Increased food production and reduced water use through optimized crop distribution


Growing demand for agricultural commodities for food, fuel and other uses is expected to be met through an intensification of production on lands that are currently under cultivation. Intensification typically entails investments in modern technology — such as irrigation or fertilizers — and increases in cropping frequency in regions suitable for multiple growing seasons. Here we combine a process-based crop water model with maps of spatially interpolated yields for 14 major food crops to identify potential differences in food production and water use between current and optimized crop distributions. We find that the current distribution of crops around the world neither attains maximum production nor minimum water use. We identify possible alternative configurations of the agricultural landscape that, by reshaping the global distribution of crops within current rainfed and irrigated croplands based on total water consumption, would feed an additional 825 million people while reducing the consumptive use of rainwater and irrigation water by 14% and 12%, respectively. Such an optimization process does not entail a loss of crop diversity, cropland expansion or impacts on nutrient and feed availability. It also does not necessarily invoke massive investments in modern technology that in many regions would require a switch from smallholder farming to large-scale commercial agriculture with important impacts on rural livelihoods.

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Fig. 1: Potential annual water savings from redistributing major crops across currently cultivated lands.
Fig. 2: Global crop-specific changes in consumptive water use, nutrient production and feed supply due to redistributing crops in currently cultivated lands.
Fig. 3: Spatial distribution of increases in calorie and protein production from crop redistribution.
Fig. 4: Ratio of total crop water demand to renewable water availability.

Change history

  • 09 November 2017

    Owing to a technical error, this Article was published a day later than stated. The correct date of publication is 7 November 2017; all versions of the Article have now been corrected accordingly.


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We thank M. R. Smith for providing information on crop nutrient content. We thank J. Gephart for her useful input regarding optimization approach. This work was supported by The Nature Conservancy’s NatureNet Science Fellows programme.

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K.F.D., A.S., M.C.R. and P.D. designed the experiment. K.F.D. and A.S. performed the analysis. K.F.D., M.C.R. and P.D. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Kyle Frankel Davis.

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Davis, K.F., Rulli, M.C., Seveso, A. et al. Increased food production and reduced water use through optimized crop distribution. Nature Geosci 10, 919–924 (2017).

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