Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management

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In the coming decades, a crucial challenge for humanity will be meeting future food demands without undermining further the integrity of the Earth’s environmental systems1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Agricultural systems are already major forces of global environmental degradation4, 7, but population growth and increasing consumption of calorie- and meat-intensive diets are expected to roughly double human food demand by 2050 (ref. 3). Responding to these pressures, there is increasing focus on ‘sustainable intensification’ as a means to increase yields on underperforming landscapes while simultaneously decreasing the environmental impacts of agricultural systems2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11. However, it is unclear what such efforts might entail for the future of global agricultural landscapes. Here we present a global-scale assessment of intensification prospects from closing ‘yield gaps’ (differences between observed yields and those attainable in a given region), the spatial patterns of agricultural management practices and yield limitation, and the management changes that may be necessary to achieve increased yields. We find that global yield variability is heavily controlled by fertilizer use, irrigation and climate. Large production increases (45% to 70% for most crops) are possible from closing yield gaps to 100% of attainable yields, and the changes to management practices that are needed to close yield gaps vary considerably by region and current intensity. Furthermore, we find that there are large opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture by eliminating nutrient overuse, while still allowing an approximately 30% increase in production of major cereals (maize, wheat and rice). Meeting the food security and sustainability challenges of the coming decades is possible, but will require considerable changes in nutrient and water management.

At a glance


  1. Average yield gaps for maize, wheat and rice.
    Figure 1: Average yield gaps for maize, wheat and rice.

    These were measured as a percentage of the attainable yield achieved circa the year 2000. Yield gap in each grid cell is calculated as an area-weighted average across the crops and is displayed on the top 98% of growing area.

  2. Global production increases for maize, wheat and rice from closing yield gaps to 50%, 75%, 90% and 100% of attainable yields.
    Figure 2: Global production increases for maize, wheat and rice from closing yield gaps to 50%, 75%, 90% and 100% of attainable yields.

    The greatest opportunities for increases in absolute production (from closing yield gaps to 100% of estimated attainable yields) are wheat (W) in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, rice (R) in South Asia and maize (M) in East Asia. Absolute production increases for individual crops in Sub-Saharan Africa are smaller owing to lower attainable yields and diverse cropping systems (that is, less area devoted to any one crop). The region could still achieve large production increases in cassava, maize and sugarcane.

  3. Management intensity of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigated area varies widely across the world/'s croplands.
    Figure 3: Management intensity of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigated area14 varies widely across the world’s croplands.

    a, b, Fertilizer (a) and irrigation (b) values are area-weighted averages across major cereals.

  4. Management factors limiting yield-gap closure to 75% of attainable yields for maize, wheat and rice.
    Figure 4: Management factors limiting yield-gap closure to 75% of attainable yields for maize, wheat and rice.

    a, b, c Yield-limiting management factors for maize (a), wheat (b) and rice (c) were calculated using the suite of input–yield models, comparing current input intensity against estimated required levels to close yield gaps.

  5. Closing yield gaps through changes in agricultural management.
    Figure 5: Closing yield gaps through changes in agricultural management.

    a, b, Projected increases in nitrogen application rates (a) and irrigated areas (b) necessary to close maize, wheat and rice yield gaps to 75% of attainable yields. c, Projected net changes in nitrogen application rates when closing yield gaps and eliminating input imbalances and inefficiencies.

Change history

Corrected online 10 October 2012
The two yield values in the text (2.5 and 3.6 tonnes per hectare), relating to Supplementary Fig. 4, were corrected.


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Author information


  1. Institute on the Environment (IonE), University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • Nathaniel D. Mueller,
    • James S. Gerber,
    • Matt Johnston,
    • Deepak K. Ray &
    • Jonathan A. Foley
  2. Department of Geography and Global Environmental and Climate Change Center, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec H3A 2K6, Canada

    • Navin Ramankutty


N.D.M. led the study design, data analysis and writing. J.S.G. contributed substantially to the yield-gap data analysis and writing. D.K.R. and M.J. assisted with data analysis and writing. J.A.F. and N.R. assisted with study design and writing.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (11.3 MB)

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1-8, Supplementary Tables 1-3 and additional references.

Excel files

  1. Supplementary Data (737 KB)

    This file contains estimates of intensification prospects through closing yield gaps by crop, country, and region.This file was replaced online on 15 November 2013 to correct a slight discrepancy in the area calculations.

Additional data