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The most effective way to advance food security and protect the environment from now is through continuing progress in crop yields across the globe. This is the key finding in a new book launched today (Thursday 8 May 2014) and written by three world renowned agricultural scientists.

Crop yields and global food security: will yield increases continue to feed the world?, by Drs Tony Fischer, Derek Byerlee and Greg Edmeades, has been published by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).  The invaluable reference book considers the influences behind crop area and yield change over the past 20 years in the key breadbasket regions of the world for wheat, rice, maize, and soybean, along with 20 other important crops. It provides some answers and considers the opportunities for future yield prospects through lifting potential yield and closing yield gaps to 2050.

“The debate around food security includes argument around trade policy, lagging research, water shortage, land degradation, biofuel cropping and climate change, and ways to reduce demand including changing diets and reducing food wastage. However, the most effective way is through ongoing yield increase,” said author Dr Tony Fischer. “Increasing yield saves land, reduces prices and encourages trade, upon which a growing proportion of the world depends, while for those rural poor disconnected from trade, yield increase directly alleviates hunger and poverty.”

Dr Fischer will attend the book’s launch at the annual conference of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology in Brisbane. Dr Fischer is the former head of the Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico. In Australia, he headed ACIAR soil and crops program, was on the board of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and is an Honorary Researcher at CSIRO Plant Industry.

He said that after years of research put into the book, he and his colleagues find:

  • Contrary to doom and gloom reports, progress in potential yield, when the best management practices and varieties are used, continues , with the average for the staples around 0.7% p.a.
  • Yield gaps between potential and actual farm yields vary greatly across crops and regions, with the developing world experiencing gaps over 100% for some crops such as maize due to the lack of adoption of known technologies.
  • Closing the large yield gaps in developing countries would seem the quickest and most feasible intervention for lifting progress. Research can deliver better solutions, especially in pest and disease control, but also substantial public investment in rural infrastructure and institutions is needed.
  • There are technological prospects for raising rates of potential yield progress, for example through increasing photosynthesis, utilising untapped diversity in crop gene banks, low-cost molecular markers for desirable genes and genetic engineering.

”Crop yield successes in areas such as Western Australia, one of the driest wheat regions with the poorest soils in the world, has been due to the widespread adoption of new agronomy including conservation agriculture and direct seeding, earlier seeding, increased use of nitrogen fertiliser, better crop rotations and better-yielding varieties have all contributed,” Dr Fischer said.  “Boosting investment in agricultural research, development and extension, including new approaches like genetic engineering, are essential for future yield growth,  but so too are huge investments in better institutions, infrastructure and policy, especially in the developing world,” he said.

CROP YIELDS AND GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY: will yield increases continue to feed the world? was published with assistance from the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC). The 640-page book can be viewed in a fully accessible format on ACIAR’s website or purchased from ACIAR via the website (A$85, incl. GST, plus postage).

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