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Monday, April 11, 2011

How does the need to double world crop production by 2050 compare with the growth in crop output of the last 40 years?

Note that the following article is by Daryll E. Ray, who holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC).

How does the need to double world crop production by 2050 compare with the growth in crop output of the last 40 years?

Current projections hold that the population of the world will increase from 6.9 billion in early 2011 to somewhere between 9.0 and 9.3 billion by 2050, an increase of over 30 percent. When that increase is coupled with increased prosperity in developing countries and the desire for a diet that includes more meat, it is projected that the production of agricultural crops will need to increase by 70 to 100 percent.

The question facing policy makers is what it takes to accomplish that amount of increase over the next 40 years. The multinationals that are engaged in seed research and sales argue that such an ambitious agenda will only be achieved if trade policies are liberalized and they are given free rein to sell their genetically modified seed everywhere. They also argue that farmers in the major grain exporting countries will be needed to feed the world.

Before moving forward, let us look at what has happened to grain production over the last 40 years. In 1970, the production of corn, milled rice, and wheat was 788 million tonnes. By 2010, the production of those three grains was 1.912 billion tonnes, an increase of 142 percent.

Looking at the grains individually, corn production increased from 268 million tonnes to 814 million tonnes, an increase of over 200 percent. The production of milled rice increased from 213 million tonnes in 1970 to 452 million tonnes in 2010—an increase of over 110 percent. Wheat production, the largest of the three grains in 1970, was 307 million tonnes. By 2010, wheat production had increased by over 110 percent to 648 million tonnes.

For all three grains, the 40-year increase was over 140 percent. If you had asked most people in 1970 if they thought that production would more than double over the next 40 years, they probably would have said, “No.”

In the 1970s, it was expected that grain production in India would lag consumption and India would continue to be dependent upon imports. In 1970, India was a net importer of 3.2 million tonnes of the three grains, mostly wheat. By 2010, India was a net exporter of 4.8 million tonnes of the three grains. The 2010 exports were almost evenly divided between corn and milled rice.

In addition, soybean production was 42 million tonnes in 1970. By 2010, world production of soybeans had increased to 258 million tonnes—that’s a whopping 513 percent increase. So, the two commodities that are most critical to meat production have seen dramatic increases the last 40 years.

Can farmers worldwide make the make the 70 to 100 percent production increases that are projected to be needed? If the last 40 years is any indicator, the answer is yes, though perhaps a guarded yes. Let us look at the guarded part first. In this area we start with climate change. As the result of a recent column on climate change we have become abundantly aware of the fact that this is a contentious issue for some and a matter of fact for others. That being said, as academics looking 40 years down the road, as one of our scenarios, we would be irresponsible if we did not look at the potential impact of climate change on agriculture.

Some research suggests that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may aid in photosynthesis and crop yields as long as temperatures do not increase too much. A sharp increase in temperatures in a given location could result in lower yields despite the increased availability of carbon dioxide. The factors that could affect yield include higher temperatures, shifting production areas, increased weather variability, and the increased likelihood of severe weather events.

In some sense, climate change is the wild card in the deck. We have never been there before and we don’t know exactly what to expect. Nonetheless we need to be prepared for the potential changes we face in this area.

A decade ago, there was a lot of talk about a yield plateau because it appeared that the rate of increase in yields was decreasing. Today we are seeing record yields every couple of years and the seed companies are talking about things like 300 bushel per acre corn. We have been able to move corn yields up dramatically.

It remains to be seen how quickly we can move beyond the gains of the green revolution when it comes to wheat and rice. The next area of concern is Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This vast area of the world was bypassed by the green revolution and yields remained stable or falling at about 1 tonne per hectare. Part of the problem is the north-south orientation of the continent so farmers fall into a large number of climatic zones compared to areas that benefitted from the green revolution.

Yield gains elsewhere will still leave SSA impoverished and dependent upon charitable aid unless research is done to improve the yields of indigenous crops that are already adapted to the local climatic conditions. Given the degree of environmental degradation in many areas and the nature of small plots, attention will need to be given to sustainable, conservation based agricultural techniques that build soil and enable farmers to provide for the nutritional needs of their families. Because SSA has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, it is extremely important that attention is paid to improving agricultural production at the household level.

The doubling of grain and oilseed output over the next 40 years is not dependent simply upon yield increases in the US corn belt. Increasing yields by 1 tonne per hectare (national average US corn yields are in the range of 10 tonnes per hectare) in developing nations would go a long way toward achieving food security for the current population and developing the ability to meet future population growth needs. Simply reducing post-harvest loss with basic, but effective, storage options would bring about an immediate improvement in production numbers. The adoption of locally appropriate technologies that protect soil, increase water retention, and increase total nutritional output of a farm can result in the needed yield increases in SSA.

Increased production can also result from increased acreage devoted to crop production. We are just beginning to see what can happen when agricultural areas in the former Soviet Union are brought back into production. Countries that once imported grain are now major exporters of wheat. In any one year they may face reduced production due to weather issues, but in the long-run they have the potential to significantly increase world production capacity.

Likewise, Brazil can increase its harvestable area in several ways. Farmers there can increase production through double and in some areas triple cropping, shifting current pastureland to cropland, rotating current pastureland between crops and grazing, and opening up new areas to production. It has been estimated that Brazil has the potential to bring an additional 300 million acres into production while still complying with current environmental laws.

