Rethinking food production for a world of eight billion
Earth Policy Institute
Plan B 3.0 Book Byte
July 7, 2009
Lester R. Brown
In April 2005, the World Food Programme and the Chinese government jointly announced that food aid shipments to China would stop at the end of the year. For a country where a generation ago hundreds of millions of people were chronically hungry, this was a landmark achievement. Not only has China ended its dependence on food aid, but almost overnight it has become the world”™s third largest food aid donor.
The key to China”™s success was the economic reforms in 1978 that
dismantled its system of agricultural collectives, known as production
teams, and replaced them with family farms. In each village, the land was
allocated among families, giving them long-term leases on their piece of
land. The move harnessed the energy and ingenuity of China”™s rural
population, raising the grain harvest by half from 1977 to 1986. With its
fast-expanding economy raising incomes, with population growth slowing,
and with the grain harvest climbing, China eradicated most of its hunger
in less than a decade–in fact, it eradicated more hunger in a shorter
period of time than any country in history.
While hunger has been disappearing in China, it has been spreading
throughout much of the developing world, notably sub-Saharan Africa and
parts of the Indian subcontinent. As a result, the number of people in
developing countries who are hungry has increased from a recent historical
low of 800 million in 1996 to over 1 billion today. Part of this recent
rise can be attributed to higher food prices and the global economic
crisis. In the absence of strong leadership, the number of hungry people
in the world will rise even further, with children suffering the most.
Dealing with this problem requires addressing the long-term trends leading
to growth in demand for food outpacing growth in supply. One key to the
threefold expansion in the world grain harvest since 1950 was the rapid
adoption in some developing countries of high-yielding wheats and rices
(originally developed in Japan) and hybrid corn (from the United States).
The spread of these highly productive seeds, combined with a tripling of
irrigated area and an 11-fold increase in world fertilizer use, tripled
the world grain harvest. Growth in irrigation and fertilizer use
essentially removed soil moisture and nutrient constraints on much of the
Now the outlook is changing. Farmers are faced with shrinking supplies of
irrigation water, a diminishing response to additional fertilizer use,
rising temperatures from global warming, the loss of cropland to nonfarm
uses, rising fuel costs, and a dwindling backlog of yield-raising
technologies. At the same time, they also face fast-growing demand for
farm products from the annual addition of 79 million people a year, the
desire of some 3 billion people to consume more livestock products, and
the millions of motorists turning to crop-based fuels to supplement
tightening supplies of gasoline and diesel fuel. Farmers and agronomists
are now being thoroughly challenged.
The shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technology and the associated
loss of momentum in raising cropland productivity are found worldwide.
Between 1950 and 1990, world grain yield per hectare climbed by 2.1
percent a year, ensuring rapid growth in the world grain harvest. From
1990 to 2008, however, it rose only 1.3 percent annually. This is partly
because the yield response to the additional application of fertilizer is
diminishing and partly because irrigation water is limited.
This calls for fresh thinking on how to raise cropland productivity. One
way is to breed crops that are more tolerant of drought and cold. U.S.
corn breeders have developed corn varieties that are more
drought-tolerant, enabling corn production to move westward into Kansas,
Nebraska, and South Dakota. Kansas, the leading U.S. wheat-producing
state, has used a combination of drought-resistant varieties in some areas
and irrigation in others to expand corn planting to where the state now
produces more corn than wheat.
Another way of raising land productivity, where soil moisture permits, is
to increase the area of multicropped land that produces more than one crop
per year. Indeed, the tripling in the world grain harvest since 1950 is
due in part to impressive increases in multiple cropping in Asia. Some of
the more common combinations are wheat and corn in northern China, wheat and rice in northern India, and the double or triple cropping of rice in southern China and southern India.
The spread in double cropping of winter wheat and corn on the North China
Plain helped boost China”™s grain production to where it rivaled that of
the United States. Winter wheat grown there yields 5 tons per hectare.
Corn also averages 5 tons. Together these two crops, grown in rotation,
can yield 10 tons per hectare per year. China”™s double cropped rice
annually yields 8 tons per hectare.
Forty years ago, North India produced only wheat, but with the advent of
the earlier maturing high-yielding wheats and rices, wheat could be
harvested in time to plant rice. This wheat/rice combination is now widely
used throughout the Punjab, Haryana, and parts of Uttar Pradesh. This
practice yields a combined 5 tons of grain per hectare, helping to feed
India”™s 1.2 billion people.
A concerted U.S. effort to both breed earlier maturing varieties and
develop cultural practices that would facilitate multiple cropping could
substantially boost crop output. If China”™s farmers can extensively double
crop wheat and corn, then U.S. farmers could do the same if agricultural
research and farm policy were reoriented to support it.
Elsewhere, Western Europe, with its mild winters and high-yielding winter
wheat, might also be able to double crop more with a summer grain, such as
corn, or with a winter oilseed crop. Brazil and Argentina have an extended
frost-free growing season that supports extensive multicropping, often
wheat or corn with soybeans.
In many countries, including the United States, most of those in Western
Europe, and Japan, fertilizer use has reached a level where using more has
little effect on crop yields. There are still some places, however, such
as most of Africa, where additional fertilizer would help boost yields.
Unfortunately, sub-Saharan Africa lacks the infrastructure to transport
fertilizer economically to the villages where it is needed. As a result of
nutrient depletion, grain yields in much of sub-Saharan Africa are
One encouraging response to this situation in Africa is the simultaneous
planting of grain and leguminous trees. At first the trees grow slowly,
permitting the grain crop to mature and be harvested; then the saplings
grow quickly to several feet in height, dropping leaves that provide
nitrogen and organic matter, both sorely needed in African soils. The wood
is then cut and used for fuel. This simple, locally adapted technology,
developed by scientists at the International Centre for Research in
Agroforestry in Nairobi, has enabled farmers to double their grain yields
within a matter of years as soil fertility builds.
Despite local advances, the overall loss of momentum in expanding food
production is unmistakable. It will force us to think more seriously about
stabilizing population, moving down the food chain, and using the existing
harvest more productively. Achieving an acceptable worldwide balance
between food and people may now depend on stabilizing population as soon
as possible, reducing the unhealthily high consumption of animal products
among the affluent, and restricting the conversion of food crops to
automotive fuels. It also calls for a concerted effort to raise water use
productivity, similar to the gains achieved for land use, and to stabilize
climate to avoid crop-withering temperatures and more frequent droughts.
These efforts combined can help put us on the path to ensuring enough food
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Adapted from Chapter 9, “œFeeding Eight Billion Well,” in Lester R. Brown,
Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at