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Can we feed the world?

Key food crops in many regions of the world could be in jeopardy, according to a study led by IonE research fellow Deepak Ray.

August 7, 2013

It's especially gratifying as a researcher—as a human, really—when your work doesn't land with a thud. A bang or a splash—always better. In particular, when you've put three years of your life into a project, you hope that people will take notice, that it will make an impact, leave a mark. In doing so, it helps to conduct research that affects every single person on the planet.

Start with this: Everyone eats. Whether we all have enough to eat in the future, and how to make sure we get there—that's an attention getter.

U of M research led by Deepak Ray and scientists with the U's Institute on the Environment (IonE) and McGill University in Montreal, Canada, certainly has people talking. The research, published recently in Nature Communications (where it was the most shared paper for nearly three weeks), showed with more specificity than any previous research where important food crop yields are stagnating or declining, and where they're still rapidly improving.

In their study, the researchers developed geographically detailed maps of annual yields of the world's four key crops (corn, rice, wheat, and soybean) from 1961 to 2008. These crops currently provide about 64 percent of agricultural calorie production. They distilled the information to such specificity that it includes about 3,800 percent more data than any previous research, says Ray—thus the three-year duration of the project. They examined 13,500 land areas, with crop yields fine-tuned by county whenever possible—not just by country, as in most previous research. That, in turn, yielded big data.

Making a splash

News organizations around the world picked up on the research, and Ray himself was, for weeks, fielding near-hourly requests to share his findings. He received emails from NGOs and researchers in Japan, the Philippines, China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Sweden, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile—to name more than a few. The research has practical information that enables policymakers to identify successes and failures, and to propel food production by modeling those successes.

"Other research may have shown that 'you have a problem,' but not the 'What are you going to do about it?'" says Ray.

By providing data on the county level whenever possible, says Ray, a municipality or its policymakers can compare and say, "So, on the county level we have data that says that compared to our neighboring county, or a county 10 counties away, we are not doing so well—and why is that so? And they can perhaps discuss. It's actionable intelligence," he says.

It wasn't perfect—in China they could only get provincial-level data. And Russia's data, too, was hard to come by. But previously, the best measurement of crop yields came from national data, like that from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization's (FAO) national crop statistics. That's problematic, says Ray, because it takes too broad a view. The FAO, for example, suggests that American wheat yields increased everywhere between 1999 and 2008. In fact, Ray's study showed that yields in approximately 36 percent of the American wheat-harvested areas are not improving.

It also showed that among the top crop-producing nations, vast areas of China and India—where more than a third of the world's population resides—are witnessing especially concerning stagnation or decline in yields.

"We are still building on this research," says Ray. "This step told us how much area has witnessed yield improvement. The next question is trying to answer whether we are on track—a very profound question. Given the current rates—if nothing happens, where will we be? Will we reach the moon or end up in the gutter?"

Proposing solutions

Ray got his answer just a couple months later, when he completed a second long-term research project, which showed that, indeed, crop yields worldwide are not increasing quickly enough to support estimated global needs.

U researchers have also proposed solutions. They found, for example, that improvements in crop water productivity—the amount of food produced per unit of water consumed—could boost global food security and water sustainability in many parts of the world. And that the world's croplands could feed 4 billion more people than they do now just by shifting from producing animal feed and biofuels to producing exclusively food for human consumption. Even a smaller, partial shift from crop-intensive livestock such as feedlot beef to food animals such as chicken or pork could increase agricultural efficiency and provide food for millions.

Research on food is an area near and dear to the U's Institute on the Environment. IonE's director, Jon Foley, a coauthor on this study, has hammered repeatedly on the theme of agriculture and feeding the world sustainably.

With nine billion people who increasingly want to eat Western, meat-rich diets expected on the planet by 2050, it's critical to know where the world is heading—and to find solutions now.

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Sustainable Agriculture

"Thirty percent of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere today are from human agricultural activity. That's more than from all of our transportation, it's more than from all our electricity, and it's more than from all manufacturing. Agriculture has been the single most powerful force unleashed on this planet since the end of the ice age—no question. But agriculture is not an option. It's a necessity." –Jon Foley.

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