Counting Beans: Crop production for 2050


I mentioned earlier this week that the year 2050 is when the global population is expected to reach 9 billion people. This has significant implications for agricultural production demands. We have a good idea of the targets that must be met to accommodate everyone (i.e. agricultural production must double), but are we on track to meet these goals? In a paper published in PLoS One last month*, researchers literally counted the (soy)beans as well as corn, rice and wheat to determine actual yields over the last twenty years in order to estimate how close we are to meeting the 2050 yield goals.

Here’s how the method breaks down:

Observations: The world’s population will reach 9 billion people in 2050. To meet the needs for food and biofuels, agricultural production must also increase (approximately twice that of current production). Increasing production in the form of crop yield, rather than adding land production is ecologically a more favorable strategy.

Hypothesis: In order to meet the production targets for 2050, staple crop yields must increase by ~2.4% annually (non-compounding linear rate). Ray et al analyzed agricultural data to track actual yield increases.

Experiment:  Analyze crop census reports for 13,500 political units across the globe spanning the years 1989 to 2008. The authors focused on the top four staple crops- maize (aka corn), rice, wheat, soybean- which account for two-thirds of our global caloric intake. Determine an average crop yield trend for each area based on this data to project future trends.

Results: The top four staple crops show increases of 1.6%, 1.0%, 0.9%, and 1.3% per year. All of these crops are falling short of the gains necessary to meet the projected need in 2050.

Conclusion: Increases in agricultural production based on yields alone are not on track to increase or maintain food security for the world’s population in 2050. Instead of the needed 100% increase, the projected increases for maize, rice, wheat and soybean are 67%, 42%, 38%, and 55%, respectively. These are average numbers; the upper-limit is slightly more optimistic, while the lower limit is a worst-case scenario. In particular, the top three rice and wheat producing nations (China, India and Indonesia for rice; China, India and the US for wheat) were experiencing lower yield growth rates.

Think Ahead: Significant improvements in yields are necessary to close the gap. Alternatively, increasing total area of farmland will be necessary.

As I mentioned in a previous post, increasing agricultural yields is only part of the strategy for creating food security in 2050. The results from this paper provide a measure as to how we are doing globally toward this aspect of the 2050 goals. While the numbers are less than comforting, the authors do provide some specific places to focus improvement. Again, scientists are working hard on the ‘yield problem’ and new innovations could eventually close this gap. I can only hope that another group repeats the analysis 10 years from now and finds us closer to our targets.


*Citation: Ray DK, Mueller ND, West PC, Foley JA (2013) Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66428. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066428

**This work also highlights the need for scientists to handle large datasets, use programming and models to get the information they need. The authors were also able to project their results in map form to provide a spatial context for their data. Bottom line: this is an enormous challenge that requires all kinds of specialists working together.


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