Information regarding global land cover previously scattered among several databases was recently aggregated by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, resulting in a broader picture of global agricultural land use.
FAO said the creation of the new database marks a "major improvement" in information regarding the physical characteristics of the Earth's surface.
Up to now, FAO said one of the major limitations to getting a good global overview of land cover – e.g. how much land is covered by croplands, trees or forests, bare soils, etc. – has been the diverse ways countries go about collecting and categorizing land use data.
Under FAO's Global Land Cover SHARE database, data pulled from multiple sources and partners was aggregated using internationally accepted definitions and standards.
FAO's new database includes 11 global land cover layers: artificial surfaces (which cover 0.6% of the Earth's surface); bare soils (15.2%); croplands (12.6%); grasslands (13.0%); herbaceous vegetation (1.3%); inland water bodies (2.6%); mangroves (0.1%); shrub-covered areas (9.5%); snow and glaciers (9.7%); sparse vegetation (7.7%); and tree-covered areas (27.7%).
'Valuable tool' in assessing agricultural sustainability
Applications of the new GLC-share database include monitoring of global land cover trends, evaluating the suitability of land for various uses, assessing the impact of climate change on food production, and land-use planning.
"A strong understanding of our planet's land cover is essential to promoting sustainable land resources management – including agricultural production to feed a growing population – that makes efficient use of increasingly scarce natural resources yet safeguards the environment," said John Latham of FAO's Land and Water Division.
"This update to our understanding of the Earth's land cover comes at a crucial time," he added. "It will be a valuable tool in assessing the sustainability of agriculture, and for supporting evidence based-sustainable rural development and land use policy contributing to reducing poverty, enabling of inclusive and efficient agricultural and food systems and increasing resilience of livelihoods.
According to Latham, GLC-SHARE will also help FAO "understand how climate change and climate variability are impacting key natural resources, as well as food production."
FAO estimates that world food production will need to increase by 60% by 2050 on lands that, for the most part, are already being cultivated.