Scientists' Cheat Sheet for Improving Global Food Production

A rice farmer walks through terraced paddy fields in Yabu City, Japan Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Even as the world’s population increases and an expanding global middle class demands more meat-intensive diets, climate change is altering conditions for agriculture. Scientists and policymakers are concerned about future food security.

But recent research isn’t all doom and gloom. A study published July 18 in the journal Science identifies “a small set of regions, crops, and actions that provide strategic global opportunities” to increase yields significantly while reducing the adverse environmental impacts of agriculture—in other words, a handy to-do list of easy measures to improve global food production substantially.

The report focuses on 17 key crops that provide 86 percent of the world’s calories (plus cotton, which consumes much water). Together these crops—which include wheat, corn, and rice—cover 58 percent of the planet’s farmland and gulp 92 percent of its water from irrigation. They also account for roughly 70 percent of applied nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers and pesticides.

“One goal for achieving future food security is to grow more food on the existing land,” write the scientists, who are based at Harvard University, the University of Minnesota, the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., and Germany’s University of Bonn. They estimate that boosting yields in low-performing regions could produce enough food “to meet the basic needs of [about] 850 million people.”

The report also identifies countries where aspects of current agricultural practices cause the greatest environmental damage: China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, and the U.S. Brazil and Indonesia make the list for tropical deforestation—clear-cutting old growth for new fields. Pakistan’s failing is highly inefficient irrigation that wastes its limited water resources. The U.S., China, and India are all offenders in multiple categories: wasteful irrigation coupled with overuse of nitrogen and phosphorous. Irrigation accounts for 70 percent of global water withdrawals.

Another recommended target area: reducing food waste. Inefficient food storage and delivery systems (such as unrefrigerated trucks in China) result in enough food waste to feed, in theory, at least another 400 million people. Your mother might have made the same point at the dinner table, and scientists say that, in some sense, she had it right.

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