of it are referred to as “land-grabbing”, or “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 for land abroad for the purpose of production of food and biofuel crops.

These investments, often targeted towards developing countries where production costs are lower and land and water more abundant, have resulted in a dramatic revaluation of land and water resources. This in turn imposes both threats and opportunities of complex nature, of which all can probably not be foreseen at present. What many foresee, however, is that the trend of increasing global land competition will continue. Recent projections by inter-nationally recognised organisations speak in favour of this:

  • Global population will surpass 9 billion by 2050 and have to be fed;
  • Renewable energy sources will have to play a central role in moving the world on to a more secure and 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 drastically and global water scarcity will thus worsen.

There seems to be wide agreement that beyond 2030, food, fibre, and fuel production will compete intensively for limited land and water resources.

Food, fibre, and fuel on the political agenda

The global demand for food, fibre and fuel (sometimes added with a fourth F for “feed”, alternatively “fresh water” when water scarcity is in focus) has become a matter of high political concern. Nilsson (2007) summarises the drivers behind this political interest as concerns for food security, energy security, national security, environmental security, and political security. As a consequence, issues related to these concerns are found on the agenda of virtually every UN-body, develop-ment bank, policy and research institute, NGO and others with mandates and programmes related to agriculture, forestry, energy, and the environment.

The overall question posed is how to manage land and water to feed an expected world population of 9 billion people in the year 2050 and at the same time protecting the natural eco-systems that sustain life on the planet. A starting point in addressing the challenge of managing a finite land resource is naturally an idea of what a growing world population will need and demand in terms of food, fibre and fuel.

Global demand and supply of food, fibre, and fuel in the next 20-40 years

The most widely used agricultural projections are those of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) (Smith et al., 2011). For projections of global demand in wood products and energy needs, the FAO and the International Energy Agency (IEA), respectively, are widely considered as authori-tative sources. Key figures from some of these projections are presented below.

Expectations on food demand and supply

World population is expected to grow by 2.3 billion people between 2009 and 2050 and nearly all of this growth is forecast to take place in developing countries. FAO projections show that feeding a global population of 9.1 billion people in 2050 would require raising overall production by 70 percent from now up to 2050. On a 20 year timeframe food production will need to increase by 50 percent (FAO, 2009).

Population growth, rising incomes, and urbanisation will continue to drive demand for some food products, especially oilseed and animal protein, and related demands for feed and industrial products. Demand for cereals, for both food and feed, is projected to reach some 3 billion tonnes by 2050, up from today’s nearly 2.1 billion tonnes. However, develop-ments in the demand for liquid biofuels, depending mainly on energy prices and government policies, has the potential to change these projections and cause world demand to be even higher.

Demand for other food products that are more responsive to rising incomes in developing countries (meat and dairy products, fish and aquaculture products, and vegetable oils) will grow much faster than that for cereals for food use. The livestock sector, already constituting 30 percent of agricultural GDP in the develop-ing world, is the fastest growing sub-sector in agriculture (FAO, 2009).

Prospects for increasing food availability lie mainly in intensification of production from land already under agriculture and in expan-sion of agricultural areas. Wirsenius et al. (2010) conclude that there is considerable agreement that increasing yields on existing agricultural land, and especially on cropland, is a key component for minimising further expan-sion of agricultural land.

Yet, expansion of agricultural area seems unlikely to slow. The World Bank, in what is referred to as a conservative estimate, projects that, in developing countries, 6 million ha of additional land will be brought into production each year to 2030 (Deininger et al., 2011) .

Apart from forecasts on potential supply, there is also focus on the demand-side, where especially demand for animal protein is a crucial concern since livestock production is by far the most resource consuming agricul-tural activity. FAO figures (2006) showed that while meat at present represents only 15 percent of the total global diet, approximately 80 percent of the agricultural land is used for animal grazing or the production of feed and fodder for animals. This is why past years have seen calls for dietary changes from both ENGOs and UN-organisations. UNEP (2010) concludes that a substantial reduction of negative impacts on the environment from agriculture would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products. The World Bank (2010) concludes that aquaculture must, to an increasing extent, help in meeting growing demand for food, and especially animal protein.

Expectations of wood fibre demand and supply

There is general consensus that demand for wood fibre will continue to increase. FAO estimates from 2009 show that, up to 2030, a further increase is necessary by 1.4 percent per year for sawn-wood, and 3 percent for paper and wood-based panels to meet growing demand.

