Global Cropland-Extent Product at 30-m Resolution (GCEP30) Derived from Landsat Satellite Time-Series Data for the Year 2015 Using Multiple Machine-Learning Algorithms on Google Earth Engine Cloud

Professional Paper 1868
By: , and 


Executive Summary

Global food and water security analysis and management require precise and accurate global cropland-extent maps. Existing maps have limitations, in that they are (1) mapped using coarse-resolution remote-sensing data, resulting in the lack of precise mapping location of croplands and their accuracies; (2) derived by collecting and collating national statistical data that are often subjective, leading to substantial uncertainties in cropland-area estimates, as well as their locations; and (3) extracted from one or more classes of a land use–land cover product in which cropland classes are not the focus of mapping, leading to their mixing with other classes and creating significant errors of omission and commission. These limitations can be overcome by producing high-resolution cropland-extent maps using satellite-sensor data, such as Landsat 30-m resolution or higher. The most fundamental cropland product is the high-resolution cropland-extent map because all higher level cropland products, such as crop-watering method (that is, whether crops are irrigated or rainfed), crop types, cropping intensities, cropland fallows, crop productivity, and crop-water productivity, are dependent on a precise and accurate cropland-extent product.

Given these realities, the overarching goal of this study was to produce a Landsat satellite-derived global cropland-extent product at 30-m resolution. The work, which involved a paradigm shift in how global cropland-extent maps are produced, involved the following five key steps: (1) petabyte-scale computing that involved multiyear, 8- to 16-day, time-series Landsat 30-m resolution data for the global land surface; (2) composition of analysis-ready data (ARD) cubes; (3) creation of a large global-reference data hub for machine learning; (4) use of multiple machine-learning algorithms (MLAs) by writing software and computing in the cloud; and (5) Google Earth Engine (GEE) cloud computing.

The five key steps involved nine distinct phases. First, the world was segmented into 74 agroecological zones (AEZs). Second, Landsat 8- to 16-day data were used to time-composite 10-band (blue, green, red, near-infrared, short-wave infrared band 1, short-wave infrared band 2, thermal infrared, enhanced vegetation index, normalized difference water index, and normalized difference vegetation index) Landsat 30-m resolution data cubes for every 2- to 4-month time period during 3- to 4-year periods (stated as nominal-year 2015 or, simply, 2015), along with two additional 30-m resolution bands (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission elevation, and slope) in each of the 74 AEZs. Third, more than 100,000 reference-training data samples were collected using ground data (some of which were collected using a mobile application), as well as submeter- to 5-m-resolution, very high-resolution imagery sourced from other reliable sources. Fourth, reference-training data were used to create a knowledge base for separating cropland from noncropland. Fifth, MLAs such as the pixel-based supervised random forest and support-vector machines were written on the GEE using Python and JavaScript. Sixth, object-based recursive hierarchical segmentation algorithm was used, in addition to MLAs, to overcome uncertainties. Seventh, MLAs used the knowledge base to classify and separate cropland from noncropland. Eighth, accuracy assessment was conducted by generating error matrices for each of the 74 AEZs using 19,171 independent validation-data samples. Ninth, cropland areas were computed for all countries of the world and compared with United Nation’s (UN’s) Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and other national statistics.

The outcome was a Landsat-derived global cropland-extent product at 30-m resolution (GCEP30), which has an overall accuracy of 91.7 percent. For the cropland class, producer’s accuracy was 83.4 percent, and user’s accuracy was 78.3 percent. GCEP30 calculated (using direct pixel count) the global net-cropland area (GNCA) for the year 2015 as 1.873 billion hectares (~12.6 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial area). The continental cropland distribution as a percentage of GNCA was Asia, 33 percent; Europe, 25.5 percent; Africa, 16.7 percent; North America, 14.4 percent; South America, 8.1 percent; and Australia and Oceania, 2.4 percent. The worldwide cropland areas in GCEP30 for 2015 were higher by 236 to 299 million hectares (Mha) compared to national statistics reported elsewhere for the same year (for example, in Food and Agriculture Organization’s corporate statistical database [FAOSTAT] and in the monthly irrigated and rainfed crop areas [MIRCA] database). The global cropland area reported for 2015 increased by 344 Mha (22.5 percent), compared to the year 2000. During the same period (2000–2015), the world’s population increased by 20 percent. Whereas some of these areal increases are real increases in cropland areas, others are due to the types of data, methods, and approaches used. Using the highest known resolution (compared to previous coarse-resolution global products) enabled this study to capture fragmented croplands. Coarse-resolution data compute areas on the basis of subpixels, which, for a large proportion of certain land use–land cover classes, will show only a certain percentage of the total pixel area as actual area. Subpixel areas can lead to substantial uncertainties in area computation, as determining the exact fraction of cropland areas within a coarse-resolution pixel is resource intensive and subject to errors. Other innovations in GCEP30 include reference-data hubs, machine learning, and cloud computing.

