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Mind the gap: how do climate and agricultural management explain the ‘yield gap’ of croplands around the world?

Authors

  • Rachel Licker,

    Corresponding author
    1. Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madisonm, 1710 University Ave., Madison, WI 53726, USA,
      Rachel Licker, Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), 1710 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53726 USA.
      E-mail: rlicker@wisc.edu
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  • Matt Johnston,

    1. Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madisonm, 1710 University Ave., Madison, WI 53726, USA,
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  • Jonathan A. Foley,

    1. Institute on the Environment, 1954 Buford Avenue, 325 VoTech Building, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA,
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  • Carol Barford,

    1. Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madisonm, 1710 University Ave., Madison, WI 53726, USA,
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  • Christopher J. Kucharik,

    1. Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madisonm, 1710 University Ave., Madison, WI 53726, USA,
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  • Chad Monfreda,

    1. Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, Arizona State University, PO Box 875603, Tempe, AZ 85287-5603, USA,
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  • Navin Ramankutty

    1. Department of Geography and Earth System Science Program, McGill University, 805 Sherbrooke St. W. Montreal, QC, H3A 2K6, Canada
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Rachel Licker, Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), 1710 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53726 USA.
E-mail: rlicker@wisc.edu

ABSTRACT

Aim  As the demands for food, feed and fuel increase in coming decades, society will be pressed to increase agricultural production – whether by increasing yields on already cultivated lands or by cultivating currently natural areas – or to change current crop consumption patterns. In this analysis, we consider where yields might be increased on existing croplands, and how crop yields are constrained by biophysical (e.g. climate) versus management factors.

Location  This study was conducted at the global scale.

Methods  Using spatial datasets, we compare yield patterns for the 18 most dominant crops within regions of similar climate. We use this comparison to evaluate the potential yield obtainable for each crop in different climates around the world. We then compare the actual yields currently being achieved for each crop with their ‘climatic potential yield’ to estimate the ‘yield gap’.

Results  We present spatial datasets of both the climatic potential yields and yield gap patterns for 18 crops around the year 2000. These datasets depict the regions of the world that meet their climatic potential, and highlight places where yields might potentially be raised. Most often, low yield gaps are concentrated in developed countries or in regions with relatively high-input agriculture.

Main conclusions  While biophysical factors like climate are key drivers of global crop yield patterns, controlling for them demonstrates that there are still considerable ranges in yields attributable to other factors, like land management practices. With conventional practices, bringing crop yields up to their climatic potential would probably require more chemical, nutrient and water inputs. These intensive land management practices can adversely affect ecosystem goods and services, and in turn human welfare. Until society develops more sustainable high-yielding cropping practices, the trade-offs between increased crop productivity and social and ecological factors need to be made explicit when future food scenarios are formulated.

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