Cereal harvest in Central Europe with harvester. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Global Agricultural Production:
Trends and Stability

Currently, human population on earth is eight billion people. Although the quantities of agricultural products produced would be sufficient to feed everybody, ten percent are undernourished. If, according to the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, between 9 and 12 billion people will be living on this planet in 2060, the demand for food will increase significantly. The expected effects of climate change in the same period are expected to cause significant yield losses - among others - due higher average annual temperatures and more intense and more frequent extreme events.

In addition to the rapid reduction of crop losses and food waste as well as a much lower-energy diet (e.g. vegetarian), sufficiently high and stable yields are a major challenge for agricultural activity.

The interactive Webtool available here uses annually updated data from the World Agricultural Organisation (FAO). It provides information on the development over time of the production of the 35 globally most important crops in the 109 countries of the world, which account for 99 percent of the cultivated area of these crops. It further shows for these countries whether a maximum annual increase in production has been achieved and how stable or asynchronous production is.

Since the 1960s, global food production has increased significantly. One reason for this increase in production is the expansion of land for agriculture. By now humans have taken 70 percent of the earth's terrestrial surface in use: for grasslands, arable fields, transport infrastructure or settlements. However, the available land is - obviously - limited and the expansion of agricultural land can only partly explain the observed increases in production.

Global agricultural production since 1960 in index values
Global agricultural production since 1960 in index values (normalised to 1 for the year 1970). While total agricultural production increases by a factor of 2.8, the population doubles. One aspect that made this increase in production possible is the amount of fertiliser applied, which grew by more than 3.5 times. Over the same period, the ratio of agricultural goods produced per amount of fertiliser applied ("efficiency") fell equally steadily, as did the index of ecosystem integrity ("Living Planet Index (LPI)"). Data: FAOStat, WWF

The enormous increases in yields in recent decades have become possible primarily through intensification of land use: more fertilisers and pesticides have been applied and areas equipped with irrigation systems are increasing. Thus one can assume, that a further rapid increase of production is hard to achieve, as this process of intensification has taken place at very many site arround the world. As a result, the maximum annual increase in production might already have reached for mutlipple renewable resources, see "Peak Year"

For a long time, renewable resources were considered to have unlimited use, but this has proven to be a fallacy. Globally, 18 of these resources, such as meat, milk, rice, maize, wheat or fish, have already reached their maximum in annual growth rates in production, harvest or catch. Theis point in time, when production rates reached a maximum before declining again, is denoted as "peak year", i.e., the year with the maximum rate of increase in harvest, production or catch (see figure).
The peak year of resource use is the time with the maximum production rate (blue line).
Three phases can be distinguished in the extraction (and use) of a single resource: First, the resource is discovered and its use developed, then it is widely exploited. Finally, it becomes less accessible or scarce, and the search for substitutes begins. The three phases can overlap over time.

The term "peak" became well-known in the 1970s, when the decline in the production of crude oil from a certain year onwards was discussed as "peak oil". For the analysis at hand (and the interactive Webtool) no models were used to search for a peak year of renewable resources, as has been done previously  in the case of "peak oil", but instead a robust statistical method was used, which allowed to account for different production or extraction methods capturing also innovations (Seppelt et al. 2014).

Years of maximum production growth ("peak year") of products from animal husbandry, arable farming, fossil raw materials and socio-economic variables (from top to bottom).
Years of maximum production growth ("peak year") of products from animal husbandry, arable farming, fossil raw materials and socio-economic variables (from top to bottom). The dot shows the year of maximum production growth. The size and colour of the dot correspond to the growth rate in that year and the horizontal bar shows the variability in the data, here 95% confidence interval.

In the interactive Webtool, it is possible to analyse individually different countries and the 35 most important crops according to the existence of peak years. Peak years for all other resources (especially animal products) were only analysed within the original publication.

Figures based on (Seppelt et al. 2014).

A stable supply of agricultural products is of great importance in the face of a steadily growing world population and climate change. One factor to increase production stability is crop diversity: A greater number of different crops reduces the risk of complete crop failure, as not all crops are usually equally affected by plant diseases, pests or extreme climatic events (e.g., floods or droughts) (Egli et al. 2020, Egli et al. 2021, Egli et al. 2021).

