Why are we so obsessed with yield?
Do we need to increase productivity to 'feed the 10 billion?'
Yield and productivity are two words that are practically unavoidable in the mainstream conversation about food. Concerns about food shortages due to climate, conflict, and other disruptions make it seem like increasing productivity is the preeminent goal of the food system this century (with some carbon sequestration thrown in the mix to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint). But the longer I spend in this sector, the more this focus on yield alone seems misleading at best—harmful at worst. So what’s the deal with productivity? Do we really need to double our food production by 2050 to “feed the 10 billion?” And is this even the right question to be asking?
Before we get to that, however, we also need to take a look at how we got here. Over the last century, agriculture has seen staggering increases in yield, achieved through rapid technological advances. Between 1960 and 2016, the global population rose by 142%. In the same period, calorie production increased by a factor of 217%; cereal production by 193%, largely due to the technologies of the Green Revolution . All of this was achieved with only a 10 percent increase in arable land use. At the same time, the price of food was steadily decreasing all over the globe.
On the surface, this looks like a tremendous achievement for humanity. One can point to the averted famines and decreasing rates of hunger during this period as proof of the success of this approach to increasing productivity. However, as time went on, the serious shortcomings of this approach began to emerge. This laser focus on productivity and competitive global trade incentivised an approach of maximising production and minimising costs, which led to trends like mono-crops of very few agricultural commodities becoming the dominant style of agriculture. This has had several consequences—for the environment, agricultural communities, and human health.
These negative externalities are not factored into the measurement of success for the system, which remains stubbornly on agricultural output alone, without regard to the waste or inefficiencies it produces. But these externalities are incredibly important, especially with the rising crisis of climate change. According to one study, “the costs of air pollution alone on human health from US agricultural production amount to about half its value.” Agriculture is the world’s largest consumer of water (accounting for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers), as well as the largest polluter of waterways through pesticide runoff that includes nitrates and ammonia. It is the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. And even amidst all of these improvements in yield (leading to a production of enough calories to feed the world’s population 1.5 times over), 800 million people still go hungry for a lack of equitable distribution and economic access to these calories. Hunger, rather than consistently decreasing alongside rising yields, has been rising for years.
Our environmental systems are under threat because industrial agriculture currently relies on the consumption of nonrenewable resources (in particular, fossil fuels) to continue producing the same yields. Further, the depletion of certain renewable resources (such as water and soil) is occurring at rates that exceed the rate of regeneration, and biodiversity is rapidly declining (Horrigan et. al, 2002). Therefore, this quest for agricultural productivity, although adopted in an attempt to feed the world, has paradoxically begun to threaten our continued ability to feed anyone at all. A paradox emerges: the modern food system is one of the largest achievements in terms of scale humanity has ever seen; at the same time, continuing to pursue it is arguably the biggest threat to our shared health and survival.
According to a recent article from The Guardian, “nitrogen fertiliser use needs to decline by 75% to avoid large-scale environmental impact of this kind. The focus on productivity over efficiency has meant that the amount of energy needed to grow the same quantity of food has increased by between one-quarter and one-third over the last 25 years. Even without climate change, conventional chemical agriculture is driving humanity towards a food-security cliff.”
We’re still inexplicably stuck in a place where the primacy of industrial agriculture is not broadly questioned; it is still seen as the best (and only) way to feed a growing population. We aren’t asking, on a broad scale, why a system that has been propped up by billions in subsidies and promised to feed the world only delivers a small percentage of its total calories to human consumption. In a recent article, the authors found that “due to cumulative losses, the proportion of global agricultural dry biomass consumed as food is just 6% (9.0% for energy and 7.6% for protein), and 24.8% of harvest biomass (31.9% for energy and 27.8% for protein).”
None of this is to say that productivity isn’t at all important. It’s that the current conversation over-emphasises the role of production, distracting from more important conversations. We already grow enough food to feed everyone on the planet 1.5 times over. It’s just not evenly distributed and much of it goes to non-food uses. Even maintaining the production levels of today would be sufficient, but the implication of the conversation about productivity is that we must strive towards even more growth in order to end hunger. These declarations that we must “double food production by 2050 to avoid increased hunger” create a sense of panic, to which the only antidote is to rush towards more industrialised agriculture.
It’s not that I imagine that industrial agriculture will go away completely or be replaced by small-scale farming methods, at least in the short term. The point is that if it stayed the same size (or shrank slightly), we could still feed everyone if it were distributed and allocated differently. Advocating for its expansion is the problem because it’s being sold as the way to end hunger—something that, as the evidence shows, is misleading at best.
As [Authors] put it, “the global food system evolved out of a need to drive consumption on a global basis, at a time when lack of access to food was a real issue and environmental degradation was not. The situation now has changed.” Unfortunately, the policy conversation has not changed with it.
Clearly, we need a new metric for measuring food system success. Low prices and high yields are considered the public good, rather than health, sustainability, or another more appropriate metric. Producing calories alone is no longer a correlate to decreasing hunger or achieving other metrics we (supposedly) care about, like reducing GHG emissions or protecting soil health or biodiversity. If we measured success by the number of people fed healthily and sustainably, for example, the current system would perform abysmally and require a significant overhaul.
