Swopping crops to improve food production and water use

By suggesting and rearranging where and what type of crops farmers plant globally, scientists have calculated that crop production can be increased to feed an extra 825 million people.

Scientists have calculated that global crop production can be increased to feed an extra 825 million people through rearranging the locations and types of crops farmers plant.

Researchers from the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the United States of America (USA) have redrawn an alternative map for global crop production in an effort to “address both food production needs and resource sustainability on a global scale”. The map suggests alternative, more water and nutrient efficient crops for areas with inefficient water use and nutrient production.

“We identify possible alternative configurations of the agricultural landscape that, by reshaping the global distribution of crops within the rainfed and irrigated cropland 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,” the authors wrote in an article published in the scientific journal Nature.

The map was drawn by looking at the 14 crops that make up 72% of all crops harvested around the world, including groundnut, maize, millet, palm oil, rapeseed, rice, root crops, sorghum, soya beans, sugar beet, sugarcane, sunflowers, tubers and wheat.

Vegetables and fruit were not included in the calculations, since their water needs are not easily available.

If farmers planted according to the map’s suggesttions, they would be able to add 10% more calories and 19% more protein to current agricultural output.

On a global scale, this means farmers would have to turn to increased production of groundnuts, root crops, soya beans, sorghum and tubers, with a decrease of millet, rice, sugar and wheat being planted due to their higher water consumption and lower calorie and protein yield per hectare.


Some of the suggested crop redistributions could help about 42 countries to significantly decrease their water usage. Countries that rely heavily on food imports could also increase their calorie and protein production, increasing their food self-sufficiency – including African countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya.

According to the authors if their advice is followed, this won’t have to lead to a loss in crop diversity, cropland expansion or have an impact on nutrient and feed availability.

Converting to other crops, as per these suggestions, also means that large investments won’t be needed to convert to modern technology. Smallholder farmers would this still be able to play their part without having to convert to large scale commercial farmers.

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