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

The main pressure on land use is caused by an expanding economy and the demand for food by a growing population and changing diets. A model is used here to address the impact of these factors on the production of food, on remaining natural land, and on the balance between food self-sufficiency and imports.

Global food production can be increased either through intensification (using multicropping, raising cropping intensity by shortening fallow periods, or applying other inputs such as fertilizers to raise yields) and improved technology or through land expansions (cultivating additional land, primarily by converting forest or rangeland into farmland). This modelling study considered several factors, such as the availability of suitable land, the quality of the land, socio-economic conditions, and the availability of needed inputs. Regional food production can be supplemented by imports, which have an effect on food production in exporting regions.

Past and Present Trends

Global human food consumption figures show that the daily average world per capita intake of 2,700 kilocalories is substantially above the critical daily level needed for a healthy life (1,900 kilocalories). This suggests that there is enough food to feed the current global population. Yet there is a major difference in caloric intake between developing and industrial regions 2,470 kilocalories a day per capita compared with 3,400 kilocalories (FAO, 1992).

Food production has not always kept pace with population growth. In most of Africa, Latin America, and about half of Asia, less food was produced per capita at the end of the 1980s than at the beginning of the decade (IFPRI, 1995). From 1985 to 1994, the amount of grain produced per person globally has fallen (FAO, 1995b). In addition, increases in rice and wheat yields are beginning to level off in some major producing regions. The expansion in world grain production has slowed from 3 per cent a year in the 1970s to 1.3 per cent a year in the 1983-1993 period (IFPRI, 1995).

In the past, food production rose mainly due to a more intensive use of the land and to expansion of agricultural land (Leach, 1995), but area expansion is becoming less and less an option to boost output (Gardner and Peterson, 1996). In almost three decades, agricultural land area in the industrial and developing worlds has increased by 2.9 and 15.4 per cent respectively, yielding a global figure of 9.2 per cent. But these numbers mask considerable regional variations: increases in Africa of 20 per cent; in Latin America, 27 per cent; and in South and South-East Asia, 13 per cent. Nor do they include pasture land, the main contributor to the total land extension in many regions. In Latin America, for example, five to six times as much land is used for pasture as for arable purposes. The mainstay of agricultural production growth in the more recent past has been increased yields through intensification, from the application of new varieties and of technologies derived from scientific discovery and improvements in management (FAO, 1995b). But these increases are levelling off also.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reported that in 1990 about 800 million people were "food insecure" that is, lacking economic and physical access to the food required to lead healthy and productive lives and that some 185 million children under the age of six were seriously underweight for their age (IFPRI, 1995). Food insecurity and child malnutrition are mainly concentrated in South Asia and are increasing in sub-Saharan Africa (FAO, 1995b; IFPRI, 1995).

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), however, food security and nutrition have improved significantly in most developing regions, mainly due to increased domestic production and food imports. Yet sub-Saharan Africa, parts of South Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean are still in a difficult position (FAO, 1995b).

At present (except in cases of civil strife), malnutrition is caused less by a global shortage of food than it is by poverty the lack of income to buy food or the lack of means (land or capital) to grow enough. More than 1.1 billion people in the developing world live in absolute poverty, with incomes of US$1 a day or less per person. The gap between rich and poor has become larger since 1960. The share of global income obtained by the poorest 20 per cent of the world's population decreased dramatically from 2.5 per cent in the 1960s to 1.3 per cent in 1990 (IFPRI, 1995).

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