Global changes in diets and the consequences for land requirements for food

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 May 1;109(18):6868-72. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1117054109. Epub 2012 Apr 16.


Provision of food is a prerequisite for the functioning of human society. Cropland where food and feed are grown is the central, limiting resource for food production. The amount of cropland needed depends on population numbers, average food consumption patterns, and output per unit of land. Around the globe, these factors show large differences. We use data from the Food and Agriculture Organization to consistently assess subcontinental dynamics of how much land was needed to supply the prevailing diets during a span of 46 y, from 1961 to 2007. We find that, in most regions, diets became richer while the land needed to feed one person decreased. A decomposition approach is used to quantify the contributions of the main drivers of cropland requirements for food: changes in population, agricultural technology, and diet. We compare the impact of these drivers for different subcontinents and find that potential land savings through yield increases were offset by a combination of population growth and dietary change. The dynamics of the three factors were the largest in developing regions and emerging economies. The results indicate an inverse relationship between the two main drivers behind increased land requirements for food: with socioeconomic development, population growth decreases and, at the same time, diets become richer. In many regions, dietary change may override population growth as major driver behind land requirements for food in the near future.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture* / statistics & numerical data
  • Agriculture* / trends
  • Crops, Agricultural / growth & development
  • Crops, Agricultural / supply & distribution
  • Diet / statistics & numerical data
  • Diet / trends*
  • Food Supply* / statistics & numerical data
  • Food Technology
  • Humans
  • Population Dynamics
  • United Nations