Category Archives: arable land

The Earth’s Land Use (Cover) Breakdown from the FAO

The FAO has released a new database that summarizes land cover on our lovely planet, drawing from satellite and other types of data resources. Combining the sources of information available to us today in this way has never been done before and will help aid in assessing the future of food production and its sustainability. The database is called “Global Land Cover SHARE database”.

Next, is the general category breakdown from the report. It looks like we’ve paved over .6 percent of the Earth’s land surface. That is quite an Anthropocene feat.

The FAO’s new database includes eleven global land cover layers, and here are the percentages allocated to each one:

artificial surfaces (which cover 0.6 percent of the Earth’s surface)
bare soils (15.2 percent)
croplands (12.6 percent)
grasslands (13.0 percent)
herbaceous vegetation (1.3 percent)
inland water bodies (2.6 percent)
mangroves (0.1 percent)
shrub-covered areas (9.5 percent)
snow and glaciers (9.7 percent)
sparse vegetation (7.7 percent)
tree-covered areas (27.7 percent)


Arable Land Per Person in Various Regions of the World

This chart is from the recent Iowa State AGMRC publication, “Can We Meet the World’s Growing Demand for Food?” by Don Hofstrand. The writing includes many issues related to global food security. Note that South America’s arable land per person value is equal to Sub-Saharan Africa’s. (Also note correction: Middle East and North America should read Middle East and North Africa)

I look forward to Hofstrand’s future writing about how biofuels will and do affect global food security, which he says is coming soon.


Geography Lesson: Just How Big is Africa?

This map of Africa was created by Kal Krause, who calls it a small contribution in the fight against rampant immappancy, a word meaning insufficient geographical knowledge.

For comparison, the U.S. including Alaska, has a land size that is only 32 percent of the size of Africa.

Next, let’s look at a map showing renewable water per capita in Africa. As you can see, water security in Africa varies greatly by country, but on average is scarce.

With a rapidly growing population, Africa faces water challenges in many of its countries, in both quantity and quality, and is expected to face more water difficulties with a changing climate. In addition, much of its soils are acidic, nutrient depleted, and desertified. Most African farmers are poor, lacking fertilizers, machinery, and infrastructure.

Yet, the Sub-Saharan region of Africa, known as a great food-insecure region, has seen a decline in its undernourished population in the past two decades, falling from 33 percent to 25 percent, according the the FAO. Agricultural author, Paul McMahon, believes that Sub-Saharan Africa has enormous potential to increase production, with more than 750 million hectares of suitable land that could be brought into production, and the potential to triple yields.

This large continent will be ground zero for agricultural development in coming decades.

Thank you to valued reader, Dave, who alerted me to this map of Africa.

Mycorrhiza Proves Valuable in Qatar’s Saline Soils

Is the fungus Micorrhiza a panacea?

It seems to make possible what might seem impossible, like growing vegetables in the inhospitable saline soils of Qatar. Calling it cheap with huge potential, scientists in Qatar used this naturally occurring soil fungus by mass producing it in labs and then adding it to soil to grow healthy, nutrient rich vegetables like corn, radishes, tomatoes, and also wheat. The crops grown were nutrient rich, like those grown on much better arable land. These plants were grown where salinity was greater than the sea one meter beneath the soil surface.

Micorrhiza, or root-fungus, increases the fruit and flowering of plants while improving soil quality and reducing the need for water and fertilizer. It is organic, natural, and chemical free.

When the right type of Micorrhiza is added to soils, it is capable of reducing water needs by 25 percent. It reduces the need for fertilizer, enables plants to be grown in salty or contaminated soils, and increases the temperature stress tolerance of plants. It does so by working symbiotically with plants. It attaches to the roots and forms root exudates or arbuscules, with finely branched hyphae which allow for an amplified exchange of nutrients between the soil and the plant. It greatly enhances the uptake of phosphorus and it protects the plant roots from disease pathogens. It is possible for a plant with the fungus present on its roots to uptake 100 times as many nutrients as a plant without the fungus. Certain types of Mycorrhiza are also key to storing carbon in the soil.

If you are a gardener and want to promote the growth of your own garden soil network of Mycorrhiza, add compost, don’t use synthetic chemicals, do minimum tillage, rotate your crops, and grow cover crops. By cold composting, or mulching your garden with shredded leaves each fall, you can promote optimal Mycorrhizal fungi growth.

The benefits provided by Mycorrhiza appear to be just what we need as we search for farming methods which enhance heat and drought stress resistance in plants to grow crops which are more resilient in a world with a changing climate. Food security experts today are advocating regional food independence as the ultimate solution to food insecurity. But many food insecure regions lack quality soils in which to grow crops. This fungus could allow for bringing poorer quality land back into cultivation.

Perhaps it is not a panacea, but utilizing Mycorrhiza more fully could be a big help in feeding the world this coming century.

To see the Qatar Mycorrhiza story from Al Jazeera, watch the 2.5-minute video, below.

Hot 5: Forum Ag Panel. Chu on Biofuels. Max Temps. Ag R&D. Smaller Meat Animals.

1. The Ag Panel at the Aspen Institute Environment Forum

Last week I attended the 5th Annual Aspen Institute Environment Forum co-sponsored by National Geographic. (This event precedes the Ideas Festival and the two events overlapped with one day of talks on forests.) Walter Isaacson is the President of the Aspen Institute, so it was he who introduced the event and the first day’s featured speakers, E.O. Wilson and Stuart Brand.

