Several reports estimate that global crop production needs to double by 2050 to meet the demands of more people, more people eating meat, and more crops being used for biofuel production. I previously wrote a post about five strategies for increasing food security while improving the environment. One strategy is quite obvious: Increase crop production. We need more food, so let’s grow more on our current cropland or expand into new areas. Sounds simple, right? Let’s unpack a few of the details to see if we’re on track to meet projected needs in the coming decades.
Wheat, rice, maize, and soybean are a good starting point since they collectively comprise two-thirds of the calories produced on croplands. To assess how crop yields are trending, my colleague Deepak Ray, I and a few others at IonE recently compiled over 2 million yield observations from agricultural census records across 13,500 counties and other sub-national political units. We found that yield trends are stagnating or declining in about 25-40% of areas growing these four crops. Some of these are places where the Green Revolution arrived and plateaued, whereas others are places that got left behind and have had little investment in new technology and management in the past few decades. Yet, this finding still did not quite address the more basic question of whether yield trends are on track globally. Could the gains in some areas outweigh the losses in others?
Unfortunately, current yield trends over the last two decades suggest we’re on track to increase production of these four crops by only 38-67% by 2050. These increases are far from the estimated 100% increase needed. Expanding croplands is certainly an option, but clearing land for agriculture often comes with environmental problems, such as greenhouse gas emissions from the carbon stored in the lush natural vegetation, loss of habitat, and decreased water quality. Further, we’re already farming on soils best suited to produce crops, and expansion largely happens in marginal areas.
But all is not doom and gloom. Although it is not a complete roadmap of how to overcome local and regional obstacles, the analysis helps pinpoint places to target investments in technology, training, and management to increase yields. It also illustrates that increasing production needs to be one several strategies. Other major opportunities to meet future needs relate to reducing the demand. About two-thirds of calories produced from crops are used to feed livestock. It takes ~30 calories of feed to produce a calorie of beef, so reducing meat consumption frees up many calories already produced. A second major opportunity is reducing waste. Around one-third of the food produced is wasted. Reducing the demand for crops by using what we already grow more efficiently, combined with increasing production, can meet future needs and is a more sustainable path forward.
Want more details? Read the entire science article.
Paul West is an ecologist finding ways to feed the future while sustaining our planet. Through his job as chief collaboration officer at IonE, he works to get science out of the ivory tower and into the hands of people affecting change on the ground. Follow him on twitter @coolfireconserv. Photo of rice-packing center in Sangrur, SE Punjab, India, courtesy of Neil Palmer (CIAT) via Creative Commons. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Maps of observed rates of yield change (%) per year. (a) maize, (b) rice, (c) wheat and (d) soybean. Red areas are where yields are declining, whereas the fluorescent green areas are where rates of yield increase — if sustained — would double production by 2050. Images courtesy of Deepak Ray, Institute on the Environment.