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Sustainable Yield Growth – a gamechanger for the SDGs?

Dr Derrick Wilkinson

March 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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A 70% increase in global demand for food by 2050, set against urgent biodiversity and climate pressures, requires an unprecedented transformation of our food system. This challenge can in part be mitigated by reducing food losses and waste, and through dietary change. On their own, however, these measures will not be enough. Promoting sustainable yield growth provides the most powerful solution to meeting the growing food needs of billions of hungry people, while protecting biodiversity and improving the health of the ecosystems on which we all rely. If real progress is to be made toward the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris climate agreements, the technical and technological innovations at the heart of sustainable yield growth must be given the highest priority, argues retired UK economist Dr Derrick Wilkinson.

Population growth, rising incomes, and increasing urbanisation mean food demand will continue to grow and change over the coming decades. The World Bank estimates that global demand for food will increase by 70% by 2050. Already, an estimated two billion people suffer from moderate or severe levels of food insecurity, and most of the new demand for food will come from regions already experiencing hunger, malnutrition, and poor access to food – mainly in SE Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

WRI suggest that at current rates of yield increase, meeting this historic challenge would require nearly 600 million more hectares of agricultural land – over three times the total EU agricultural area. Biodiversity and climate change challenges must also be addressed. Food production must become more environmentally sustainable and climate neutral.

Actual demand for food, and the environmental costs of its production, can be mitigated somewhat by reducing food losses and waste, and through dietary change. On their own, however, these measures will be insufficient to meet this urgent challenge.


A simple two-step evaluation procedure may be useful to identify the transformational pathways that can ensure global food demands are fully met in an environmentally sustainable way.


The first step is to develop sustainability impact reporting criteria and metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of proposals for improving sustainability and alignment with net-zero targets. Obviously these metrics cannot be exact but, if well done, they could provide useful relative orders of magnitude, and allow proposed interventions to be ranked. Syngenta Group's criteria for sustainable investing in the Good Growth plan provide a good start.


The next step is to triage potential solutions in terms of when they can be implemented.


1. What can be done now? – these include what can be done immediately, and includes incentivising and de-risking greater uptake and scaling of existing and emerging technologies.

2. What might be done soon? – these are the actions that are realistically possible within, say 2- 3 years, and include incentivising focused R&D of technologies, products, services and organisational structures.


3. What is going to take longest to do – these are proposals that are unlikely to play a significant role before 2030, including changing human preferences and behaviours.


Prioritising pathways according to how effective they are and how quickly they can be implemented should help target resources to those actions and investments that can deliver the greatest transformations most quickly, and help accelerate the agrifood transition.


Because equitable access to food is largely a function of complex and deep seated economic and social inequalities, it will be neither easily nor quickly ameliorated. Similarly, while dietary change could in theory substantially address many aspects of the agrifood challenge, it is unlikely to do so in the short term or to the extent needed to have a significant impact on the volume, composition or environmental costs of food production. These are both important issues, but to make the urgent progress needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement climate targets, additional routes to more sustainable agrifood systems are needed.


Sustainable Yield Growth

Increasing agricultural yields sustainably provides one of the most promising avenues for making substantial progress with the agrifood transition in the near term; it provides a breakthrough solution to meeting the challenges of hunger, biodiversity loss and ecosystem damage, and climate change. Importantly, it catalyses progress toward a number of the SDGs that were agreed in 2015, especially SDG 2 Zero Hunger.

Over the coming years, as WRI suggest, “the amount of absolute growth in annual food production that will be needed each year from 2010 to 2050 is larger than the increase in food production that was achieved each year in the previous 50 years”, and that “both crop output per hectare and milk and meat output from ruminants per hectare must grow each year more than they did historically if we are to avoid net land-use expansion.”

Sustainable yield growth can also make an important contribution to biodiversity and ecosystems challenges by sparing land that would otherwise be needed for food production. Over the past 60 years, while world population has grown by 5 billion and income per capita increased nearly 4-fold, yield growth has provided over 3 times as much crops and 50% more calories per capita, while saving some 1.7 billion hectares of land from cropping. Provided this spared farmland is set aside for nature, Balmford, et al suggest that high yield farming can provide a wide range of critical environmental benefits.



Unfortunately, as the FAO observe:


“the fact is that globally the rate of growth in yields of the major cereal crops has been steadily declining, it dropped from 3.2 percent per year in 1960 to 1.5 percent in 2000. The challenge for technology is to reverse this decline, since a continuous linear increase in yields at a global level following the pattern established over the past five decades will not be sufficient to meet food needs.”


As a result, according to a recent analysis from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “all the 17 development goals set by world leaders in 2015 would be missed unless cutting-edge solutions emerged.”


Achieving these sustainable development goals requires an acceleration of investment into R&D and implementation of new technologies and techniques that increase agricultural yields in an environmentally sustainable way.  FAO, Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems provides guidance on what such investments should achieve:

“Responsible investment in agriculture and food systems refers to the creation of productive assets and capital formation, which may comprise physical, human or intangible capital, oriented to support the realisation of food security, nutrition and sustainable development, including increased production and productivity.”


