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What are arable crops?

What are arable crops and can they be grown sustainably? This article explores crop production and the sustainability challenges faced by farmers.
Maize monoculture
© EIT Food

Arable crop production refers to the systematic use of land to grow crops. To have a consistent supply of their precious produce, farmers monitor how fertile their land is and follow a process of preparation after the previous year’s harvest [1].

Examples of arable crops and their uses can be seen below (Figure 1) [2]:

  • grain crops cultivated for their edible starch grains (wheat, maize, rice, barley, millet);
  • pulse crops of the legume family grown for their edible seeds which are high in protein (lentil, beans, peas);
  • oil seed crops grown for oil extraction from their seeds (rapeseed, soybean, sunflower);
  • forage crops used for feeding animals, fresh or preserved (cowpea, clovers, timothy);
  • fibre crops cultivated for non-food use (cotton, jute, flax);
  • tuber crops grown for their edible underground parts (potato, elephant yam).
Figure 1: Grains and pulses (clockwise): rice, lentils, millet, peas, buckwheat, wheat grains © Marco Verch Source

Arable farming dates back to the very first agricultural communities. As well as giving us many of our staple foods, it is also responsible for producing oils and fodder for animals (Figure 2) [3].

Figure 2: Maize cropped to be used as fodder Source

Arable farming produces a wide range of annual crops. ‘Annual’ means that the whole life cycle of these crops, from germination to grain production, is complete within 12 months [4].

Crop production in the EU and globally

The EU produced 309.9 million tonnes of cereals (including rice) in 2017, about 11.9 % of the global harvest. In terms of quantity produced and area of land used, wheat is by far the most popular cereal grown in the EU, making up nearly half the total area dedicated to cereal production. Of the remaining 50%, about one third is maize and one third barley. Other cereals grown in smaller quantities include triticale, rye, oats and spelt (Figure 3).

Map of Europe (EU countries) covered in dots, which represent (largest to smallest, in million tonnes): more than or equal to 3.5, the next smallest is 2.5 to more than 3.5, next 1.5 to more than 2.5, next 0.5 to more than 1.5, finally more than 0.5. The dots include eight different colours: orange represents barley, light green represents common wheat and spelt, very pale green represents durum wheat, dark green represents grain maize and corn-cob-mix, red represents oats, dark blue represents rice, light blue represents rye and winter cereal mixtures and light orange represents triticale. A majority of the northern half of the map is covered in the larger spots in light green (common wheat and spelt), whilst the southern half o the map is covered mostly in larger dark green spots (grain maize and corn-cob-mix) Click to expand

Figure 3: Share of main cereals, EU-28, 2017 [5]

Two main root crops are grown in the EU: sugar beet and potatoes (4 million hectares). Other root crops like fodder beet, fodder kale, rutabaga, fodder carrot and turnips are specialist crops grown on a combined total of only 0.1 million hectares.

The EU is the world’s leading producer of sugar beet, accounting for about half of global production. However, only 20% of the world’s sugar production comes from sugar beet, the other 80% being produced from sugar cane.

Challenges in crop production

There are many challenges facing today’s arable farmers but some of the most significant are:

  • Feeding a growing population: For many reasons, not least the growing global population, farmers need to produce more food from the same amount of land. This requires higher yields but also less food loss pre-harvest, and better post-harvest systems for getting the food to the consumer without waste [8].
  • Climate: Crop production is very sensitive to weather conditions at key times of the year, particularly days of sunshine, temperature and precipitation levels. For example, depending on a crop’s stage of development, heavy spring frosts can damage the growth of cereals and destroy fruit blossoms [4]. Likewise, summer droughts can cause crops to wither or to scorch and strong winds and heavy rain can flatten crops, making them hard to harvest [9]. Climate change is creating a longer-term challenge [10]. While many farmers are currently managing to achieve high yields, their ability to respond to weather variations has reduced in the last decades [11]. Historic data shows that temperatures are rising by 0.2°C per decade and the warming does significantly affect the yield of crops [12].
  • Weed, pest and disease resistance: The extended use of chemical solutions to tackle the spread of weeds, pests and diseases has, over time, led to increased resistance, making the chemicals less effective [13].
  • Soil degradation: Intensive farming practices and the use of heavy machinery are putting our soils under increasing pressure [14].

References can be found under the ‘Downloads’ heading at the bottom of this Step.


The map below (Figure 4) shows the major agricultural crops worldwide. Using this map to get you started (you may want to investigate in more detail), find out which crops are produced in your country. Is your country dependent on a specific crop type? What effects do you think this might have in terms of sustainability?

Major agricultural crops worldwide Click to expand

Figure 4: Crops grown around the globe Source
© EIT Food
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