A new online data portal developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) aims to help unlock the planet’s potential to feed a rapidly growing population.
The Global Agro-ecological Zones (GAEZ) Portal developed by FAO and IIASA is a planning tool designed to help to identify areas for increased global food production while maintaining natural resources base and facing the challenge of climate change. According to FAO estimates, world food production needs to increase 60 percent by 2050 to feed a world population expected to surpass 9 billion people.
Much of the necessary growth will need to be achieved by increasing the amount of food produced on existing agricultural land, as most of the world’s best farmland is already being used.
Water scarcity is another limiting factor for area expansion. And intensification of food production will occur within a changing climate, requiring adaptation and mitigation and will have to be sustainable to safeguard future use of the resources.
A critical first step in sustainably intensifying food production is to close the “yield gaps” that continue to plague the farming sector in many parts of the world.
“GAEZ can help identify where there are ‘bridgeable yield gaps’ and what causes them, allowing for the formulation of appropriate investment policies and the provision of appropriate support to farmers to help them produce more food” says Parviz Koohafkan, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division.
The term “yield gap” refers to the difference between how much food a farm actually produces and how much food it would be capable of producing if appropriate practices, inputs, technologies and knowledge were applied.
Such gaps can be quite wide: for example, a recent FAO study found that in some rural areas of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, crop production by small farmers, especially for cereals, can run as low as low as just 30-40 percent of potential.
The world region with the highest yield gaps is sub-Saharan Africa. Cereal yields in Africa as a whole have long hovered around 1.2 tons per hectare, compared to an average yield of some 3 tons per hectare in the developing world as a whole.
A wellspring of data, online
A new online data portal developed by FAO and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) seeks to enhance planners’ and decision makers’ capacity to estimate agricultural production potentials and variability under different environmental and management scenarios, including climatic conditions, management regimes, water availability and levels of inputs.
The portal — the Global Agro-Ecological Zones Interactive Data Access Facilities — offers access to what IIASA Director/CEO Pavel Kabat calls “the most ambitious global agro-resources assessment ever conducted”. “The objective was to assemble a vast wealth of data information and make this available in a way that is most accessible to land use planners and specialists to help close yield gaps and promote the sustainable intensification of agricultural production,” Kabat says.
At the heart of the GAEZ system is an extensive inventory of the world’s agricultural resources and related data, organized around five thematic areas:
Land and water resources, including multiple spatial layers of climate, soil, terrain, land cover, irrigation potentials, protected areas, population density, livestock density and accessibility, etc.
Agro-climatic resources, providing major climatic indicators important for assessing crop growth, development and yield formation. GAEZ’s spatial agro-climatic inventories of the prevailing thermal and moisture regimes and growing periods are used for estimating crop suitability and potential yields.
Agricultural suitability and potential yields, including information on yield constraints, crop calendars, and production potential estimates for 11 major crop groups, 49 major crops and 92 crop types. Productivity estimates are made for rain-fed farming, rain-fed farming with water conservation and gravity, sprinkler and drip irrigation systems.
Actual yields and production, consisting of spatially explicit crop production estimates including crop harvested area, yield and production figures for 23 major commodities.
Yield and production gaps, which provide important information on locations with differences between actual achieved and potential attainable yield and production under different management scenarios.
Being geo-referenced, GAEZ allows a user to identify agricultural zones across the globe that share similar ecological conditions and are producing the same crops using the same kinds of production system, but which do not have the same production levels. This means the reasons underlying lower production – inadequate or inappropriate agricultural practices, policies, institutions, support services and access to markets. – can be pinpointed and dealt with. The potential exists to expand food production efficiently while limiting impacts on other ecosystem values.
In particular, given the scarcity of suitable resources in some regions, future demand and expected negative impacts of climate change, GAEZ would allow users to evaluate options for more widespread adoption of sustainable land and water management practices in agricultural systems at risk, recently highlighted in FAO’s report The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture.
These systems at risk face the threat of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity. They warrant priority attention for remedial action simply because there are no substitutes.
Alexander Mueller, Assistant Director General of the FAO Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, which developed GAEZ in collaboration with IIASA, concludes: “the new GAEZ data portal will provide a global tool to manage natural resources for food and agriculture in a more sustainable way. Natural resources are the basis for food production. In a world already facing today water scarcity and land degradation in many areas and coping with increasing risks from climate change, this is the only way to achieve food security.”