The global cropland-sparing potential of high-yield farming


The global expansion of cropland exerts substantial pressure on natural ecosystems and is expected to continue with population growth and affluent demand. Yet earlier studies indicated that crop production could be more than doubled if attainable crop yields were achieved on present cropland. Here we show on the basis of crop modelling that closing current yield gaps by spatially optimizing fertilizer inputs and allocating 16 major crops across global cropland would allow reduction of the cropland area required to maintain present production volumes by nearly 50% of its current extent. Enforcing a scenario abandoning cropland in biodiversity hotspots and uniformly releasing 20% of cropland area for other landscape elements would still enable reducing the cropland requirement by almost 40%. As a co-benefit, greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer and paddy rice, as well as irrigation water requirements, are likely to decrease with a reduced area of cultivated land, while global fertilizer input requirements remain unchanged. Spared cropland would provide space for substantial carbon sequestration in restored natural vegetation. Only targeted sparing of biodiversity hotspots supports species with small-range habitats, while biodiversity would hardly profit from a maximum land-sparing approach.

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Fig. 1: Schematic of the study design.
Fig. 2: Global extent of annual cropland in the reference period and the two land-sparing scenarios.
Fig. 3: Proportion of each 5′ × 5′ pixel covered by cropland cultivated and cropland fractions released in the two land-sparing scenarios.
Fig. 4: Relative changes in key agricultural externalities following optimization of area of cropland for the two scenarios.

Data availability

Datasets required for reproducing key results of the cropland allocation model are available via

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C.F., N.K., J.B., R.S., P.C., I.A.J., J.P. and M.O. were supported by European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-2013-SynG-610028 Imbalance-P. Part of the work by C.F. was supported by a research fellowship of the Center for Advanced Studies at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich. P.C. received support from the ANR CLAND Institute of Convergence (16-CONV-0003). We gratefully acknowledge the provision of threatened species data by IUCN and the provision of land-cover data by the ESA-CCI Land Cover project.

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C.F., N.K. and M.O. designed the study; C.F. and N.K. performed central analyses; J.B., R.S. and P.V. contributed models and data; C.F. wrote an initial draft; C.F., N.K., J.B., R.S., P.V., P.C., I.A.J., J.P. and M.O. contributed substantially to the interpretation of the results and revisions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Christian Folberth.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–20, Tables 1–4, Methods 1–4, Text 1–4 and Data 1.

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Folberth, C., Khabarov, N., Balkovič, J. et al. The global cropland-sparing potential of high-yield farming. Nat Sustain 3, 281–289 (2020).

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