Personal highlights, though there were many, were having my photo taken with Stuart Brand, and finding myself next to Hari Sreenivasan of PBS Newshour on a walking commute between buildings, for an uninterrupted five minutes of conversation. Ever the astute interviewer, his first question for me was how I make money by having a site about agriculture. The fact that he asked the question meant that my answer came as no surprise to him.

Dennis Dimick, the Environmental Editor of National Geographic has been an online supporter of this site since nearly its start, so it was nice to finally meet him in person. Because Dimick has an education in Agriculture from the University of Wisconsin, he appreciates the fact that agriculture is the number one cause of planetary ecosystem destruction. And that is why he moderated the Ag panel talk and saved it (the best) for last. Ag panelists were Jon Foley, Jason Clay, Chris Reij, and Dan Glickman.

This hour long discussion is definitely worth a listen.

2. Steven Chu on Biofuels

The May 2012 issue of Scientific American has an interesting page interviewing Steven Chu. His answer to the question about where future breakthroughs might come from included biofuels:

Breakthroughs on the physics side will be in materials. The battery manufacturer Envia [Systems] announced a 400-watt-hour-per-kilogram battery. That’s at least a factor of two more than the previous best. It still has to go through some more stages of testing. We are investing in other battery companies that will go another factor of two beyond that.

Biofuels are a little bit further out only because your competition is oil. Early-stage research sponsored by the Department of Energy has microbes you can feed simple sugars and out pops diesel fuel. Another company is using photo-synthetic bacteria and swapping whole genomes and metabolic pathways. [The microbe] generates long alkane chains that are the immediate precursors to diesel fuel. It’s 5 to 10 percent energy-efficient, whereas a typical plant is only 1 percent efficient. This is a little weird bacterium or yeast. In the past 15 years or so I’ve gotten into biology like this. I follow it with avid interest. It’s really almost science fiction.

3. U.S. Daily Highest Max Temperature Records set on June 28, 2012

Out of a possible 5,752 records: 205 (Broken) + 74 (Tied) = 279 Total

Norton, Kansas set a new record of 118 degrees, up from 104 in 1963.

Corn growers in the middle of the nation are saying that this is the week that will determine this year’s crop. If there is still no rain there will be major crop losses.

Midwestern droughts have historically followed southern droughts, like the Texas drought of the past couple of years. Also, the Midwest has not had a drought for many years, and many say that it is due.

Climate Change? As Kevin Trenberth (NCAR) just told us at the Environment Forum (#1 above), “Five to ten percent of all of today’s weather is because of climate change.”

4. Agricultural R&D Breakdown

Among all countries, the United States was the leader in private agricultural R&D during 1994-2010, accounting for over one-third of the global total. U.S. companies were particularly dominant in the crop seed/biotechnology and animal breeding/genetic sectors, where they made up about half of global private R&D investments. European firms accounted for about half of total R&D across all agricultural input industries over the period, with companies based in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands being the leaders in this region. Japan led private R&D in the Asia-Pacific region. Worldwide, Japanese firms were among the leaders in crop protection chemicals and farm machinery R&D.

Research spending as a share of sales is highest in the crop seed/biotechnology, crop chemical, animal health, and animal breeding/genetics sectors.

Global trade in agricultural inputs has grown rapidly over the past two decades. Between 1990 and 2007, international trade in animal breeding material grew by 260 percent, and trade in farm machinery grew by 190 percent (in constant U.S. dollars).

The private sector accounted for 45 percent of total food and agricultural R&D spending worldwide. Although the global estimates of public research spending do not separate food from agricultural R&D, the U.S. data may be illustrative, at least for high-income countries. According to USDA’s Inventory of Agricultural Research, in 2000, about 60 percent of total U.S. public agricultural R&D was allocated to research related to plant and animal systems; 15 percent went to food and human nutrition; and 24 percent went to environmental and other issues not directly related to food or farm production. If these figures are representative of public agricultural R&D in high-income countries, it would imply that the private sector accounts for roughly 46 percent of total production agriculture research and 76 percent of food related research in these countries.

Source: USDA’s Amber Waves

5. Let’s Move Towards Smaller Meat Animals

The Union of Concerned Scientists has come out with a new document titled “Solutions for Deforestation-free Meat”. Beef, uses about three-fifths of the world’s agricultural land yet produces less than 5 percent of its protein and less than 2 percent of its calories. Meat sources such as pork and especially chicken, require much less land to produce the same amount of protein. A diet shift from beef toward chicken would greatly reduce the pressure on land and the resulting pressure for deforestation.

This is not to say that grassfed beef are not appropriate in some areas. Large herbivores roamed many of this Earth’s lands prior to modern agriculture and Allan Savory has written much about the benefits of these natural systems.

I might add that in the Andes, Peruvians eat guinea pigs (Cuy chactado) kept adjacent to or inside their houses. Then, there’s the old dovecote, or pigeon house used in the Middle East, Europe, and the early years in America. Or, as PBS’s NOVA recently explained to us, the best sensible protein source for humans might be insects… now there’s a challenge for the food innovators, processors, and packagers.

At the Aspen Institute Environment Forum (#1 above), Jon Foley said, “If there’s an elephant in the room with the global food system, it’s a cow.”