Study: Harvests must increase

University researchers say farmers should harvest more to meet demand.

Nicolas Hallett

To keep up with increasing food demand, farmers across the world should cultivate their land more often, according to a University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment study published Monday.

The study, which analyzed the harvesting of 177 crops worldwide between 1961 and 2011, showed how land that’s used to cultivate crops has changed over time. It suggested increasing how often crops are harvested, rather than previously suggested strategies such as expanding croplands.

“Farmers are already harvesting their land more frequently,” said Deepak Ray, the study’s lead author, “but it could move even faster.”

The world population is expected to increase by nearly 2.3 billion people by 2050. To keep up, global crop production must increase 60 to 110 percent by that time, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

Ray said farmers do not always reap the full benefits of their harvests. On average, he said, they miss an extra harvest cycle every two years. This creates the “harvest gap” — the difference between the harvest’s maximum potential and actual frequency, according to the study.

The study found that farmers are increasing their harvest frequency at a rate of 12.1 million hectares, or 10,000 square meters, each year — four times faster than cropland is increasing.

Implementation challenges

Ray said the expansion of cultivating crops is inevitable but needs to happen at a pace the planet can handle.

Unlike some other proposed methods for increasing crop production, Ray said this strategy wouldn’t deplete natural resources.

But moving too quickly and overusing fertilizers could destroy soil, Ray said.

“We are only a finite planet,” he said. “We cannot just harvest everywhere. So we need to figure out how much more [farmers] can harvest.”

Area corn farmers harvest once per year and are already pushing the limits of harvesting set by Minnesota’s restrictive climate, said Minnesota Corn Growers Association Spokesman Adam Czech.

The only way Minnesota farmers could harvest corn any faster, he said, would be by creating a new breed of corn.

“You hate to say nothing’s a possibility, because we are always looking for ways to get better,” he said. “We just don’t know enough about [the study] yet.”

Ray said countries with tropical climates, like Indonesia and Brazil, would benefit most from the study’s suggestions.

Those countries often face financial restrictions and can’t afford roads to transport crops, which keeps farmers from growing more often, Ray said. Farmers don’t take full advantage of their resources, he said, and could potentially harvest their land three times as often as they currently do.

“A lot of their land is just lying around,” he said.

With the possible global food shortage lingering, Ray said farmers need to increase efficiency and production.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “You already have your land; why don’t you harvest it sustainably and more frequently when it is clearly seen that you can do it?”