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Demand for agricultural land continues to rise

Not population growth but changed consumption patterns
13 September 2012

Globally changing consumption patterns – not population growth – are the main reason that the demand for agricultural land is set to rise in coming decades. This demand will be met in part by more intensive agricultural methods, but the possibilities are limited, and in Western countries these limits have already been reached. The continuing demand for agricultural land may lead to further deforestation. Austrian researcher Thomas Kastner came to these conclusions in his PhD thesis on the changing demand for food, animal feed, and wood for fuel and other purposes, and how this demand influences land use. On Monday 17 September he will be awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Mathematics & Natural Sciences of the University of Groningen.

Increasing prosperity across the globe has not only led to a drop in population growth, but also to a change in consumption patterns, involving more meat being eaten and increasing demands being made of agricultural land.

This land could be used more efficiently, especially in developing countries, but this does not mean that it should be used for other purposes, such as producing energy crops, says Kastner: ‘If that were to happen, the whole system would change. The United States today is a food exporter. If it was to devote its agricultural land to bioethanol production the situation would reverse.’

Export flows

The changes in food consumption patterns will in any case lead to different food import and export flows. Kastner: ‘The connection between local demand for vegetable products and local land use is becoming weaker. Trade is set to greatly increase between South America, Asia and Africa in particular. I am most concerned about Africa in that regard, as it will become increasingly dependent on grain imports. In food politics, we need to remain aware of the increasing role of the import and export of agricultural products.’

His analysis shows that Western countries can afford to let agricultural land revert to woodland and nature reserves. They are also able to meet a large part of their demand for wood by importing it. Meanwhile, large-scale deforestation is taking place in Brazil and Indonesia. Kastner’s research shows that this is due to wood being exported to regions such as Western Europe, as well as the growing demand for agricultural land because of the rising demand for food in these source countries with their growing populations.

Deforestation

The total global land area is 13 billion hectares. Five billion of these are currently being used for food production: 1.5 billion hectares is arable land and 3.5 billion is used for raising livestock. The remaining land is either forest or some other type of nature. Kastner feels that it is inevitable that the latter share will shrink even further: ‘Figures covering the past already show this deforestation trend. Unless a strong political approach is developed, this will continue completely unchecked. It is a problem, but you cannot tell the local population that they need to quit clearing woodland. The extra land will prove necessary in future, unless we manage to buck every trend and adopt a more sober consumption pattern.’

CV

Thomas Kastner (Linz, 1980) graduated from the University of Vienna. He conducted his PhD research at the University of Groningen’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies (IVEM). He is currently working as a researcher at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vienna. Kastner will be awarded his PhD on 17 September by the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the University of Groningen. His thesis is entitled ‘Changes in human food and wood consumption and their impacts on global land demand’.

Note for the press

More information: Thomas Kastner, preferably by e-mail: kastner.thomas@gmail.com, otherwise: tel: 050-363 4611 or 050-363 4609.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.28 p.m.
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