Several studies have shown that global crop production needs to double by 2050 to meet the projected demands from rising population, diet shifts, and increasing biofuels consumption. Boosting crop yields to meet these rising demands, rather than clearing more land for agriculture has been highlighted as a preferred solution to meet this goal. However, we first need to understand how crop yields are changing globally, and whether we are on track to double production by 2050. Using ~2.5 million agricultural statistics, collected for ~13,500 political units across the world, we track four key global crops—maize, rice, wheat, and soybean—that currently produce nearly two-thirds of global agricultural calories. We find that yields in these top four crops are increasing at 1.6%, 1.0%, 0.9%, and 1.3% per year, non-compounding rates, respectively, which is less than the 2.4% per year rate required to double global production by 2050. At these rates global production in these crops would increase by ~67%, ~42%, ~38%, and ~55%, respectively, which is far below what is needed to meet projected demands in 2050. We present detailed maps to identify where rates must be increased to boost crop production and meet rising demands.
Discussion and Conclusions
Numerous studies have shown that feeding a more populated and more prosperous world will roughly require a doubling of agricultural production by 2050 –, translating to a ~2.4% rate of crop production growth per year. We find that the top four global crops – maize, rice, wheat, and soybean – are currently witnessing average yield improvements only between 0.9 to 1.6 percent per year, far slower than the required rates to double their production by 2050 solely from yield gains. This is because yield improvements are below ~2.4% per year in many areas of our most important agricultural lands. At these rates maize, rice, wheat and soybean production may increase by ~67%, ~42%, ~38%, and ~55% respectively, by 2050 globally. There is a 90% chance that the total global production increase from yields alone would be between 34–101% for maize, 21–59% for rice, 4–76% for wheat, and 13–84% for soybean by ~2050. Thus, if these yield change rates do not increase, land clearing possibly would be needed  if global food security is to increase or even maintained (Table 1).
We found that the top three rice and wheat producing nations are witnessing very low yield growth rates. China, India and Indonesia are witnessing rice yield increases of only 0.7%, 1.0%, and 0.4% improvement per year. China, India, and the U. S., the top three wheat producers similarly were witnessing yield increases of only 1.7%, 1.1%, and 0.8% per year, respectively. At these rates we found that yield driven production growth in India and China could result in nearly unchanged per capita rice harvests, but decline steeply in Indonesia.
In many of the smaller crop producing nations, maize, rice, or wheat yield improvement rates are below the 2.4% doubling rate. Unfortunately, a high percentage of total calories consumed in these countries are from these four crops. This is particularly true for maize throughout much of Africa (e.g., Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe), Central America (e.g., Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama), and parts of Asia (e.g., Nepal, Georgia).
Rice provides ~19% of dietary energy globally. Rice provides a higher percentage of total calories consumed in countries such as Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and North Korea, yet yields are declining, −0.1% to −3.2% per year. Elsewhere rice yields are increasing too slowly to overcome the impact of their population growth. In some of the world’s top rice producers, e.g. India and China, the per capita production may remain nearly unchanged. In numerous smaller rice producers across the world where rice is an important significant provider of daily dietary energy such as in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Benin, Togo, Myanmar, Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, Nepal, and in Sri Lanka, the per capita production may also remain unchanged.
Wheat provides ~19% of global dietary energy. Wheat comprises an even larger portion of the diet in some countries where yields are declining, particularly Eastern European countries of Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine. In many countries, such as Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Afghanistan, and Iraq, wheat yield increases are too low to maintain their current per capita harvests.
Our analysis identifies where yield improvements are on track to double production and where investments should be targeted to increase yields. The observed rates of yield change result from several location-specific, socio-economic, and biophysical factors that are described elsewhere . Many studies illustrate that intensification can be unsustainable –, but several notable projects in Africa  and elsewhere  have shown that sustainable intensification is possible and necessary to boost global crop production.
Clearly, the world faces a looming and growing agricultural crisis. Yields are not improving fast enough to keep up with projected demands in 2050. However, opportunities do exist to increase production through more efficient use of current arable lands  and increasing yield growth rates by spreading best management practices and closing yield gaps under different management regimes – across the globe. A portion of the production shortfall could also be met by expanding croplands, but at a high environmental cost to biodiversity and carbon emissions , –. Alternatively, additional strategies, particularly changing to more plant-based diets and reducing food waste , – can reduce the large expected demand growth in food , .