A look at where world crop area is increasing

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World major crop area has increased by nearly190 million acres since 2000, calling into question concerns that the world is running out of cropland.

For this analysis the major crops include: corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, oats, barley, sorghum, millet, rye, peanuts, sunflowers, rapeseed/canola, and cotton.

According to USDA Foreign Agriculture Service data, major crop area in 2012 totaled 910.7 million hectares, up from 834.0 million in 2000. The question that this raises is—where is all of this land coming from? To answer the question, we aggregated the data for the 13 crops for all 142 countries in a data base and then calculated the change from 2000 to 2012. Some of the countries with big changes are where you would expect big changes to occur, but some are pretty surprising over the last 12 years.

The big increases in crop area in South American countries are not too surprising. Both Brazil and Argentina have increased soybean area dramatically over the last 12 years as demand from China has soared. Most of the increase in Paraguay is also in soybeans.

Increases in Ukraine and Kazakhstan are also in line with expectations. Even with the poor growing conditions in 2012, major crop area is up dramatically, with the biggest increases in wheat acreage.

However, increases in China and African countries are surprising. Four African countries have seen increases of at least 4 million acres and the increase for Africa as a whole is 40 million acres. That is a bigger increase in than former Soviet Union (up 30 million acres) and bigger than all the rest of South America if we take out Brazil. Major crop area in Africa now totals 117 million hectares (289 million acres), more than in China or the U.S.

The increase in China is pretty amazing by itself. For all of the opinions that China is losing its good cropland to industrial growth, major crop area is increasing to the tune of 15 million acres over the last 12 years. China’s corn area has increased an amazing 28 million acres, so corn has been stealing some land from other crops. Wheat area has declined by almost 6 million acres and soybean acreage is down a little more than 5 million acres. But cotton and rice acreage have both increased over the last 12 years.

At least based on what has happened over the last few years, world crop acreage may continue to increase. Most observers say that there is still plenty of room for expansion in Brazil and Argentina, and crop acreage in the former Soviet Union has only begun to rebound after falling by more than 100 million acres in the 1980s and 1990s. There are reports that investment in crop area in Africa is building momentum.

In addition, the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program will probably be reduced to 24 million acres or so over the next few years, down from nearly 30 million in 2012. Maybe China won’t be able to continue to find more and more land for crops, but that is what we would have said several years ago. We will probably all be surprised when we reach 2020 and look back at how the world has changed.

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