Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture

David Tilman, Christian Balzer, Jason Hill, Belinda L. Befort

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3690 Scopus citations


Global food demand is increasing rapidly, as are the environmental impacts of agricultural expansion. Here, we project global demand for crop production in 2050 and evaluate the environmental impacts of alternative ways that this demand might be met. We find that per capita demand for crops, when measured as caloric or protein content of all crops combined, has been a similarly increasing function of per capita real income since 1960. This relationship forecasts a 100-110% increase in global crop demand from 2005 to 2050. Quantitative assessments show that the environmental impacts of meeting this demand depend on how global agriculture expands. If current trends of greater agricultural intensification in richer nations and greater land clearing (extensification) in poorer nations were to continue, ∼1 billion ha of land would be cleared globally by 2050, with CO 2-C equivalent greenhouse gas emissions reaching ∼3 Gt y -1 and N use ∼250 Mt y -1 by then. In contrast, if 2050 crop demand was met by moderate intensification focused on existing croplands of underyielding nations, adaptation and transfer of high-yielding technologies to these croplands, and global technological improvements, our analyses forecast land clearing of only ∼0.2 billion ha, greenhouse gas emissions of ∼1 Gt y -1, and global N use of ∼225 Mt y -1. Efficient management practices could substantially lower nitrogen use. Attainment of high yields on existing croplands of underyielding nations is of great importance if global crop demand is to be met with minimal environmental impacts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20260-20264
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number50
StatePublished - Dec 13 2011


  • Biodiversity
  • Climate change soil fertility
  • Food security
  • Land-use change


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