In the debate around agricultural production models necessary to achieve global food security it is often assumed that agricultural production has to increase everywhere in the world in order to meet current and future food demands. Environmental damage and pollution, the destruction of habitats and the loss of biodiversity, the use of chemical and biological inputs that are harmful for humans, etc., etc… almost anything can be justified in the name of “feeding the world”. As if these negative externalities from agriculture were just unavoidable tradeoffs that humanity must internalise to be able to feed itself.
This is particularly the case in the most productive areas of the world, such as North America or Western Europe, and particularly in export-oriented countries like The Netherlands, where I participate very actively of this debate. I got tired of hearing people use the “feeding the world” argument to justify the need for irrational models of intensification per unit land or animal in already highly producing regions, which are both technical and economically inefficient. Since I noticed that such arguments were poorly informed by hard data, I came up with the figure below that appears in a paper we are about to publish(*):
Do it yourself
You can build this figure at home. Just go to the FAOStat Database and download the necessary data, which in this case are: the average yield per country and the total production per country. No need for passwords or membership. As in the figure above, you can start by looking at cereals (maize, wheat, rice, etc.), which are the major staple crops for humanity. You can download and use the latest data, or use the last 10 or 20 years of data and compute averages. The figure above is built with the latest data available (2012, 2013). Sum up the cereal production of all the countries to obtain total world production, and calculate the relative production per country (%) by dividing country production by total world production, multiplied by 100. Finally, order the data series by increasing average yields and compute the cumulative frequency of the relative contribution of each country, from the least to the most productive one.
How to read this graph
As with any cumulative distribution graph you can ready it as a two-entry plot. For example, if you start from the vertical (y) axis, you can enter at the level 50% (i.e., half of the total world production) and move to the right until you hit the yellow line representing the cumulative frequency. From that point you can move downwards on a straight line until you reach the horizontal (x) axis. You’ll hit the x axis at the value 3.1 t/ha/year. This is the ‘median’ yield per country. This means that 50% of the total world cereal production comes from countries where cereal yields are smaller than 3.1 t/ha/year, whereas the other 50% comes from countries where the average yields are above that value.
Another way of reading this graph is to start from a point on the x axis, from a certain average yield per country. For example, the total production of all countries in which the average cereal yield is greater than 6 t/ha/year (most of western Europe and North America) represents barely 12.5% of the total world cereal production, as indicated by the blue dotted line. If we take the top 5 countries in terms of average yields, The Netherlands therein, all their production pulled together represents 0.02% of the total world production (second blue doted line). Most of the poorest countries in the world produce average yields of less than 2 t/ha/year, or around 1.3 t/ha/year on average, and contribute 15% to total world cereal production.
What does this mean?
The analysis suggest that further increasing yields in developed countries to be able to feed the word is not justified, or not a priority, as even doubling production in these countries will still contribute a relatively small fraction of the world demand (25% at most). Since yield gains in response to input intensification follow the law of diminishing returns (i.e., the higher the productivity level the smaller the response to new inputs and their efficiency), increasing average yields by e.g. 1 t/ha/year in countries and regions where yields are already high requires larger investments (and potentially greater environmental damage) than in regions where yields fluctuate around 1.3 t/ha/year. Doubling current cereal yield in the least productive countries, from an average of 1.3 to 2.6 t/ha/year will have a greater impact on global food production and far less impact on the environment.
This means that, on a global scale, yields must increase but not everywhere, and not in any way or at any cost. Production must increase in places where people are hungry, and where their livelihoods as well as the national economies depend largely on agriculture. Twice as much land is used for agriculture in the poor cereal yield countries than in the high yielding ones, and many more people live from and depend on agricultural production in the former. But producing in these regions, under their specific social and ecological conditions, requires locally adaptive production models and technologies. This is where agroecology can play a major role.
The argument that yields have to increase further in The Netherlands to be able to feed the world crumbles down very quickly when you put some data on the table. Why are our agricultural “experts” unaware of this? In my opinion, The Netherlands has a different role to play in the global food security quest: to deliver the necessary knowledge to produce food without inputs of fossil fuels, less dependence on pesticide or toxin-producing plants, and with less environmental externalities. As non-renewable resources used in agriculture are becoming scarcer, and as the impact of intensive agriculture on nature and society is increasingly irreversible, it is my opinion that The Netherlands should become the first fully ‘organic’ country. This will go at the expense of some productivity at the beginning. But with time productivity gaps will disappear and the knowledge generated during this transition will be invaluable for the design of new agricultural models to feed a future world in a truly sustainable way.
(*) Pablo Tittonell, Laurens Klerkx, Frederic Baudron, Georges F. Félix, Andrea Ruggia, Dirk van Apeldoorn, Santiago Dogliotti, Paul Mapfumo, Walter A.H. Rossing, 2015. Ecological intensification: local innovation to address global challenges. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, in press.