Increased food production and reduced water use through optimized crop distribution

  • Nature Geosciencevolume 10pages919924 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41561-017-0004-5
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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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Change history

  • Correction 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.

Author information


  1. Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA

    • Kyle Frankel Davis
    •  & Paolo D’Odorico
  2. The Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

    • Kyle Frankel Davis
  3. The Nature Conservancy, New York, NY, USA

    • Kyle Frankel Davis
  4. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Milan, Italy

    • Maria Cristina Rulli
    •  & Antonio Seveso
  5. Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • Paolo D’Odorico


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kyle Frankel Davis.

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