Global cropland supply up to 20% higher than thought

There is a total of 1.87bn hectares of cropland in the world, an upward revision made possible by higher-resolution imagery that overwhelmingly benefits Asia.

The global supply of cropland is 15 percent to 20 percent higher than previously estimated, according to a new map by the US Geological Survey.

USGS said that the new map, produced as part of the NASA-funded Global Food Security Support Analysis Data at 30 project, shows there are currently 1.87 billion hectares of cropland worldwide.

The revision comes as the result of field visits and the use of what USGS called the “highest spatial resolution of any global agricultural dataset” used to analyze large areas that were previously unmapped or misunderstood to be non-cropland.

Prasad Thenkabail. USGS research geographer and principle investigator on the GFSAD30 project, told Agri Investor that cropland measured included areas where crops are currently being grown, farmland that has been left fallow and areas where periodically updated data suggest that it is possible to grow crops.

“This is a paradigm shift in how we map cropland,” Thenkabail said. “We are working with machine-learning algorithms, artificial intelligence and big-data analytics on data acquired from the Landsat system every 15 days.”

Thenkabail explained that previous studies were based on lower-resolution images that required researchers to overlook certain regions altogether or underestimate the agricultural potential of areas where cropland is present but not the dominant feature, such as deserts, mountains and forests.

Using new images, that he said provide several hundred times more resolution than previous readings, allows USGS researchers to incorporate “fractional” cropland that is often utilized in developing countries.

“Cropland is quite dynamic, and sometimes the early mapping, because of their definitions and the quality of data they had, they missed a lot of cropland,” he said.

The project is designed, according to Thenkabail, to help improve the quality of national-level statistics that often guide agricultural decision-makers including national and regional governments, international organizations and farmers. The data are free and available to download.

For investors, Thenkabail said, the GFSAD30 project can produce a more accurate baseline from which they can make more informed decisions about matters including crop intensity, which areas of cropland are irrigated as opposed to rain-fed as well as how many of what type of crops are best to grow in a particular region.

The biggest beneficiary of the revision is India, which now ranks as the country with the largest endowment of cropland in the world at 180 million hectares, or nearly 10 percent of the worldwide total, according to USGS.

At 168 million hectares, the US ranks second, followed by China and Russia.