Exemplary representation of low (dark grey) to high production stability (light grey).
Exemplary representation of low (dark grey) to high production stability (light grey). Production stability is calculated from the mean production in a given time interval relative to the respective standard deviation.

Globally, crop diversity is one of the most important stabilising factors, along with fertiliser use, while climatic instability, in particular, reduce production stability (Egli et al. 2020). Moreover, production stability has decreased over the past decades.

More stable production can also be achieved through intact interactions of fungi and microorganisms in the soil, as well as pest regulation through birds and insects. Diverse and small-scale land management, as well as the continuous breeding of crops to adapt them to changing external conditions, can also stabilise yields (Tester et al. 2010, Egli et al. 2021).
Effect of various factors on production stability at country level.
Effect of various factors on production stability at country level. Values greater than zero have a stabilising effect on production, values below zero have a destabilising effect. The output stability of a country is calculated from the mean output in a decade relative to the respective standard deviation. The error bar shows the standard error. NS = not significant, *** p-value < 0.001.

Figure based on Egli et al. 2020.

To increase food security, it is important that production losses of several crops do not occur simultaneously, i.e., that they are as asynchronous as possible (Mehrabi & Ramankutty 2019). A higher diversity of agricultural crops has a positive effect on asynchrony, especially if crop growth reacts differently to changing conditions (Egli et al. 2020, Egli et al. 2021).

For example, asynchrony of cultivated crops can result from differences in the temporal sequence in which crops are sown and harvested, or in the variation of phenology, i.e., the different temporal development in the vegetation period. Asynchrony also arises from the cultivation of crops that react differently to climatic conditions or have different management requirements. The more different the crops are, the lower the risk that a storm, flood or other events will destroy the entire harvest.

Example illustration of low (left) and high (right) asynchrony.
Example illustration of low (left) and high (right) asynchrony. If the four crops shown all react similarly or synchronously to a change, this can lead to major production losses. However, if the crops react differently or asynchronously to a change (increase or decrease in production), the overall production remains more stable.
Relationship between crop diversity and asynchrony at the national level.
Relationship between crop diversity and asynchrony at the national level. The individual points represent countries at different time intervals.[2]

Figures based on (Egli et al. 2020)

According to the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Servbices (IPBES), the way humans currently use land is the key driver of biodiversity decline (Diaz et al. 2019). As long as increased agricultural production through higher management intensity is seen as the prevalent strategy to achieve food security, land use will continue to be the key driver of biodiversity decline.

What is overlooked is that agricultural production depends on functioning ecosystems, which would not be possible without intact biodiversity. Biodiversity thus becomes a decisive agricultural production factor: birds and insects eat pests, soil animals, fungi and bacteria ensure fertile soil. If agriculture is intensified, this increases harvests in many cases, but at the same time also reduces biodiversity and thus endangers agricultural yields in the long term (Beckmann et al. 2019, Zabel et al. 2019).

Gegenüberstellung aktueller agronomischer Modelle (A) und eines Ansatzes, welches die gegenseitigen Beziehungen zwischen Biodiversität und Produktion (B) berücksichtigt (ref ).
Comparison of current agronomic models (A) and an approach that takes into account the mutual relationships between biodiversity and production (B). In both cases, intensification of agriculture (grey box) has a positive effect on production (grey arrow). The relationship between intensity and yields can be assumed to be a saturation function (lower part of panel (A)). The (biodiversity-production mutualism (BPM)) concept (panel (B)) considers in particular positive effects of biodiversity and ecosystem functions on yields, but also negative effects of land management on biodiversity-based ecosystem functions. In the BPM concept, however, a hump-shaped curve is to be expected, as yields decline at very high input intensities.

Therefore, other solutions are needed. These include, for example, more diverse land management with small-scale structures and continuous development of crops that are resistant to plant diseases and can better utilise nutrients (Seppelt et al. 2020).


The current way of managing land is very frequently guided by a historical perspective that sees the last 10,000 years of human expansion on the planet mostly as a success story with a multitude of innovations. To present what has promoted or inhibited this development would take us too far here. We recommend the books by James Suzman or by Juval Harari, which shed light not only on the ecological, but also on the social and economic aspects of this transformation.

  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Harvill Secker, 2014) ISBN 978-006-231-609-7
  • Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), ISBN 978-1910701881
  • Suzman J., 2020, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-1526604996

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