Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Synchronized failure of global crop production

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type

from$1.95

to$39.95

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Local contributions to global variance of crop production between 1961 and 2008.
Fig. 2: Stability of global crop production between 1961 and 2008.

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.

References

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

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

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

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

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

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

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

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  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. 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. 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

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Zia Mehrabi.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Mehrabi, Z., Ramankutty, N. Synchronized failure of global crop production. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 780–786 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0862-x

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

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

This article is cited by

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing