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    Rising Crop Yields Are Not Enough to Feed 9.6 Billion People

    Written by

    Mat McDermott


    Photo: Mat McDermott/Flickr

    If estimates on how much more food we'll need to produce by 2050 to feed us all are accurate—that is 60-110 percent more food, for probably 9.6 billion people—we're not going to be able to do it. That's according to new research published in PLoS One.

    Researchers from the University of Minnesota looked at how quickly crop yields for maize, rice, wheat, and soybeans have been increasing, finding that yields are going up 1.6 percent, 1 percent, 0.9 percent, and 1.3 percent per year, respectively. Which may seem good on first glance, but is well under the rate needed to double food production by 2050 or 2.4% annually.

    Adding it all up, at current rates of growth, by mid-century we'll be producing about 67 percent more maize than today, 42 percent more rice, 38 percent more wheat, and 55 percent more soybeans. 

    In the image below, the dashed line is a doubling of crop yields for each crop examined, with the solid line representing the current trajectory, assuming we bring no more land under cultivation—which is something considered less preferable for producing more food, given how land clearance is already having very negative environmental impact globally. 


    Image: PLoS ONE

    Beyond looking at the rate of crop yield increase overall, the paper examines how crop yields differ globally. Author Deepak Ray notes, "Particularly troubling are places where population and food production trajectories are at substantial odds—for example, in Guatemala, where the corn-dependent population is goring at the same time corn productivity is declining." 

    Furthermore, the paper finds, in several of the most important agricultural areas of the world yields are no longer increasing, including in many places with growing populations and rising affluence (which influences how much and the type of foods people eat). 

    Looking at rice, which provides about 19 percent of the calories consumed globally: In China, India, and Indonesia rice yields are only increasing 0.7, 1, and 0.4 percent per year, respectively. When compared against population growth, per capita availability of rice in China and India is likely flat, while declining sharply in Indonesia. 

    How to change this trend? 

    The report concludes that we need to "increase production through more efficient use of current arable lands and increasing yield growth rates by spreading best management practices and closing yield gaps under different management regimes across the globe."

    Expanding cropland could make up for some of the shortfall in food production, but only "at a high environmental cost to biodiversity and carbon emissions."

    Finally, the report recommends that reducing the massive amount of food we waste, as well as wider adoption of plant-based diets can both reduce the expected growth in food demand over the next forty years.