UN agency launches new global land cover database

Global snapshot of land cover. Source: FAO

17 March 2014 – The United Nations agricultural agency today launched a new database which gathers under one roof previously scattered information about land cover – how much land is covered by croplands, trees, forests, or bare soils – crucial to establishing a good global understanding of the physical characteristics of the Earth’s surface.

"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 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which spearheaded the project.

The Global Land Cover SHARE database (GLC-SHARE) initiative represents a major and historic improvement: up until now, such data was collected by different countries and organizations which identified, measured and recorded information in diverse, uneven ways.

GLC-SHARE pulled together all that data and submitted it to a thorough quality-control, harmonizing process, using internationally accepted definitions and standards, thereby bringing a wealth of country-level information into one consolidated dataset spanning the entire planet.

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.

"This update to our understanding of the Earth's land cover comes at a crucial time," Mr. Latham 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. GLC-SHARE will also help us understand how climate change and climate variability are impacting key natural resources, as well as food production."

FAO's new database reveals the breakdown of eleven global land cover layers: tree-covered areas (27.7 percent), bare soils (15.2 percent), grasslands (13.0 percent), croplands (12.6 percent), snow and glaciers (9.7 percent), shrub-covered areas (9.5 percent), sparse vegetation (7.7 percent), inland water bodies (2.6 percent), herbaceous vegetation (1.3 percent), artificial surfaces (0.6 percent), and mangroves (0.1 percent).

The agency stresses that a surging global population and growing demand for food pose major challenges for agriculture, which in the years to come, will need to produce more food using fewer natural resources while at the same time coping with a changing climate. FAO estimates furthermore that world food production will need to increase by 60 percent by 2050, for the most part, on lands that are already being cultivated.


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