International trade of agricultural products has complicated and far-reaching impacts on land and nitrogen use efficiencies. We analysed the productivity of cropland and livestock and associated use of feed and fertilizer efficiency for over 240 countries, and estimated these countries’ cumulative contributions to imports and exports of 190 agricultural products for the period 1961–2017. Crop trade has increased global land and partial fertilizer nitrogen productivities in terms of protein production, which equalled savings of 2,270 Mha cropland and 480 Tg synthetic fertilizer nitrogen over the analysed period. However, crop trade decreased global cropland productivity when productivity is expressed on an energy (per calorie) basis. Agricultural trade has generally moved towards optimality, that is, has increased global land and nitrogen use efficiencies during 1961–2017, but remains at a relatively low level. Overall, mixed impacts of trade on resource use indicate the need to rethink trade patterns and improve their optimality.