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Synchronized failure of global crop production

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 3pages780786 (2019) | Download Citation


Multiple breadbasket failure is a risk to global food security. However, there are no global analyses that have quantitatively assessed if global crop production has actually tended towards synchronized failure historically. We show that synchronization in production within major commodities such as maize and soybean has declined in recent decades, leading to increased global stability in production of these crops. In contrast, synchrony between crops has peaked, making global calorie production more unstable. Under the hypothetical event of complete synchronized failure we estimate simultaneous global production losses for rice, wheat, soybean and maize to lie between −17% and −34%. We find that offsetting these losses by reducing variation in production across all growing locations, and raising production ceilings in breadbaskets, are far more effective than strategies focused on reducing variability in breadbaskets alone or closing production gaps in low productive locations. Our findings suggest that maintaining asynchrony in the food system requires a central place in discussions of future food demand under mean climate change, population growth and consumption trends.

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All data are available for download from the cited sources, except for the crop production time series, which are not distributable by the authors. Requests for these production time series data should be made to Deepak Ray (

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The code used to generate the R46 script can be accessed in the Supplementary Information.

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We thank D. Ray for sharing the time series crop production data set. N.R. and Z.M. were funded by an NSERC Discovery Grant No. RGPIN-2017–04648 and a grant from Genome Canada/Genome BC.

Author information


  1. UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

    • Zia Mehrabi
    •  & Navin Ramankutty
  2. Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

    • Zia Mehrabi
    •  & Navin Ramankutty


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Z.M. had the idea and performed the analysis. Z.M. and N.R. designed the research, interpreted the results, and wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Zia Mehrabi.

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  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Description of Data and Analysis, Supplementary Figures 1–9 and Supplementary References

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