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Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management

Nature volume 490, pages 254257 (11 October 2012) | Download Citation

  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 06 February 2013

This article has been updated


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.

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Change history

  • 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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We thank G. Allez and K. Milligan for assistance with data collection. We are grateful to R. Licker, G. MacDonald, M. Mueller, S. Polasky, P. Potter, P. Reich, L. Schulte-Moore, D. Tilman, J. Van Wart and the Foley Laboratory for helpful conversations. We thank P. Robertson and P. Smith for helpful comments on the manuscript. Funding was provided by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences Fellowship to N.D.M., a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada Discovery Grant to N.R., Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation funding to J.A.F., and support from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment.

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


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nathaniel D. Mueller.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

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

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    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.

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