Industries in Depth

Watch the dramatic spread of agriculture across the world over the past 300 years

Wheat is seen in a field near the southern Ukranian city of Nikolaev July 8, 2013. Prices for wheat supplies with 12.5 percent protein content were unchanged at $252 per tonne in the Black Sea on a free-on-board (FOB) basis last week, according to IKAR on July 29. Prices in shallow-water ports rose $1 to $222 per tonne. Picture taken July 8, 2013.   REUTERS/Vincent Mundy (UKRAINE - Tags: AGRICULTURE BUSINESS) - RTX123OJ

Farming land has spread across the world – but is it enough to meet escalating food demand? Image: REUTERS/Vincent Mundy

Adam Shirley
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Industries in Depth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Agriculture, Food and Beverage is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Agriculture, Food and Beverage

The relentless spread of farming around the world over the past three centuries has been captured in a new global animation.

The map, produced by Radical Cartography, shows the amount of the world's surface given over to agriculture over the three centuries leading up to the year 2000.

Back in 1700, much of the world had no agriculture at all, on any scale. Those places that did used relatively small amounts of land, were inefficient and produced low yields.

 World Cropland
Image: Bill Rankin,

The map shows that in 1700, outside of Europe and Asia there was a very small proportion of land being farmed. The 18th century saw an increase in arable land for use and the beginnings of a vast improvement in agricultural yields.

New farming methods, such as four-field crop rotation, the increased use of fertilizer and increasing mechanization, opened up additional swaths of land for agriculture.

Technology developed in the First and Second Industrial Revolutions saw farming rapidly expand into previously untapped areas, such as the American Great Plains in the late 19th century and Argentina in the early 20th century.

Expansion and intensification of existing farming continued into recent decades, with Brazil and central India becoming more intensely farmed since the late 20th century.

Historian and cartographer Bill Rankin argues that existing arable land has become "more and more agricultural". It is estimated that the productivity of wheat in England went up from about 19 bushels per acre in 1720 to around 30 bushels by 1840.

In recent years intensification has increased and land expansion has slowed in the developed world. This is largely down to the increased use of fertilizer, which has improved production yields.

 Contribution of area and yield to production growth, 1991-2007
Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

What about the future?

Unlike the previous 300 years, increasing the area of farmed land will not be enough to meet food demand, nor is it sustainable for the environment.

The current global food system faces serious challenges. There is increasing demand for food as the world’s population grows rapidly; it is expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050.

 World Population: Projected World Population by 2100
Image: United Nations Department of Public Information

This will increase global demand for food by 60%, while currently 795 million people go hungry every day.

The spread of agriculture is far from over: vast stretches of Africa, South America, and South-East Asia can still be opened up to agricultural uses.

However, environmental concerns must also be addressed. Preserving the rainforest will require further intensification elsewhere. Agriculture is responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change increasingly threatens food systems.

  Where are food supplies most vulnerable to climate change
Image: Notre Dame Global Adaption Index

Intensification must also be sustainable – industrial agriculture uses huge amounts of water, energy and chemicals, which increase pollution of arable land, water supplies and the atmosphere. In a nutshell, this means the world needs to produce more food than ever before, with less land, while not damaging the environment.

In a new report, produced in collaboration with McKinsey & Company, the World Economic Forum sets out a vision to provide food security, environmental security and economic growth.

The report, titled Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A Roadmap for Stakeholders, suggests that agricultural development can be environmentally, socially and economically viable if it is approached as a market investment rather than as short-term aid.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Industries in DepthFood and Water
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

The energy transition could shift the global power centre. This expert explains why

Liam Coleman

June 4, 2024


About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum