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Farming Prioritizes Cows and Cars—Not People

In late February, farmers from across the United States will gather in Houston, Texas, to witness the crowning of their champions: the winners of the National Corn Yield Contest. Each year, thousands of contestants go through the contest’s 17-page rule book and then try to plow, plant and fertilize their way into the record books. Its objective? Squeeze as much corn as possible from each square meter of farmland.

The overall winner in 2023 (and in 2021, 2019 and nine times before) was David Hula, a farmer from Charles City, Virginia. Hula is sort of the Michael Phelps of competitive corn yields. He sets records, breaks them, and then comes back for more. In 2023, his 623.84 bushels of corn per acre were more than three and a half times the national average.

A group of farmers competing to win a national garland may seem like a bit of rural frivolity, but Hula’s record amounts to something important. It shows how much food can be grown if farmers use all the tools at their disposal: high-yielding seed varieties, harmonious combinations of pesticides and herbicides, precisely applied fertilizers, the right amount of water exactly when it is needed, etc. If these factors are achieved correctly, farmers will be able to dramatically increase the amount of food they produce on a given piece of land, potentially freeing up land elsewhere for forests or reforestation.

A new study of crop yields between 1975 and 2010 looked at where crop yields have lagged or advanced. The results give us some tantalizing clues about where farmers and policies should focus to feed more people without turning much more land into farms. Even more importantly, they suggest some important areas where sky-high yields could indicate missed opportunities when it comes to feeding the world more sustainably.

The winners of the National Corn Yield Competition show the incredibly high yields that farmers can achieve, but the majority of farmers globally do not have access to the most brilliant agricultural technology. As a consequence, their returns are lower, which leads us to a concept called the performance gap. Broadly speaking, this is the difference between the theoretical maximum amount of crops a farmer could grow per hectare in a given climate if everything were perfect and the actual amount they grow.

To see the yield gap in action, compare two major corn producers: the United States and Kenya. In the United States, the average yield is about 10.8 tons per hectare, while in Kenya it is 1.5 tons. While the United States is very close to its theoretical maximum corn yield, Kenya (taking into account its different climate) is well below its theoretical maximum. In other words, the United States barely has a corn yield gap, while Kenya has a yield gap about 2.7 tons per hectare below its theoretical maximum.

Yield gaps are important because they tell us where farms could become much more productive, says James Gerber, a data scientist at the climate nonprofit Project Drawdown and lead author of the paper. Increasing yields in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly critical because it is already one of the hungriest parts of the world and the population there is projected to double by 2050.

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