Cropland areas in 214 countries, territories, departments, and regions were calculated for the year 2015 using GCEP30, on the basis of UN’s global administrative unit layers (GAUL) boundaries. The 10 leading countries in terms of cropland area (as a percentage of the GNCA) were India (9.6 percent), United States (8.95 percent), China (8.82 percent), Russia (8.32 percent), Brazil (3.42 percent), Ukraine (2.32 percent), Canada (2.29 percent), Argentina (2.05 percent), Indonesia (2 percent), and Nigeria (1.91 percent). Together, these 10 countries occupy 50 percent of the global cropland, and they have 52 percent of the global population. Their combined cropland area increased by 2 percent between 2000 and 2015, compared to the substantial increase in population of 517 million (15.5 percent). Together, India, United States, China, and Russia encompass 36 percent of the total area. In the United States and Canada, from 2000 to 2015, cropland decreased by about 2 percent, whereas their populations increased by 14 and 13 percent, respectively. The additional food requirements in these 10 countries, which are caused by increased populations, as well as increasing nutritional demands, are met by production increases in existing cropland or through virtual food trade, or both.

More than 18 countries, territories, departments, or regions had 60 percent or more of their geographic area as cropland: Republic of Moldova, San Marino, and Hungary had more than 80 percent of the country’s area as cropland; Denmark, Ukraine, Ireland, and Bangladesh, 70 to 80 percent; and Uruguay, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Spain, Lithuania, Poland, Gaza Strip, Czechia, Italy, India, and Azerbaijan, 60 to 70 percent. Europe and South Asia can be considered agricultural capitals of the world, on the basis of their percentages of geographic area as cropland. United States, China, and Russia, which all have high cropland areas, are ranked second, third, and fourth in the world; India is ranked first. However, the amount of cropland as a percentage of the country’s geographic area is relatively very low for United States (18.3 percent), China (17.7 percent), and Russia (9.5 percent), whereas it is 60.5 percent for India. Most African and South American countries, territories, departments, or regions have less than 15 percent of their geographic area as cropland.

China and India together house 36 percent of the world’s population; however, between 2000 and 2015, the amount of China’s cropland area fell by 18.9 percent, owing to urban expansion and the abandonment of farmlands caused by demographic changes (that is, the movement of population from villages to cities). In contrast, China’s population grew by 10 percent. The amount of India’s cropland increased by 8.5 percent, whereas its population grew by 20 percent.

This study showed that, out of the 10 leading cropland countries, Ukraine, Nigeria, Russia, and Indonesia showed an 18 to 31 percent increase in cropland areas, on the basis of GCEP30 by the year 2015, compared to 2000. Nigeria’s cropland area increased by 25 percent, and its population increased by 31 percent in the same period. In these countries, food security is maintained by cropland expansion, productivity increases, and virtual food trade. Nevertheless, this trend of increasing net-cropland area and productivity will likely become difficult to maintain, owing to diminishing arable lands and plateauing of 50 years of continual yield increases, requiring policymakers to explore novel and data-supported approaches to solving future food security issues.

The GCEP30 product, which can be browsed at full resolution at, has been released for public download and use through U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)–National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (see

Suggested Citation

Thenkabail, P.S., Teluguntla, P.G., Xiong, J., Oliphant, A., Congalton, R.G., Ozdogan, M., Gumma, M.K., Tilton, J.C., Giri, C., Milesi, C., Phalke, A., Massey, R., Yadav, K., Sankey, T., Zhong, Y., Aneece, I., and Foley, D., 2021, Global cropland-extent product at 30-m resolution (GCEP30) derived from Landsat satellite time-series data for the year 2015 using multiple machine-learning algorithms on Google Earth Engine cloud: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1868, 63 p.,

ISSN: 2330-7102 (online)

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments  
  • Executive Summary  
  • Introduction  
  • Data  
  • Methods  
  • Results and Discussions  
  • Significant Findings  
  • Conclusions  
  • References Cited 
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Global cropland-extent product at 30-m resolution (GCEP30) derived from Landsat satellite time-series data for the year 2015 using multiple machine-learning algorithms on Google Earth Engine cloud
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 1868
DOI 10.3133/pp1868
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Geographic Science Center
Description Report: ix, 63 p.; Dataset
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details