Online atlas helps countries produce more food

Developed at the University of Nebraska, with collaboration from researchers from dozens of countries, the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas is a platform to help farmers and governments improve agricultural yield

By Heitor Shimizu, in Lincoln  |  Agência FAPESP – By the year 2050, the world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion. To meet that demand, food supply needs to increase at least 70%. The challenge is enormous: today, on a planet with 7.6 million inhabitants, a billion people go hungry.

According to the United Nations (UN), the situation is worse in less developed countries where most population growth will occur. In these places, increases in food prices have an even greater impact because they affect populations that spend 50% to 80% of their budget on food.

Increasing urbanization and economic improvement of the poorest countries are other factors that require an increased supply of food. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), yearly grain production alone will have to increase by over 40% in the next 30 years. The result is that food shortages are becoming a problem for every country, rich or poor, as noted by experts on the subject.

“We need to be able to provide reliable answers to key questions about food security such as: what is the potential for food production of a region or country on existing farm land with available water resources if farmers adopt best management practices?” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln Agronomy Professor Patricio Grassini, during FAPESP Week Nebraska-Texas, an event bringing together researchers from the United States and Brazil through September 22, in the cities of Lincoln (Nebraska) and Lubbock (Texas).

“Will it be possible for a particular country to achieve food self-sufficiency by 2030 or by 2050? If the answer is yes, will there be excess production for exporting? How much? In a country with insufficient farm land, how much food will need to be imported? These are other examples of important questions we need to address and which led us to create the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas (GYGA,,” he continued.

Born in Argentina, Grassini is one of the coordinators of the free web-based platform to help countries improve agricultural yield, resulting in the supply of more food at a lower cost.

“The GYGA employs a consistent, transparent and reproducible approach to determine yield potential, yield gaps and water productivity. We provide agronomically robust georeferenced data that can be applied throughout the world. We simulate yield potential for specific locations using models based on validated data regarding climate, soil and cropland management,” he said.

A yield gap is a region’s wasted potential, in other words, what the region could produce but does not, compared with other similar regions. One example of this is the adoption of modern growing technologies that allow countries in North America and Europe to produce more and better than countries in Africa.

“The yield potential is a challenge that can only be overcome by sustainable intensification of agricultural systems so that each hectare of farm land produces near its potential while minimizing environmental impact,” Grassini said.

The GYGA helps to identify regions that have greater potential for increased agricultural yield. That means, areas best suited for investing in food production and R&D. The data included in the platform can be used in simulations to calculate how and when a country can achieve food security through crop intensification, and if this cannot be achieved, how much food will need to be imported.

Food security, as defined by the World Food Summit in 1996, exists when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Development of the GYGA began in 2011. It is a collection of data on the cultivation of soybean, potato, sugarcane, corn and other grains from more than 50 countries. It is designed for farmers, governments and decision makers and it allows the identification of regions with the greatest potential for improvement of both the supply of foods as well as the efficient use of water. It also seeks to offer data for global economic models related to food security and land use.

“Yield potential is determined by factors such as sunlight, temperature, carbon dioxide, types of crops, rain and soil. And it is limited by things such as low soil fertility, poor management, insects, pests and diseases,” he said.

According to Grassini, the atlas also provides support for prioritizing investments in research and assessing the impact of global climate change and other topics that deal with water, food and climate.

Initial efforts focus on Sub-Saharan Africa (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia), the Middle East (Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan), south Asia (India and Bangladesh), South America (Argentina and Brazil), Australia, Europe and the United States.

“In Brazil, we rely on the help of various collaborators, led by Fábio Ricardo Marin [professor at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture of the University of São Paulo],” Grassini said.

Potential in Brazil

Brazil is a country with high productivity. In the last 30 years, for example, there has been a 42% increase in areas planted with grains, but the productivity gain was much higher, above 220%.

According to the GYGA, Brazilian soybean production yield is 2.8 tons per hectare (t/ha), the same as that of the United States. But the difference is significant with regard to the corn crop: 9.4 t/ha in the United States compared with 4.5 t/ha in Brazil.

In data regarding Brazil, the atlas emphasizes that only 3% of the crop area is rented, that soybean is the main crop (with 42% of the crop area) and that in several locations (the states of Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Tocantins, Goiás and Paraná), farmers are able to grow two crops per year.

“With respect to sugarcane, Brazilian production more than doubled from 2000 to 2013, but 88% of this increase comes from expansion of crop land with only 12% from increased yield,” Grassini said.

According to data available in the GYGA, average crop yield for sugarcane in Brazil is currently 62% of yield potential. In other words, the potential for growth is very high using the same crop land as now.

Water security

The GYGA also addresses another important issue for food security: water use. Agriculture is the activity that uses the most water. Nearly 70% of all water appropriated for human use is or will be used to irrigate agricultural crops. It takes 3,500 liters of water to produce one kilo of rice and 15,000 liters of water to produce one kilo of beef.

There is – for now – enough water for the future needs of humanity, according to the UN, but the scenario is not the same all over the world. Many large regions completely lack water, in a scenario that affects billions of people, most in precarious living conditions.

“Significant changes in policy and management that affect the entire agricultural chain of production are needed to ensure better use of available water resources in order to meet the growing demand for food and other agricultural products,” underscores the UN.

“Water resources for agriculture are under pressure. The efficiency with which water is converted to food, in other words, water productivity, is another critical issue,” Grassini said.

The GYGA points out that Brazil has a climate that is favorable to agricultural production with regard to its rainfall patterns, with annual precipitation rates that range from 700 millimeters (in Brazil’s Northeast region) to 2,100 millimeters (in the South, Southeast and Central-West regions). Only 9% of Brazil’s total cultivated area consists of just irrigated area.

Despite frequent periods of drought in several areas, Brazil’s situation is much better than countries such as Níger, which has a high variability of rainfall and extended periods of drought. That African country has an area of 1.2 million square kilometers, but two thirds of it are desert areas.

The irregular availability of water adds to the increasing soil infertility and low agricultural productivity of the African country, which consists primarily of smallholder farms and limited use of technology. Corn crop yield in Niger is only one ton per hectare, nine times less than the United States.

It is estimated that if Sub-Saharan Africa had the same agricultural yield as Brazil, it would need 65% less cultivated area. That is one of the yield gaps that those responsible for the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas hope to help reduce.

The atlas was developed with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Wageningen University (The Netherlands).

For additional information, visit the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas, at