However, wood fibre is also increasingly demanded for other uses than traditional forest products. For example, the past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the global market prospects for wood pellets for heating and power. Large-scale pellet production facilities have been built in North America, and many more are announced to be constructed to meet expected demand. Sweden, Germany, the UK and Denmark are expected to have the fastest growth in consumption in wood pellets the coming 10 years, to a large extent driven by EU renewable energy targets. Development of wood pellet supply depends to a large extent on availability of wood fibre as pellet raw materials.

In the EU area, for example, a wood fibre deficit is expected in the near future as a consequence of increasing demand for wood fibre. According to figures presented by the international consultancy firm Price Water-house Coopers, 340-420 million cubic metres (under bark) of woody biomass per year is forecast to be needed solely for energy purposes by 2020, if current government policies on renewable energy continue. Under those assumptions, that would mean a wood fibre deficit of 200-260 million cubic metres within the EU by 2020. It is further concluded that new uses will make up a larger share of fibre usage, as a consequence of dropping demand for paper products in mature markets and decoupling from GDP growth in emerging ones (PWC, 2011).

Roberts et al. (2008) conclude that the converging global demand for land to produce food, fibre and fuel is likely to lead to a large scale land-grab and that forest lands are likely targets for conversion to industrial agricultural use. They question whether natural forest management will be competitive when compared with the fuel and food sectors.

Many see the response lying in increasing the area of planted forests. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development estimates that the yield and harvest from planted forests will need to increase threefold by 2050, with the area under plantations increasing by 60 percent compared to today (PWC, 2011). As is the case for the agri-cultural sector, another route pursued to enhance wood fibre supply (politically supported, for example, in the whole European region) is increasing yields on existing produc-tive forest land by different means. The Swedish government’s expectation on an increased Swedish forest growth by 25-50 percent within the coming 60 years is a case in point, although this is also intended as a climate change mitigation measure.

Expectations on biofuel demand and supply

The strong resurgence in the past decades of interest in bioenergy has been driven by several factors, including biofuel mandates, higher oil prices and instability in oil-producing regions, extreme weather events, etc. In its World Energy Outlook 2010, the IEA concludes that the energy world at large faces unprecedented uncertainty. This holds especially true for the bioenergy sector, which, to a large extent, depends on what future government policy responses will look like to tackle the twin problem of energy security and climate change.

It can be noted, to start with, that there are some differing usages of terms in the discussions of, and reports on, different types of bioenergy. The FAO defines bioenergy as all energy derived from biofuels, which are fuels derived from biomass (that is, matter of biological origin). This is further subdivided into type (solid, liquid, and gas) and by origin (forest, agriculture, and municipal waste). FAO thus notes that biofuels from forests and agriculture (woodfuel and agrofuel) can come from a wide range of sources, including forests, farms, specially grown energy crops, and waste after harvesting or processing of wood or food crops.

When it comes to biofuels, technology for the so called first-generation biofuels (cereal and oil crops) is well established and major new breakthroughs in this area are unlikely according to World Bank forecasts. In contrast, the development of second-generation techno-logy is moving forward at a rapid pace, and although producing biofuels from non-food crops is not expected to be commercially viable for another 5-10 years, demonstration-scale plants are already operating  (Cushion et al., 2010). In the IEA projection period from 2010-2035, the use of biofuels (transport fuels derived from biomass) is expected to increase rapidly due to rising oil prices and government support. Advanced biofuels, including those from lignocellulosic feedstock, are assumed to enter the market by around 2020, mostly in OECD countries (IEA, 2010).

Although future supply and demand for bioenergy is harder to predict than that for food and fibre, it is clear that bioenergy develop-ments present opportunities as well as challenges for economic development and the environment. Further, it is most likely that a growing bioenergy consumption will result in increased competition for land.

Availability of land to meet expected demand

Increasing global demand is expected for food, fibre, and fuel, and the sectoral responses lie to a large extent in increasing production and in expansion of land under cultivation. Many are asking where the land to serve this increased production will come from and what the consequences will be of further land expan-sion.

To set the scene, here are figures on current global distribution of agricultural and forested land: 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.

