Grain yields need boost to overcome global food deficit

Ken Cassman believes Nebraska farmers are in a strategic position to help meet global food needs of the future, but not by themselves.

“Whether we will meet future food demand is not linked solely to what we do here in Nebraska, but it is linked to what we do all over the world,” says Cassman, a professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an internationally recognized food-crop expert.

“While we can make tremendous improvements in water productivity of irrigated and nonirrigated agriculture in Nebraska, the Great Plains and all over the U.S., and we could continue to increase yields, there is still a major challenge globally of meeting future food demands,” Cassman says.

That’s because current rates of gain in crop yields are not enough, he explains.

At a glance

The world faces a major challenge of meeting future food demand.

UNL specialist: There are no funding programs now aimed at hiking yields.

Policymakers lack understanding of large global feed deficits.


This year, Cassman became head of a new council responsible for advising a major network of international ag research centers. As chairman of the Independent Science and Partnership Council, a seven-member body that includes leading researchers in agriculture, environmental sciences, rural affairs and economics,Cassman will provide advice and expertise about the scientific merit and feasibility of global agricultural research projects to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR.

CGIAR is a consortium of 15 international research centers funded by governments, foundations and international and regional organizations. CGIAR research centers work to improve agricultural productivity, conserve natural resources and promote policies that stimulate agricultural growth in developing nations.

Cassman, a specialist in local and global food security, crop yield potential and biofuels, believes that to meet future global food needs, there has to be a tremendous acceleration in the rate of gain in yields.

“Quite frankly, there is nothing on the horizon that is coming to help us,” he explains. “When you aggregate things to the global level, the rate of gains in yield and productivity that we have enjoyed over the recent past is simply not fast enough to meet the demand we are expecting in the next 40 years.”

Global commitment

Cassman says there needs to be a “global commitment” to accelerating the rate of gain in crop yields both from irrigated and rain-fed agricultural production.

“When I say a ‘global commitment,’ I mean a massive increase in research funding that, for instance, has the goal of doubling yields from existing farmland in the next 30 years and at the same time reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture.

“Right now, we are not funding any research in the United States that has this explicit goal, nor do I know of any research anywhere in the world that is being funded with that goal. It’s a big missing gap.”

Cassman believes that part of the reason there is no funding for such research in the United States is that many policy- and decision-makers “simply must not understand that we are on a collision course with large food deficits globally unless something changes.”

The only way to change it is to accelerate the rate of gain in yields at a rate much faster than what has been achieved over the past 40 years, according to Cassman. Because agriculture also is being asked to be more environmentally sound, that presents a double challenge to attaining this goal. “You have to achieve this acceleration while at the same time improving the ecological footprint of agriculture,” he says.

Cassman concludes that even though “the magnitude of the scientific challenge is immense, if we understood that this has to be the goal, and could focus the efforts of talented people in the private and public sector to work on it, I have no doubt that we can achieve it.”

Carlton writes from Lincoln.

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LEADING ADVISeR: Ken Cassman, an internationally recognized UNL food-crop expert, has been named chairman of a new council that advises a major network of international ag research centers.

This article published in the July, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.