As we look down the road 40 years from now, we are less worried about achieving an increase in production of 100 percent than we are concerned about how to manage all of this potential. For you see, we think it is important that we always have the proven potential to produce far more food than we need at any one time. We just don’t need to use all of it all of the time. Then, if a crisis comes we can bring the additional capacity online. The question is, are we willing to develop policies that allow us to manage that overcapacity so that we maintain its availability while avoiding dragging prices down with overproduction?



  1. Thanks for this piece. It has a number of very interesting points and statistics.

    I feel that because some of the reasons for the huge production increase were not addressed that we may have a false sense of optimism. In other words, recent history be be a poor indicator of future performance.

    Mainly I am thinking about the increase in irrigation and the use of inorganic fertilizers, especially since ca. 1960 onwards. For reasons having to do with fossil fuel depletion I don't believe these inputs can increase over the next 40 years, and may actually decline significantly.

    When agronomists meet and discuss the challenges for the next few decades I wonder...Are there any scenarios being discussed where oil, natural gas and mined minerals used in agriculture are much less abundant in the future?

  2. Jason,

    Great comment!

    When agronomists meet and discuss the challenges for the next few decades I wonder...Are there any scenarios being discussed where oil, natural gas and mined minerals used in agriculture are much less abundant in the future?

    Market forces will dictate that these be addressed. In the news I posted today is the surprising EU proposal: Farmers' diesel bills could sky-rocket if EU plans to remove tax exemptions for fuel used in agriculture get the go ahead. From 2013, farmers could also be taxed on the amount of fuel they use as part of a proposal to encourage agriculture to be more energy-efficient.

    Efficiency gains will be necessary in the future. But, between CC and high input expenses, it's anyone's guess where production is headed. Were it not for those two issues, I'd say it could be done, that is the challenge of increasing production could be met. That's not to say that it would be the right thing ecologically.

  3. If we do end up finding the energy to do all this ag expansion I believe it may be our undoing.

    I am thinking about Brazil, both the wet areas and the cerrado vegetation where soy is expanding rapidly. In my former life I worked with a lot of smart folks, e.g., Oxford Dons, etc. that study the interaction between vegetation cover and climate, among other things. We are already seeing record droughts in that part of the world.

    Much of the rain in western S. America is hydrologically dependent on forest cycling (this is all measured using isotopes of oxygen that are at a steady state in the ocean but decay radioactively at known half-lives, so is easy to track). Forests move water from soil to the atmosphere much more rapidly than crops (with their shallow roots and lower leaf surface area). There's a genuine concern that the rain forest shrinks dramatically because of this, which then has huge global knock on effects.

    It is not easy to move agricultural production from one area to another--just think of the property right implications and the logistics of getting the right people and equipment and associated businesses where they need to be. But we are up against the possibility, especially if we are "successful" in our drive for more.

    Watch out what you wish for!

  4. Jason,
    Please don't think that I am wishing for your above scenario.

    It should not be necessary to take over any new land at all to feed people as we are already producing enough food for much larger populations.

    What I can optimistically envision a la my pipe dream is that all of the slack can be withdrawn from today's system to be replaced by smart choices for individual geographic areas. That might include prioritizing upgrades in infrastructure in food-poor areas. Shipping via water transport should go on for a long time even if energy depletion is under way. If science can combine the best of all worlds, using industrial methods where most efficient, organic where most efficient, and food storage methods that are most energy efficient, the human populations, even growing at the expected rate, can be fed for a long time. That's in an optimal world. In the real world wrong politics, wrong corporate power, and wrong economic choices cause harm instead.

    Many would concur that energy constraints could lead to a much healthier world atmospherically and environmentally as well as better social, wellness, and happiness as cure for what ails us in our developed nations.

    But, the cynic in me says "you aint seen noth'n yet when it comes to the environmental degradation we have yet to do to go after remaining FFs." Look at Japan. Look at Deep Horizon.

  5. I wasn't aiming that "careful what you wish for" at you Kay, but at the general direction of our societies, which seem to only see more for the taking. Looking at the tar sands, and the fracking for gas, off shore oil, mountain top coal, and shale projects in the US, etc., it does seem like we are willing to do anything to get the energy "needs" we have.

    But defining a need is very difficult, actually. We live now, on average, in material comfort and security that recent ancestors could not even fathom. How much is simply the wants of hungry ghosts?

    Long-term I believe we collectively need a global ecosystem that still functions well much more than the present day global economic system that appears to be bend on undermining the former.

  6. Jason
    What I see too often in the blogosphere is "what is wrong" with the system. While I agree most entirely with many of those cathartic writings, including much of the doomerism, I feel strongly that we need to work within the system that we have to get to where we need to go or our attempts are futile.

    We can each make our own value choices about how we want to live, spend our time, how much money rules our lives, how much of our own food we want to grow and store, how much debt we want to acquire, how to vote with our consumer dollar, and how much activism we want to do.

    The more I study situations, the less I feel I know when it comes to making predictions or telling people what is right or wrong.

    Agriculture of today is a combination of good and bad actions and choices, just as everything else. It will be an adventure watching these next decades unfold.

    As for your wishing for a global goal of economics which supports our ecosystem, I see glimmers of hope as there is a trend towards growing global leadership and organizing which is unprecedented with today's flat earth and communications ability.