Article | Published:

Synchronized failure of global crop production

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

Abstract

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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Data availability

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 (dray@umn.edu).

Code availability

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

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

References

  1. 1.

    Devereaux, S. Famine in the Twentieth Century Working Paper 105 (IDS, 2000); https://www.ids.ac.uk/files/dmfile/wp105.pdf

  2. 2.

    Lesk, C., Rowhani, P. & Ramankutty, N. Influence of extreme weather disasters on global crop production. Nature 529, 84–87 (2016).

  3. 3.

    Gilbert, C. L. & Morgan, C. W. Food price volatility. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 3023–3034 (2010).

  4. 4.

    Bailey, R., et al. Extreme Weather and Resilience of the Global Food System (The Global Food Security programme, UK, 2015); https://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/publications/extreme-weather-resilience-global-food-system.pdf

  5. 5.

    Battisti, D. S. & Nalyor, R. L. Historical warnings of future food insecurity with unprecedented seasonal heat. Nature 323, 240–244 (2009).

  6. 6.

    Sen, A. The economics of life and death. Sci. Am. 268, 40–47 (1993).

  7. 7.

    Laio, F., Ridolfi, L. & D’Odorico, P. The past and future of food stocks. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 035010 (2016).

  8. 8.

    Suweis, S., Carr, J. A., Maritan, A., Rinaldo, A. & D’Odorico, P. Resilience and reactivity of global food security. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 6902–6907 (2015).

  9. 9.

    Kim, J. J. & Guha-Sapir, D. Famines in Africa: is early warning early enough? Global Health Action 5, 3–5 (2012).

  10. 10.

    Famine Early Warning System (FEWS, 2017); https://www.fews.net/

  11. 11.

    Tadesse, G., Algieri, B., Kalkuhl, M. & von Braun, J. Drivers and triggers of international food price spikes and volatility. Food Policy 47, 117–128 (2014).

  12. 12.

    Myers, S. S. et al. Climate change and global food systems: potential impacts on food security and undernutrition. Annu. Rev. Publ. Health 38, 259–277 (2016).

  13. 13.

    The State of Food Insecurity in the World (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2010); http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i1683e/i1683e.pdf

  14. 14.

    Food System Shock (Lloyds, 2015); https://www.lloyds.com/news-and-risk-insight/risk-reports/library/society-and-security/food-system-shock

  15. 15.

    von Uexkull, N., Croicu, M., Fjelde, H. & Buhaug, H. Civil conflict sensitivity to growing-season drought. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 12391–12396 (2016).

  16. 16.

    Buhaug, H., Benjaminsen, T. A., Sjaastad, E. & Theisen, O. M. Climate variability, food production shocks, and violent conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 125015 (2015).

  17. 17.

    Schleussner, C. -F., Donges, J. F., Donner, R. V. & Schellnhuber, H. J. Armed-conflict risks enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionalized countries. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 9216–9221 (2016).

  18. 18.

    Ben-ari, T. & Makowski, D. Decomposing global crop yield variability. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 114011 (2014).

  19. 19.

    Ben-Ari, T. & Makowski, D. Analysis of the trade-off between high crop yield and low yield instability at the global scale. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 104005 (2016).

  20. 20.

    de Mazancourt, C. et al. Predicting ecosystem stability from community composition and biodiversity. Ecol. Lett. 16, 617–625 (2013).

  21. 21.

    Wang, S. & Loreau, M. Ecosystem stability in space: alpha, beta and gamma variability. Ecol. Lett. 17, 891–901 (2014).

  22. 22.

    Cardinale, B. J. et al. Biodiversity loss and its impacton humanity. Nature 486, 59–67 (2012).

  23. 23.

    Khoury, C. K. et al. Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 4001–4006 (2014).

  24. 24.

    Lipper, L. et al. Climate-smart agriculture for food security. Nat. Clim. Chang e 4, 1068–1072 (2014).

  25. 25.

    Lin, B. B. Resilience in agriculture through crop diversification: adaptive management for environmental change. Bioscience 61, 183–193 (2011).

  26. 26.

    Burney, J. A., Naylor, R. L. & Postel, S. L. The case for distributed irrigation as a development priority in sub-Saharan Africa. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 12513–12517 (2013).

  27. 27.

    Mueller, N. D. et al. Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management. Nature 490, 254–257 (2012).

  28. 28.

    Tester, M. & Langridge, P. Breeding technologies to increase crop production in a changing world. Science 327, 818–822 (2010).

  29. 29.

    Cohen, J. E. & Xu, M. Random sampling of skewed distributions implies Taylor’s power law of fluctuation scaling. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 7749–7754 (2015).

  30. 30.

    Tollenaar, M. & Lee, E. A. Yield potential, yield stability and stress tolerance in maize. Field Crop. Res. 75, 161–169 (2002).

  31. 31.

    Ramankutty, N. et al. Trends in global agricultural land use: implications for environmental health and food security. Annu. Rev. Plant Biol. 69, 789–815 (2018).

  32. 32.

    Ray, D. K., Gerber, J. S., MacDonald, G. K. & West, P. C. Climate variation explains a third of global crop yield variability. Nat. Commun. 6, 5989 (2015).

  33. 33.

    Iizumi, T. & Ramankutty, N. Changes in yield variability of major crops for 1981–2010 explained by climate change. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 034003 (2010).

  34. 34.

    Foley, J. A. et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342 (2011).

  35. 35.

    Tilman, D., Balzer, C., Hill, J. & Befort, B. L. Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 20260–20264 (2011).

  36. 36.

    Godfray, H. C. J. et al. Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 327, 812–818 (2010).

  37. 37.

    Reaping the Benefits: Science and the Sustainable Intensification of Global Agriculture (The Royal Society, 2009).

  38. 38.

    Haddad, L. et al. A new global research agenda for food. Nature 540, 30–32 (2016).

  39. 39.

    Garnett, T. Plating up solutions. Science 353, 1202–1204 (2016).

  40. 40.

    Battiston, S., Caldarelli, G., May, R. M., Roukny, T. & Stiglitz, J. E. The price of complexity in financial networks. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 10031–10036 (2016).

  41. 41.

    Ray, D. K., Ramankutty, N., Mueller, N. D., West, P. C. & Foley, J. A. Recent patterns of crop yield growth and stagnation. Nat. Commun. 3, 1293 (2012).

  42. 42.

    Sacks, W. J., Deryng, D., Foley, J. A. & Ramankutty, N. Crop planting dates: an analysis of global patterns. Global Ecol. Biogeogr. 19, 607–620 (2010).

  43. 43.

    Monfreda, C., Ramankutty, N. & Foley, J. A. Farming the planet: 2. Geographic distribution of crop areas, yields, physiological types, and net primary production in the year 2000. Global Biogeochem. Cy. 22, 1–19 (2008).

  44. 44.

    Willmott, C. J. & Matsuura, K. Terrestrial Air Temperature and Precipitation: 1900–2014 Gridded Monthly Time Series (V 4.01) (2001); http://climate.geog.udel.edu/~climate/html_pages/download.html#P2014

  45. 45.

    Cassidy, E. S., West, P. C., Gerber, J. S. & Foley, J. A. Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 034015 (2013).

  46. 46.

    R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (R Core Development Team, 2017).

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Affiliations

  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

Authors

  1. Search for Zia Mehrabi in:

  2. Search for Navin Ramankutty in:

Contributions

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.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

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

  2. Reporting Summary

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

Issue Date

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0862-x

Further reading