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Productivity gains not enough to feed 9b

Productivity gains not enough to feed 9b

Global food production may not be accelerating rapidly enough to support estimated global needs by 2050, according to a new report.

GLOBAL food production may not be accelerating rapidly enough to support estimated global needs by 2050, according to a new report published by the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (IonE).

Based on an analysis of global crop yield trends and population estimates, the report predicts that agricultural production needs to increase 60% to feed the growing population, but current yield trends do not support that level of growth.

In the study, published June 19 in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers assessed production statistics from around the world and found that yields of four key crops — maize, rice, wheat and soybeans — are increasing 0.9-1.6% per year (Table), which would indicate an increase of just 38% by 2050, falling short of the projected 60% increase needed.

Previous research at the University of Minnesota found that, in many regions of the world, yields for staple crops have stagnated or actually declined (Feedstuffs, Dec. 24, 2012).

"Particularly troubling are places where population and food production trajectories are at substantial odds," IonE researcher Deepak Ray, lead author of the study, said. "For example, in Guatemala, the corn-dependent population is growing at the same time corn productivity is declining."

Ray and colleagues said boosting crop yields is considered a preferred solution to meeting demands rather than clearing more land for agriculture — a concept some are now referring to as "sustainable intensification."

The concept is supported by leading environmental thought leaders such as the World Wildlife Fund's Jason Clay, who told agricultural journalists in May that intensive production is far preferable to "agricultural sprawl" from an environmental sustainability standpoint.

According to the IonE report, increasing agricultural production is one of several strategies necessary to feed 9 billion people by 2050. The researchers pointed out that additional strategies, such as reducing food waste, can also help achieve the large food demand estimates.

"Clearly, the world faces a looming agricultural crisis, with yield increases insufficient to keep up with projected demands," said IonE director Jon Foley, a co-author on the study. "The good news is, opportunities exist to increase production through more efficient use of current arable lands and increased yield growth rates by spreading best management practices. If we are to boost production in these key crops to meet projected needs, we have no time to waste."

The IonE analysis of the potential production gap follows on the heels of a U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization report predicting slower agricultural growth over the next decade (Feedstuffs, June 24). The report projects production growth to average only 1.5% per year through 2022, compared with annual growth of 2.1% from 2003 to 2012.

As with the IonE study, FAO leaders last month discussed the notion that increasing production is not enough to solve the challenge of food insecurity. Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen told FAO delegates that eradicating hunger will require a focus on all causes of hunger, particularly poverty, and not simply on producing more food (Feedstuffs, June 24).

Food waste, in particular, has gotten considerable attention in recent months. A study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) found that as much as half of food is wasted (Feedstuffs, Jan. 28), and IMechE's Tim Fox told members of the International Food & Agribusiness Management Assn. last month that the world actually produces enough food to feed the growing populace, if the issue of food waste is adequately addressed.


Productivity challenges

Nonetheless, agricultural productivity remains a key piece of the food security puzzle. China and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) — two regions where agricultural productivity could make a huge difference in feeding the world — both need to show significant productivity improvements to feed their burgeoning populations over the next three decades.

A recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS) points out that China saw average annual agricultural output growth of 5.1% between 1985 and 2007 but cautions that such a rapid growth rate may not have been sustained in recent years. Total factor productivity growth peaked between 1996 and 2000 at 5.1% per year, slowed to 3.2% between 2000 and 2005 and actually declined by 3.7% per year in 2005-07.

In the SSA region, meanwhile, numerous challenges exist in achieving significant gains in total factor productivity and overall agricultural production.

For example, a recent ERS paper identified a "small-country problem," pointing out that with 48 separate nations in the SSA region, developing efficient systems of national agricultural research, regulation and investment must be repeated in each individual country.

"Raising agricultural productivity in SSA to meet the needs of the region's rapidly rising population, reduce the region's poverty and stimulate broad-based economic growth may be among the most significant challenges facing the global food and agricultural system," the ERS report concludes.


Global production statistics for yields of four key crops






Mean yield change per year (%)





Mean yield change per year (kg/hectare)





Projected avg. yield in 2025 (tons/hectare)





Projected avg. yield in 2050 (tons/hectare)





Projected production in 2025 (mil. tons/year) at fixed crop harvested areas of 2008





Projected production in 2050 (mil. tons/year) at fixed crop harvested areas of 2008





Projected production shortfall in 2025 compared to rate that doubles production by 2050 (mil. tons)





Projected production shortfall in 2050 compared to rate that doubles production by 2050 (mil. tons)





Required extra land (mil. hectares) to produce shortfall at 2025 projected yields





Required extra land (mil. hectares) to produce shortfall at 2050 projected yields





Yield in 2008 (tons/hectare)






Volume:85 Issue:26

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