Agricultural intensification and changes in cultivated areas, 1970-2005

Thomas K. Rudel, Laura Schneider, Maria Uriarte, B. L. Turner, Ruth DeFries, Deborah Lawrence, Jacqueline Geoghegan, Susanna Hecht, Amy Ickowitz, Eric F. Lambin, Trevor Birkenholtz, Sandra Baptista, Ricardo Grau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

425 Scopus citations


Does the intensification of agriculture reduce cultivated areas and, in so doing, spare some lands by concentrating production on other lands? Such sparing is important for many reasons, among them the enhanced abilities of released lands to sequester carbon and provide other environmental services. Difficulties measuring the extent of spared land make it impossible to investigate fully the hypothesized causal chain from agricultural intensification to declines in cultivated areas and then to increases in spared land. We analyze the historical circumstances in which rising yields have been accompanied by declines in cultivated areas, thereby leading to land-sparing. We use national-level United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization data on trends in cropland from 1970-2005, with particular emphasis on the 1990-2005 period, for 10 major crop types. Cropland has increased more slowly than population during this period, but paired increases in yields and declines in cropland occurred infrequently, both globally and nationally. Agricultural intensification was not generally accompanied by decline or stasis in cropland area at a national scale during this time period, except in countries with grain imports and conservation set-aside programs. Future projections of cropland abandonment and ensuing environmental services cannot be assumed without explicit policy intervention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20675-20680
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number49
StatePublished - Dec 8 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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