The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture

Main messages


Main messages


The availability and use of land and water resources

  • There is significant geographic variation in the availability of land considered suitable for agriculture. Increasing population and demand from other sectors place growing pressure on available resources. Assuming well-adapted production systems are used, currently cultivated land is mostly of prime (28 percent of the total) or good quality (53 percent). The highest regional proportion of prime land currently cultivated is found in Central America and the Caribbean (42 percent), followed by Western and Central Europe (38 percent) and Northern America (37 percent).
  • For high income countries as a whole, the share of prime land in currently cultivated land is 32 percent. In low income countries, soils are often poorer and only 28 percent of total cultivated land is classed as prime
  • The world’s cultivated area has grown by 12 percent over the last 50 years. The global irrigated area has doubled over the same period, accounting for most of the net increase in cultivated land. Meanwhile, agricultural production has grown between 2.5 and 3 times, thanks to significant increase in the yield of major crops. 
  • However, global achievements in production in some regions have been associated with degradation of land and water resources, and the deterioration of related ecosystem goods and services. These, include biomass, carbon storage, soil health, water storage and supply, biodiversity, and social and cultural services. Agriculture already uses 11 percent of the world’s land surface for crop production. It also makes use of 70 percent of all water withdrawn from aquifers, streams and lakes. Agricultural policies have primarily benefitted farmers with productive land and access to water, bypassing the majority of small-scale producers who are still locked in a poverty trap of high vulnerability, land degradation and climatic uncertainty.

Policies and Institutions

  • Land and water institutions have not kept pace with the growing intensity of river basin development and the increasing degree of inter-dependence and competition over land and water resources. Much more adaptable and collaborative institutions are needed to respond effectively to natural resource scarcity and market opportunities.


  • Toward 2050, rising population and incomes are expected to call for 70 percent more food production globally, and up to 100 percent more in developing countries, relative to 2009 levels. Yet, the distribution of land and water resources does not favour those countries that need to produce more in the future: the average availability of cultivated land per capita in low-income countries is less than half that of high-income countries, and the suitability of cultivated land for cropping is generally lower. Some countries with rapidly growing demand for food are also those that face high levels of land or water scarcity.
  • The largest contribution to increases in agricultural output will most likely come from intensification of production on existing agricultural land. This will require widespread adoption of sustainable land management practices, and more efficient use of irrigation water through enhanced flexibility, reliability and timing of irrigation water delivery.


  • The prevailing patterns of agricultural production need to be critically reviewed. A series of land and water systems now face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity under a combination of excessive demographic pressure and unsustainable agricultural practices. The physical limits to land and water availability within these systems may be further exacerbated in places by external drivers, including climate change, competition with other sectors and socio-economic changes. These systems at risk warrant priority attention for remedial action simply because there are no substitutes.


  • The potential exists to expand production efficiently to address food security and poverty while limiting impacts on other ecosystem values. There is scope for governments and the private sector, including farmers, to be much more proactive in advancing the general adoption of sustainable land and water management practices. Actions include not just technical options to promote sustainable intensification and reduce production risks, they also comprise a set of conditions to remove constraints and build flexibility. These include (1) the removal of distortions in the incentives framework, (2) improvement of land tenure and access to resources, (3) strengthened and more collaborative land and water institutions, (4) efficient support services including knowledge exchange, adaptive research, and rural finance, and (5) better and more secured access to markets.


  • Widespread adoption of sustainable land and water management practices will also require the global community to have the political will to put in place the financial and institutional support to encourage widespread adoption of responsible agricultural practices. The negative trend in national budgets and official development assistance allocated to land and water needs to be reversed. Possible new financing options include payments for environmental services (PES) and the carbon market. Finally, there is a need for much more effective integration of international policies and initiatives dealing with land and water management. Only by these changes can the world feed its citizens through a sustainable agriculture that produces within environmental limits.