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Food Crop Yields: Africa versus North America

One of the main problems that results in world hunger is the low crop yields in developing nations, as compared to developed nations. The use of fertilizer, irrigation, improved cultivars, and other modern cultivation techniques results in a much more food being produced for any given area of land.

maize-yield1

In order to illustrate this problem, let’s compare Africa to North America for several important food crops. All data is taken from FAOSTAT for 2009.

Plant
Region: Yield in kg per ha

Maize (corn)
Africa: 1,979 kg/ha
World: 5,158 kg/ha
North America: 10,270 kg/ha
USA alone: 10,337 kg/ha

Wheat
Africa: 2,568
World: 3,058
North America: 2,924
USA alone: 2,990

Rice
Africa: 2,448
World: 4,319
North America: 7,941
USA alone: 7,941

Soybeans
Africa: 1,226
World: 2,249
North America: 2,940
USA alone: 2,958

Barley
Africa: 1,658
World: 2,797
North America: 3,463
USA alone: 3,929

Groundnuts (peanuts)
Africa: 930
World: 1,529
North America: 3,835
USA alone: 3,835

Cowpeas dry
Africa: 478
World: 499
North America: 1,904
USA alone: 1,904

For maize, the U.S. yield is twice the world average, and five times the average for the nations of Africa. For some other crops, the multiple is lower than five, but there is still a great disparity.

maize-yield2

In the nations that are most affected by hunger, the problem is even worse. The U.S. yield for maize is ten times the yield in some individual African nations. And in Africa, maize is grown as a staple food; the hungry depend on it for survival. Some examples follows.

Proportion of Undernourished in Total Population
2012 data Nation (2008 data)

73.4% Burundi (63%)
65.4% Eritrea (68%)
47.4% Zambia (45%)
44.5% Haiti (58%)
40.2% Ethiopia (46%)

Maize (corn)
Burundi: 1,003 kg/ha
Eritrea: 869 kg/ha
Zambia: 2,069 kg/ha
Haiti: 844 kg/ha
Ethiopia: 2,224 kg/ha

Wheat
Burundi: 858
Eritrea: 1,071
Zambia: 5,700
Haiti: no data
Ethiopia: 1,814

Rice
Burundi: 3,268
Eritrea: no data
Zambia: 1,639
Haiti: 2,231
Ethiopia: 1,904

Soybeans
Burundi: 623
Eritrea: no data
Zambia: 1,300
Haiti: no data
Ethiopia: 1,267

Barley
Burundi: no data
Eritrea: 1,145
Zambia: 964
Haiti: no data
Ethiopia: 1,554

Groundnuts (peanuts)
Burundi: 593
Eritrea: 608
Zambia: 591
Haiti: 860
Ethiopia: 1,123

Cowpeas dry
Burundi: no data
Eritrea: no data
Zambia: no data
Haiti: 703
Ethiopia: no data

What causes this disparity in food crop yields? Many factors. Mechanized agriculture is not necessarily more productive, but it does allow more precise seeding of crops. U.S. farmers know the best seeding rate for the highest yield. But when planting by hand, it is difficult to be precise. Planting dates affect yield, as does rainfall. Irrigation certainly allows for more consistent yields, and of course higher yields in a dryland climate.

The solution for the developing world is to move toward the same type of cultivation techniques that have worked in the developed world. But certainly fertilizer is one of the top causes of increased crop yields. See: W. M. Stewart, et al., The Contribution of Commercial Fertilizer Nutrients to Food Production, Agronomy Journal, vol. 97, Jan-Feb, 2005.

A good N-P-K inorganic fertilizer can easily double yields, especially in fields which have never been fertilized. Although some persons would recommend organic fertilizer, because it is better for the soil and the planet, it is not best for yields. As long as hundreds of millions of persons are hungry, we must prioritize yields of food crops over other considerations.

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