Crop-breeding innovations are merely a short-term solution for falling yields. Only agricultural diversity can ensure food security and resilience
As a new year dawns, it is hard not to be dazzled by the current pace of technological change in food and agriculture. Only last month, news emerged of a crop spray with the potential to increase the starch content in wheat grains, allowing for yield gains of up to 20%. This development comes hot on the heels of major breakthroughs in gene-editing technologies – using a powerful tool known as Crispr – over the course of 2016.
A future of continually increasing food supplies and ever more sophisticated manipulation of agro-ecosystems seems to be upon us.
However, there is a risk that these technologies blind us to the very real problems facing modern agriculture – problems that are rapidly undermining the previous round of technological advances.
While global crop yields rose rapidly in the early decades of the “green revolution”, productivity is now plateauing in many regions of the world. A 2012 meta-study found that in 24%-39% of areas growing maize, rice, wheat and soybean, yields either failed to improve, stagnated after initial gains, or collapsed.
Only slightly more than half of all global rice and wheat areas (57% and 56% respectively) are still experiencing yield increases. The areas where yields have stagnated include some of the wealthiest, most industrialised and most hi-tech production systems: more than one-third of the wheat crop in the US (mostly in the Great Plains) is affected, along with more than a third of the Argentine wheat crop, and harvests all across Europe.
Meanwhile, rice yields are plateauing in California and most European rice-growing areas. This trend is also evident in some 80% of rice crops in China and Indonesia – two of the world’s major rice producers. Worryingly, this may only be the tip of the iceberg.