Worldwatch Paper #131: Shrinking Fields: Cropland Loss in a World of Eight Billion

July 1996
Gary Gardner
ISBN: 1-878071-33-5
56 pages

Even in the face of record-low food reserves, cropland continues to be paved over and degraded worldwide, a situation that threatens the food security of millions. Today, the grain area supporting each person has fallen to just 0.12 hectares--less than one-sixth of a soccer field.

Cities devour farmaldn for housing, industry, and recreation. Irrigated land shrinks as ground-water is depleted and water is diverted to urban areas. Erosion makes vast areas non-productive. And a growing share of remaining farmland is planted in non-food crops suchs as cotton and coffee.

Loss of cropland was little noticed in the past 40 years as yields rose rapidly. But today, slowing yield growth no longer offsets land losses, as the world faces a hung increase in food demand. Global population will jump by 2.2 billion people in just 25 years, and economic growth in developing countries will allow millions to enjoy a more varied--but more land-intensive--diet. Meanwhile, governments overestimate the potential for agricultural expansion, ususally by counting land on which cultivation would not be sustainable.

Once policymakers see cropland as a strategic resource, remedies are straighforward. Preservation progarms in Europe have saved millions of hectares of prime farmland. Porven technologies for reducing erosion need only to be more widely implemented. And technologies to make agriculture more productive can reduce the pressures on remaining land. But the challenge is pressing. Future generations will need the farmaldn that is now the shrinking foundation of our food supply.