Land and population

Posted: 13 December 2007

As world population and the global economy has grown, ever more land has been cleared, drained or irrigated to plant cash crops for export, such as sugar and palm oil, coffee and rubber, or to grow food crops for livestock.

  • Extensification - the expansion of arable land - has overwhelmingly been a response to fast-growing populations, with subsistence in food the main driving force.
  • The 60 years from 1860 to 1920 saw 440 million hectares (over 1 billion acres) of land brought under cultivation (an area larger than India). More than half of this took place in the temperate lands of North America and in the region that became the Soviet Union.
  • A similar scale of transformation took place in the subsequent 60 years, from 1920 to 1980.
  • The second half of the 20th century saw an unprecedented covering of the landscape with urban concrete and tarmac, destroying or displacing wildlife and causing major disruption to drainage and rivers by preventing natural seepage.

    Credit: AAAS/FAO

  • Arable land per person is shrinking, from 0.38 hectares in 1970 to 0.23 in 2000, with a projected decline to 0.15 hectares per person by 2050.
  • Of course, being land-poor does not necessarily mean that people go hungry: look, for example, at Holland and Singapore, two of the most densely populated countries on earth, and among the wealthiest.
  • The population of Pakistan is projected to grow from 169 million now to 295 million by 2050. The per capita land availability has progressively declined to 0.15 hectare at present, shrinking further to 0.08 ha by 2050 - this at a time when huge areas of the country are threatened with salinisation. This might not matter so much if people have the ability to buy food - something that cannot be guaranteed in a poor country with rapid population growth.