I think a lot about why the mainstream institutions involved in food—mostly in the Minority World—continue to cling so tightly to increasing yield as their main priority for food systems this century when there is so much evidence to suggest that a different approach would be more appropriate. The accompanying question is how to shift this conversation because if we want to survive on the planet, transforming agriculture is essential. But the strategy for the latter depends on the core reasons for the former. The problem is that it doesn’t seem clear—at least to me—what the core reason is.
I’ll explain. In my view, there are a few competing theories for why research continues to be poured into propping up the industrial agricultural system, even when there is evidence that suggests we ought to go in another direction.
The first is that this continued focus on productivity and industrialised agriculture is intentional; it is fuelled by capitalism and those who have vested interests in that system continuing (primarily, large multinationals that produce seeds or agrochemicals). This assumes bad intentions by a variety of actors in the system, who know that the system contains a multitude of harms but intentionally mislead or confuse policymakers and the public to justify its continued use (similar to the tactics used by the tobacco industry for decades in the twentieth century). This approach largely minimises the harms of the industrialised system and doubles down on its necessity as being the only viable way to ‘feed the world.’
The second is techno-optimism. This approach acknowledges the harms of the current version of industrial agriculture but believes these can be mitigated through technology. This assumes better intentions—that those in power genuinely believe that industrialised methods are the most appropriate way to ‘feed the world,’ but must emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions. This approach doesn’t minimise the harms of the system but is optimistic that these harms are surmountable and we can continue largely business-as-usual with these technological shifts.
The third is ignorance and preconceived notions about agriculture. This is related to the second, and also to our discussion of values in the last instalment. It’s the idea that industrial agriculture, even with its shortcomings, is the only way to ‘liberate’ farmers from the drudgery of small-scale agriculture, so it’s a worthy cause to pursue even if it carries some negative externalities. This belief seems to be pervasive amongst all who advocate for productivity increases and a “second green revolution,” but differ in terms of their emphasis on sustainability.
So what would we do about each? If it were overwhelmingly the first, that’s a pretty difficult thing to change from the grassroots level, but not impossible. Mass mobilisation, such as that seen in the farmers’ protests in India, successfully fought off these capitalist interests from encroaching on the system further. It would likely take that, accompanied by creating viable alternatives to the dominant system, to shift its primacy.
If it’s the second (or even the third), there must be a large shift in the dominant conversation about food. This takes a tide of voices in different places in the food system—from academia to policymaking to the UN—that recognise the shortcomings of these approaches and vocalises them loudly and repeatedly. The tactics must match the root causes.
The reality is that there are probably shades of truth in all of these reasons, which means that a multi-faceted response is necessary. We must find alternatives to the dominant system and continue fighting for food sovereignty. We must broaden the conversation and the research about methods like agroecology and the importance of small-scale agriculture to the problems facing agriculture. We must support those on the ground who are building grassroots movements to protect their own agricultural systems. And we have to be loud about the shortcomings of industrial agriculture, which has had an intense amount of positive PR over the last fifty years. These might seem like ineffectual solutions alone. But together, they will build cracks into the widespread confidence in—and justification for—industrial agriculture. Those cracks are opportunities for wider change to take place.
We don’t have to be working in agriculture or doing activist work to start making those cracks, either. It happens in the everyday. The next time the food shortages come up in conversation relating to the war in Ukraine, ask if they know why these headlines are misleading. Tell them about the inefficiency of industrialised methods, and how few calories currently go to human consumption. Ask if they know how much of the world’s food small-scale farmers produce, how important these communities are to protecting biodiversity, and how their methods have been shown to have comparable yields to industrialised methods but with hugely positive effects on the environment. Mention that we actually produce enough food to feed everyone, it’s just not evenly distributed. That this is a political question, not a purely economic one. That technology, although important, does not answer the difficult questions about fairness, equity, and farmer autonomy, and can produce unintended harm in its application. It is through this everyday consciousness-raising that we begin to change the tide. This is something we can all engage in.
This instalment focused on why productivity is not an appropriate measure for food system success in this century. In the coming weeks, we’ll explore some alternatives—what might it look like to transition to a food system that invests more in smaller-scale agriculture, rather than focuses on production? What could it look like if we implemented an alternative metric for success? As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section or by replying to this email.
This article from The Guardian detailing how grain firms are making record profits amidst the food crisis. As Olivier De Schutter is quoted in the article, “the fact that global commodity giants are making record profits at a time when hunger is rising is clearly unjust, and is a terrible indictment of our food systems. What’s even worse, these companies could have done more to prevent the hunger crisis in the first place.”
This piece from Agriland titled “Community-led solutions to tackle global food and climate crisis," which highlights some of our partners’ Jon Jandai, Debal Deb and Lama Khatieb's work. When critiquing dominant food systems, it's natural to wonder what the alternatives could look like. This article highlights three of our grassroots partners, and the thriving, community-led models they've helped build. Each of these demonstrates how prioritizing community and ecosystemic health benefits everyone while maintaining (or even raising) farmer incomes.
This report from Navdanya International about the political nature of food crises. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, headlines have been dominated by the warnings of risk in global food supply shortages and rising global food prices, all due to the conflict,” they write. “But, according to many international groups, there is currently no risk of global food supply shortages. So why are so many countries now facing an increased risk of food insecurity, and in worst cases famine?”
Check out the recording of our most recent Peasant and Indigenous Press Forum, “Resilience in a Food Crisis.” Watch it on YouTube here.
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This instalment of Offshoot was written by Thea Walmsley, with editing support from the team.