Striking the balance: Catalyzing a sustainable land-use transition


This article was written by Irene Auma, Head of Risk, Visa, Sub-Saharan Africa. The original article was published by You can find the article here.

Humanity’s appetite for land continues to grow, driven by increasing demand for food, livestock, and fuel. At the same time, there is a greater awareness of—and commitment to—the vital importance of protecting natural capital. Striking the balance between these sometimes competing demands is possible, though difficult. The future is bringing new challenges and additional commitments to climate and biodiversity, and our use of land will need to adapt.

We estimate that 70 to 80 million hectares (Mha) of additional cropland will be required by 2030 (see sidebar “About our research”). This figure could rise to more than 110 Mha if humanity collectively fails to convert enough degraded land into cropland and in light of extreme weather events, as well as the potential impact of geopolitical, pandemic-related, and other disruptions on trade. While a pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050 remains achievable, the assumptions underpinning our scenarios would give between a 50 and 67 percent chance of staying below 1.8°C.1   

While the additional cropland requirement calculated by our model is less than 10 percent of today’s total cropland, it is a substantial amount—equivalent to the total cropland of Brazil today and almost three times that of Tanzania. While land may not be scarce at a global level, competition for available and suitable parcels, which make up just a subset of the total, is intensifying. Hot spots for land competition are already emerging in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, which are likely to be the source of most of the additional cropland.

Action across three primary levers can help to meet and, where possible, offset additional demands for land. Conversion of degraded land could expand cropland in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, outpacing the deforestation that has historically been the norm in these regions. This land conversion can supply a significant portion of the additional cropland required by 2030, while stronger yield growth and efficiencies from increased trade could offset part of the remainder. These supply-side levers will likely not be sufficient, however. Actions to reduce land demand—including through encouraging behavioral change, reducing food waste, seeking alternative offshore resources, and increasing innovation—are also likely to be important for a sustainable land transition.

We have identified ten actions that could lay the foundation for a global pattern of 2030 land use that both meets our needs and protects our planet. These actions would require substantial effort and outlay—converting degraded land on the scale required could cost at least $300 billion, for example—but they also represent a meaningful investment opportunity. This figure is based on McKinsey estimates of the price per hectare to convert pastureland to cropland in Brazil.

But as the window for action closes, the magnitude of the challenge must not be underestimated. Uncertainties and obstacles remain, and if the foundations of the land transition are not in place by 2030—which is just six harvest cycles away—then the risk of passing crucial climate tipping points could be substantially higher. Success is likely to require concerted, urgent action from public- and private-sector stakeholders. Every organization that uses land in any way—or that is concerned with food security, energy security, or the protection of the environment—can be a part of the solution.

Globally, land is not scarce, but only a fraction is suitable to meet our demands for food, fuel, and natural capital

Around 30 percent of the surface of our planet is land, and the majority of this—12,800 Mha—is habitable. Sixty percent of this land surface is suitable for additional cropland but currently has multiple uses (Exhibit 1). According to McKinsey analysis of Potsdam Institute’s MAgPIE (Model of Agricultural Production and its Impact on the Environment) model, today, one-third of our land surface is natural land, one-third is forested, and the remainder is pastureland, cropland, and a small share of urban land.

Exhibit 1
Today, about 60 percent of Earth’s available surface beyond the ocean is suitable for additional cropland but could have multiple uses.
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Our appetite for land continues to increase, though the way in which land is used is shifting. The global population will continue to grow over the next decade, which means increased demand for land to produce food, livestock (both pasture and feed), and bioenergy crops. Biomass will also be needed to decarbonize a number of other sectors, including chemicals.2

At the same time, an increasingly adverse climate will depress agricultural yields and change land suitability in most countries.3 Our needs for food and fuel also contend with the commitments that have been made related to natural capital, including increasing tree coverage for carbon sequestration and storage and preserving biodiversity.

While land may not be scarce at a global level, the remaining available land is not all suitable or accessible for these competing needs. Challenges can emerge when a given parcel of land is well suited for multiple crops, pastureland and grazing, biodiversity conservation, carbon storage sequestration, and other uses.

By 2030, the world will need an additional 70 to 80 Mha—and perhaps more than 110 Mha—of cropland

We estimate that by 2030, the world will need additional cropland of at least 70 to 80 Mha to satisfy our needs for food, fuel, and nature (Exhibit 2). This base case is based on a set of conservative assumptions that reflect the likely condition of the world in 2030. If we factor in the possible impact of extreme weather events on yields and of geopolitical issues on trade, the additional cropland requirement could increase to more than 110 Mha.

Exhibit 2
The estimated need for 70–80 million additional hectares of cropland by 2030 reflects what is likely to happen, not what ought to happen.
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This increase in land use is driven by three principal factors. The production of feedstock for livestock may account for around 70 percent of all incremental cropland needed by 2030, crop production for human consumption may account for around 20 percent, and biofuel production may account for the remaining approximately 10 percent. The main drivers of land use are harder to predict beyond 2030 but are likely to shift (see sidebar “Shifts in land use in the decades leading up to 2050”).

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