The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031 agrees:


“following a business-as-usual path, SDG 2 on Zero Hunger would not be achieved by 2030 and GHG emissions from agriculture would continue to increase. To achieve the Zero Hunger target while simultaneously keeping agricultural emissions on track to reach the Paris Agreement targets, average global agricultural productivity would need to increase by 28% over the next decade... Comprehensive action to boost agricultural investment and innovation and to enable the transfer of knowledge, technology, and skills are urgently required in order to put the agricultural sector on the necessary trajectory for sustainable productivity growth and the transformation towards sustainable food systems. Additional efforts to reduce food loss and waste and limit excess calorie and protein intakes, particularly from animal sources, would also be necessary.”


Sustainable Yield Growth in Action

Sustainable yield growth contributes to a diverse range of agricultural production systems. More practically, it means the development and application of the wide portfolio of new technologies and food production techniques that provide pathways to the regenerative farming systems underpinning the SDGs. These include:

  • Reclaiming and rejuvenating land and water resources.  Repairing damage is as important as preventing it, and the UN’s Global Land Outlook estimates that up to 40% of the world’s land area is degraded.  The IPBES estimate that currently “land degradation has reduced productivity in 23 per cent of the global terrestrial area”.

  • Increasing agricultural production with fewer inputs and a lower environmental burden. The suite of precision farming technologies, including satellite monitoring and telemetry, robotics, as well as seed improvements, green fertilisers and biologics, and glasshouse production, provide just a few of the ways by which food production is being increased with less environmental impact.

  • Reducing GHG emissions. Agricultural GHG emissions are being reduced by a number of new technologies including feed additives to reduce methane emissions, improved slurry management to reduce runoff of nitrates, new fertiliser products and application techniques are also reducing emissions of nitrates, and new land management methods are helping to sequester carbon in soils and flora.

  • Improving resilience to weather extremes and disease. As a recent report by the Royal Society argued, “Biotechnology is seeing a particularly rapid acceleration in the use of science and innovation to improve quality and yields as well as resistance to pests, diseases, heat and drought at a time of climate change.” While these losses vary by crop and livestock, as well as by region, as an FAO study concluded, even with modern pesticides, “annually up to 40 percent of global crop production is lost to pests.”


When yield is understood in terms of the amount of food actually available to consumers, sustainable yield increases also contribute to reducing food losses and waste and increasing food supplies by reducing spoiling during storage. 

This is especially important for the less food secure regions where around three quarters of all food losses and waste are at the production, handling and storage stages of the food supply chain. By way of example, biotech developments that extend the shelf life for cassava – a staple for many of the world’s poorest people - from 2-3 days to around 18 months, will play an important role in reducing food losses, and therefore the need to increase food production.


Sustainable yield growth builds upon and accelerates an impressive record of successful innovation and improved environmental sustainability. In the US, for example, over the past 60 years, corn “yields have nearly tripled on average, while crop protection usage as grams per hectare have reduced by 95%”. At the same time, the relative human and environmental safety of the products has improved.

Innovation and sustainable yield growth can address a significant share of the anticipated increased demand for food over the coming years. However, as suggested by Chatham House, WRI, and others, there is a risk that sustainable yield growth alone could lead to an increase in utilised agricultural land as farming becomes more profitable in some crops and/or regions. For this reason, complementary policies and measures may be needed to reduce shifts in the location of agricultural production, avoid conversion of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich lands, and to actively restore lands that are abandoned as farm production adjusts. 


Balmford, et al suggest several ways of “explicitly linking yield growth to improved environmental performance - including strict land-use zoning; strategic deployment of yield-enhancing loans, expertise or infrastructure; conditional access to markets; and restructured rural subsidies.”

Accelerating Change

As well as being environmentally sustainable, sustainable yield growth must also be commercially sustainable. If agrifood businesses are not profitable and do not provide a living for the producers, the transition to more sustainable agrifood systems will not happen, and the environmental improvements needed will not be made.  Putting more emphasis on the business case for proposed new technologies and production techniques will greatly accelerate their take-up by farmers and others in the agrifood chain.


As the FAO suggest,


“In the past, [sustainability] had been defined primarily along environmental criteria. If the soil was bad, or if water was not managed well, then a farm might have been considered unsustainable. In recent years, however, there has been a realization that being sustainable reaches much further, to include economic and social dimensions, and putting farmers in the center. If a farm is not economically sound or not resilient to external shocks, or if the well-being of those working on a farm are not considered, then a farm cannot be sustainable.”


Sustainable yield growth means sustainable income growth for food producers, which is the essential foundation for achieving most SDGs.  By way of illustration, DroughtTEGO, is a new drought-resistant variety of maize grown in Kenya that produces 60% more grain than more traditional varieties, and increases farm incomes by 75%! This extra income enables people to invest in better housing, water and sanitation, as well as health care and education.



There are no easy or "silver bullet" solutions, but sustainable yield growth provides a powerful pathway to meeting the growing food needs of billions of hungry people, while protecting biodiversity and improving the health of the ecosystems on which we all rely. If real progress is to be made toward the SDGs and Paris targets, the technical and technological innovations at the heart of sustainable yield growth must be given the highest priority.


Dr Derrick Wilkinson is a retired UK economist with nearly 40 years’ international experience with the development, analysis, integration and coordination of global trade, environment and agriculture policies. He is the author of numerous pioneering papers and research projects published, including in major peer reviewed journals. This article is an abbreviated version of a longer paper by Dr Wilkinson, which is available to download here.

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