The Most Detailed Map Of The World’s Cropland Shows Where There’s Room To Feed Everyone

To meet rising global food demand, we need to know where farm production has room to grow.

If we don’t start producing more food, we’re going to run out in the future. With world population growing and climate change affecting crop yields, studies show a “calorie gap” of as much as 70% by 2050.


To start to tackle this, experts know we need to reduce food waste, develop new technology, like seeds that are more drought-resistant, and raise yields from farmland in a way that doesn’t just involve using more fertilizers and pesticides.

These are not easy things to do, but these maps show where we might look to start to increase food production. They show existing cropland and how intensely the land is farmed today. For each area, it shows both the percentage of cropland and the type of farm–whether it’s small, very small, medium or large. The maps are at a better resolution than anything available previously. The field size map–a proxy for farm mechanization–is the first of its kind.

“If you want to close yield gaps, you need to know where you are currently cultivating and what kind of soil there is,” says Steffen Fritz, a scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, in Vienna.

The maps also help develop land sustainably. You can see where small, inefficient farms could be developed into bigger, more effective farms, or where virgin land is uncultivated. They might also help avoid deforestation, which would only fuel more climate change.

Fritz points to a country like Zambia in southern Africa as having a lot of potential for development. “You have relatively low population density and there’s a likely to be quite a bit of potential,” he says. “There could be areas on the savannah for cropland. The maps help us see where this increase in production could happen.”

The maps were developed with the International Food Policy Research Institute and are based on several methods. First, the researchers took data from existing sources, like the Food and Agriculture Organization. Then, they crowdsourced analysis from dozens of volunteers around the world, who looked through Google Earth imagery. In all, the network parsed about 30,000 online map rectangles, ranking each for cropland.


IIASA/IFPRI has also developed the Geo-Wiki platform so anyone can get involved. The site includes games like Cropland Capture, where points are given for correctly identifying fields from woodland. It’s not fancy, but it’s engaging enough.

“It’s not the same as going on the ground and seeing the field. That is more valuable, but it’s also a lot more expensive,” Fritz says.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.