Studies have been made on global availability of potentially cultivable land. FAO, in colla-boration with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), has developed the Agro-ecological Zones (AEZ) methodology and a worldwide spatial land resources database. Together, this enables us to make an evaluation of biophysical limitations and production potential of major food and fibre crops under various levels of inputs and management conditions. Previous AEZ results indicate that, at the global aggregate level, Earth’s land, climate, and biological resources are ample to meet future food and fibre needs, also for a projected world population of over 9 billion people. The calculated total extent of land suitable for at least one crop amounts to some 3.3 billion ha (or 26 percent of total land area as compared to today’s 12 percent), of which 23 percent are in land classified as forest ecosystems. It is, however, concluded that despite this positive aggregate global picture (the figure is lower, though, if only counting the most suitable land), there are reasons for profound concern in several regions and countries with limited land and water resources.

Much of the suitable land not yet in use is concentrated in a few countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa while many countries with growing populations in these regions are extremely short of land. Further, much of the land not yet in use is suitable for growing only a few crops, which might not be the most demanded ones, or suffers from varying constraints (chemical, physical, endemic diseases, lack of infrastructure) that are difficult to overcome or has important environmental characteristics (FAO, 2009).

A different approach to address the question of potentially available cultivatable land has been taken by Rockström et al. (2009) in exploring the planetary boundaries within which it is expected that humanity can operate safely, without jeopardising eco-systems’ functioning. Regarding a planetary boundary for land-system change, it is proposed that no more than 15 percent of the global ice-free land surface should be converted to cropland in order to keep within limits.

Estimations thus differ but, taken together, the picture that emerges is that although there might in theory be enough suitable land available, in reality increasing global competi-tion for land seems to be a fact. The question thus remains as to what must and can be done to tackle such a future.

Challenges in meeting competing demands on a finite land resource

Facing a future of scarce resources of cultiv-able land naturally means challenges and constraints of economic, ecological and social character. In an attempt to elucidate the picture, Smith et al. (2011) identify factors affecting competition for land, divided into pressures (or direct causes in the form of natural causes, land transition, and land degradation) and drivers (or underlying causes in the form of socio-economic and technology factors, societal trends, and institutional factors).

As for natural constraints to be dealt with, climate change is already a factor that affects natural and managed systems (forests, agriculture, fisheries, wetlands, coral reefs) that societies depend on for the production of food, fibre and fuel. There seems to be wide agreement that climate change will mainly affect future yields negatively and thus impose a real constraint on the production of food for a growing world population.

Global water scarcity is a problem that has been present on the international agenda for a long time, particularly in connection with production of food since this is a highly water-consuming activity. Although at a global scale there is no shortage of fresh water, resources are unevenly distributed and already in shortage in many areas. The challenge lies is using water more prudently and efficiently.

Land and soil degradation, as well as loss of cultivable land due to urban sprawl, are no new problems either. These are, however, factors that intensify the competition for land since they reduce the quantity of land suitable for different types of cultivation. A quite recent global assessment (ISRIC, 2008) identifies 24 percent of global agricultural land as degrading.

As for challenges of a social character, one issue that have been widely discussed as a consequence of past years’ “land-grabbing trend” is how to secure land tenure rights for local and forest-dependent people. Land acquisition contracts are often not to the advantage of local people and this fact has spurred studies and reports on how such investments should be carried out in order to be less harmful (e.g. World Bank, 2011).

These are just a few of the issues and challenges addressed in reports and discussions in this context. Nilsson (2007) and others point at another overarching challenge, and that is the need to stop thinking and acting in a sectoral way and move to cross-sectoral analyses and integrated land-use policies. Calls for such a transition have been heard and seen for many years in international policy fora and policy papers, but the challenge to make it happen remains.

List of selected literature on the subject

Biofuelwatch et al. (2007) Agrofuels: towards a reality check in nine key areas


Bogdanski, Anne et al. (2010) Making Integrated Food-Energy Systems Work for People and Climate: An Overview. FAO, Rome.

Borras, Saturnino M. Jr. et al. (2011) Towards a better understanding of global land grabbing: an editorial introduction. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:2, 209-216,

Braun, Joachim von & Meinzen-Dick, Ruth (2009) “Land Grabbing” by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities. IFPRI Policy Brief 13, April 2009.

Bringezu, Stefan (2009) Towards sustainable production and use of resources: assessing biofuels. UNEP, Nairobi.

