Note: This is the 1997 edition of UNEP's Global Environment Outlook. If you are interested in more recent information, please see the 2000 and 2002 editions.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global  Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 4: Looking to the Future

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Use of Land

Global Summary

Total global food demand is expected to increase by 50 per cent by 2015 and by more than 110 per cent by 2050. The combination of the increase in agricultural demands, changes in consumption patterns (less staple foods and more luxury products, which require more inputs), and ongoing technological development in agriculture will lead to a 27-per-cent increase of the total agricultural area by 2015 and about a 42-per-cent increase by 2050.

Several compounding factors have not yet been addressed in this summary, however. First, soil degradation is currently estimated to affect some 1.2 billion hectares of land world-wide (that is, 10 per cent of the current agricultural land area). Water and wind erosion account for just over 1 billion hectares of the total area degraded (FAO, 1995b; ISRIC/UNEP, 1991). The main causes of degradation are deforestation, overgrazing, and the mismanagement of arable land. Such activities lead to nutrient depletion (Smaling, 1993), salinization, and desertification (UNEP, 1991), and ultimately affect food production and socio-economic structures. Estimates indicate that each year 5-6 million hectares are lost through severe soil degradation. If this continues,  several million hectares of additional land would be needed every year to offset the loss of land to degradation.

Another factor that affects agricultural production is urbanization, since land areas suitable for agriculture are often converted for urban land use. This puts pressure on non-domesticated areas.

Many reputable research institutes and organizations have addressed the issues discussed in this section. Generally speaking, there are two perspectives. The somewhat optimistic reports and publications (such as FAO, 1995b) assume that if technology and enhanced management are implemented successfully, demand can be met without reaching the biophysical limits of global food production. The pessimistic voices (such as Brown, 1996) express the view that technological developments do not look so promising and will lead to non-sustainable agricultural practices, that technologies are unevenly spread across the world, that developing regions will depend increasingly on imports, and that a growing number of people are likely to lack food security and be malnourished in the future.

The difference in perspective can be largely attributed to varying assumptions about the future availability of suitable soil and water resources, about the way these resources will be used or misused (Gardner and Peterson, 1996), about the impact of environmental pollution on agriculture (due to climate change, acidification, and water pollution), and about agriculture's own contribution to the general pollution of water, air, and soil.

The results depicted here are optimistic in that they assume significantly higher productivity and efficiency in agriculture, but pessimistic because they assume a reduction in self-sufficiency in some developing regions. They assume that the needed extensions of agricultural land will have negative effects on remaining natural habitats and hence on biodiversity, highlighting again the need to address interlinkages among different sectoral assessments.

Because food security is one of the most basic human needs, the clear differences in assumptions and vision among leading experts about achievable developments require much more international attention, research co-operation, and integrated systems analysis.

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