More, not less yield is the best way to meet global demand for more food

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

To meet the probably needed 70 to 100% increase of food supply over the next fifty or so years, agricultural output will have to substantially increase, and most of it will have to come from increased productivity, argues Brian Gardner.

Brian Gardner is a published author who has written about food and agriculture issues for thirty years. His most recent book, Global Food Futures, was published by Bloomsbury earlier this year.

The world is going to need more food to meet demand from an increase in the world population of at least 30% over the next four decades. Of that there is little doubt.

Increased production can only be achieved in one of two ways: either by increasing global farmed area or by increasing output from existing farmed land. In fact, it is likely that that given the also inevitable trend of urbanisation in less developed countries, significant parts of currently cultivated land will be overrun by  non-farm uses.

Which of the two paths to increased food supply should be taken marks the philosophical divide between so-called ’ environmentalists’ and those who argue that the only solution is increased agricultural  productivity.

Paradoxically, it is generally argued by most of those of the ‘green’ persuasion – but not all – that the only way to ensure the sustainability of world agriculture is through ‘low input’ farming. Put bluntly, this means not increasing agricultural productivity but, at best, stultifying productivity – if not actually reducing it. Only in this way, it is argued, can habitats be preserved, greenhouse gas emissions be minimised and the long run sustainability of world agriculture be achieved.

It is however likely that the opposite is the case. It can be convincingly argued that increasing productivity would be more likely to reduce, rather than increase the environmental challenge from agriculture.  A study by the Humbolt Forum for Agriculture suggests that average yields In the European Union would be 31% lower if so-called ‘low input farming’ were to be widely adopted in place of the intensive agriculture generally practised in Europe’s main farming areas.

Were the whole of EU agriculture to adopt the low input approach, then the annual European harvest would be reduced by an estimated 100 million tonnes of grain – or around 35%  of current production. This would in turn mean importing the output of the equivalent of 38 million hectares of land. Or put another way, the equivalent of  8.6 million hectares of Brazilian rainforest or 17.7 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest. This, it is calculated in the Humbolt study, would equate to the loss of 6.8 billion tonnes of CO2 sequestration.

Protagonists of the low input agriculture philosophy will of course criticise the veracity of the Humbolt work on the grounds that it is financed by the large agribusiness companies. It conclusions are however as convincing as the green view that a world food crisis can be avoided through reduced consumption in the developed world.

While the green persuasion would like to see everybody in Europe, America and the rest of the developed world eating less and the increasingly prosperous developing country populations eschewing  the ‘western style’ diet, it’s just not going to happen.

To meet the probable needed increase in food supply of between 70 and 100% over the next fifty or so years, agricultural output will have to be substantially increased and most of it will have to come from increased productivity. This is the major conclusion of my recently published book.

In practical terms this is likely to be achieved mainly by increased productivity – resulting in more output from a smaller area of land.

Brian Gardner writes regularly on, EURACTIV's associated opinion platform, where this piece was first published.

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