Available at:

Colchester, Marcus (2008) Beyond Tenure: Rights-Based Approaches to Peoples and Forests. Some lessons from the Forest Peoples Programme. Rights and Resources Initiative, Washington DC.

Cotula, Lorenzo (2011) Land deals in Africa: What is in the contracts? IIED, London.

Cushion, Elizabeth et al. (2010) Bioenergy Development: Issues and Impacts for Poverty and Natural Resource Management. World Bank,  Washington DC.

Deininger, Klaus et al. (2011) Rising global interest in farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits? World Bank, Washington DC.

Deiningenr, Klaus (2011) Challenges posed by the new wave of farmland investment. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:2, 217-247.

EEA (2010) The European Environment – State and Outlook 2010: Land Use. EEA, Copenhagen.
FAO (2011) State of the World’s Forests 2011. FAO, Rome.

FAO (2009) How to Feed the World in 2050. FAO, Rome.

FAO (2008) Forests and Energy: Key Issues. FAO Forestry Paper 154. FAO, Rome.

Fischer, Günther et al. (2006) Agro-Ecological Zones Assessment .IIASA, Laxenburg. Available at:

Foresight (2011) The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability. Final Project Report. The Government Office for Science, London.

Fritz, Steffen et al. (2009) Geo-Wiki.Org: The Use of Crowdsourcing to Improve Global Land Cover. Remote Sensing 2009, 1, 345-354

Howarth, R.W. and S. Bringezu (eds.) (2009) Biofuels: Environmental Consequences and Interactions with Changing Land Use. Proceedings of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) International Biofuels Project Rapid Assessment, 22-25 September 2008, Gummersbach, Germany

IEA (2010) World Energy Outlook 2010. OECD/IEA, Paris.

Karsenty, Alain (2010) Large-Scale Acquisition of Rights on Forest Lands in Africa. Rights and Resources Initiative, Washington DC.

KSLA (2010) Konkurrensen om vår odlade jord. Rapport från akademisammankomst 11 mars 2010. Kungliga Skogs- och Lantbruksakademien, Stockholm.

KSLA (2011) Food security and the future of farms: 2020 and toward 2050. KSLATt, 1(2011): 150.

Murphy, Richard et al. (2011) Global developments in the competition for land from biofuels. Food Policy (2011),

Nilsson (2007). The Three F’s: Food, Fiber, and Fuel. Presentation by Sten Nilsson, Forestry Program, and Günther Fischer, Land Use Change and Agriculture Program, IIASA. Available at:

PWC (2011) Growing the Future: Exploring new values and new directions in the Forest, Paper & Packaging industry. PricewaterhouseCoopers, February 2011. Available at:


Roberts, Don et al. (2008) Convergence of food, fuel and fibre markets: driving change in the world’s forests. ArborVitae 37(2008), IUCN.

Sayer, Jeffrey et al. (2008) Local rights and tenure for forests: Opportunity or threat for conservation? Rights and Resources Initiative, Washington DC.

Schoneveld, George C. (2010) Potential land use competition from first-generation biofuel expansion in developing countries. CIFOR Occassional Paper 58, CIFOR, Bogor. Available at:

Schutter, Olivier de (2011) How not to think of land-grabbing: three critiques of large-scale investments in farmland, Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:2, 249-279

Smith, Pete et al. (2010) Competition for land. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2010 365, 2941-2957,

Swedish FAO Committee (2011) Foreign Land Invest-ments in Developing Countries: Contribution or Threat to Sustainable Development? Publication Series No. 7., Svenska FAO kommittén, Stockholm.

Taylor, R (ed.) (2011) Forests for a Living Planet, Chapter 1: WWF Living Forests Report. WWF international, Gland. Available at:

UNEP (2010) Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials. A Report of the Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Manage-ment, UNEP, Nairobi.

Visser, Oane & Spoor, Max (2011) Land grabbing in post-Soviet Eurasia: the world’s largest agricultural land reserves at stake, Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:2, 299-323.

Wirsenius, Stefan et al. (2010) How much land is needed for global food production under scenarios of dietary changes and livestock productivity increases in 2030? Agr. Syst. (2010),

World Bank (2010) Chapter 3: Managing Land and Water to Feed Nine Billion People and Protect Natural Systems. In: World Development Report 2010, The World Bank, Washington DC,

Photo: John Foxx

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