More than 750 million people faced hunger in 2021, yet more and more of the crops the world harvests are being used for things other than directly feeding people. 

A recent analysis shows that only 37% of the harvested area of major crops are used for direct food consumptionthat is, crops used for foods that are produced and consumed domestically. Research shows these crops are critical to food security in developing nations where small-scale farming is a major source of food for the people who live there. The rest goes to exports, processing, industry or other uses. (Learn more about how we define direct food use, exports and more — and how they relate to food security — in the text box below.)

And while croplands are expanding and crop yields are increasing overall, the proportion of direct food crops lags. This is especially problematic for the 50 countries poised to be food insecure by 2030 if current trends continue.  

While direct food is not the only means of feeding people — other crop use categories, such as export and processing do play a role — domestically produced crops are vital for local food access, food sovereignty and nutritional diversity. The global agricultural system will need a course correction if we are to feed growing populations while also curbing deforestation and climate change.  

Here are four key insights on trends in crop yields and uses that can inform a more sustainable food system:

1) The Most Popular Crops Have Many Competing Uses.

How do we define direct food use for crops?

This analysis follows the FAO Food Balance Sheet definition of “direct food use” as the amount of the commodity (crop) that is available for human consumption in a calendar year and does not fall into any other crop use category (see table below). In this definition, exported crops are in a separate category. While we know that some portion of exported crops are used directly as food, the study did not track how crops are used after they are exported, though this is an area of future research.

Additionally, a portion of crops within the animal feed and processing categories also return indirectly as food — for example, when animal feed is used for livestock that are raised for meat, dairy, eggs and farmed fish.

Direct food use as a metric may be most useful in providing insight into the capacity of each country to be self-sufficient in its food production and is especially important for food-insecure countries and regions. In this article, direct food crops refers to crops within the “direct food use” category.

Croplands take up 1.2 billion hectares of land, approximately 12% of Earth’s surface, and cropland area has grown 10% over just the past 20 years. Continued expansion of cropland often comes at the expense of carbon-rich forests and other natural ecosystems. At the same time, more food crops are needed to feed a growing population and yield growth is not projected to keep pace, resulting in competition for how we use (or don’t use) land.

Not only is there growing competition for land, but within croplands, crops themselves also face competition for their use.

Just 10 global crops provide 83% of all harvested food calories and account for 63% of global crop harvested areas: maize (corn), wheat, rice, soybean, oil palm, sugar cane, barley, sorghum, rapeseed and cassava. However, only 37% of these crops (by area) are harvested for direct food use.

Besides direct food use, crops are also used for animal feed and biofuels, in industry for textiles and pharmaceuticals, processed into products like soap or alcohol, grown for seed or exported to other countries. (While some exports are likely used directly as food, the data does not track cross-border food use. Even if we were to assume that all exported crops went to direct human food consumption — which they don’t — yield growth trends would still be outpaced by yield growth for crops for animal feed, fuel and industry.)

And with all harvested crops, there are also substantial losses — waste at all stages from farm to fork, such as during storage and transportation.

Crop use Description Example
Direct food Amount of crop available for human consumption and not otherwise accounted for in other food use categories Corn in this category includes corn, corn meal and any other products derived from them, like cornflakes
Feed Amount of crop fed to livestock (includes both domestically produced and imported) Dried cassava or soybean meal; excludes by-products, such as bran and oilcakes
Export Amount of crop moved out of the country All crops exported out of the country, including those that are processed into food and feed items
Processing Amount of crop used for manufacture of processed commodities that could not be converted back to their primary form or that are part of a separate food group Sugar, fats and oils, alcoholic beverages
Industrial or other uses Amount of crop used for manufacture 
of non-food products 
Oil for soap, biofuels, textiles and pharmaceuticals
Seed Amount of crop used for crop reproductive purposes Seed, sugar cane planted
Losses Amount of crop lost through waste at all stages between when production starts being recorded and the final destination of the product Storage, transportation and retail, but not on-field losses or household waste

For example, in the United States in 2020, 35% of corn was grown for animal feed, 31% for biofuel and less than 2% for direct human consumption. When you drive through miles and miles of cornfields in Iowa, almost none of it ends up on your plate as corn.  

If all harvested crops were used for food, they could meet the daily caloric needs for all of humanity. But because there is so much competition for how crops are used — and ever-increasing demand for non-food crops — they don’t. The analysis estimates that there will be a global shortfall of about 994 trillion kcal per year by 2030 — 30% less than what’s needed to feed the world.1

2) The Share of Cropland Used to Grow Food for People Is Declining. 

While cropland area is increasing globally in absolute terms, the proportion of land harvested for direct food use crops is actually decreasing — and may continue to drop further even as cropland expands.  

In the 1960s, about the same amount of area was devoted to harvesting both direct food and non-direct food crops (297 million hectares and 289 million hectares, respectively). Since then, the harvested area devoted to direct food crops remains about the same, while the harvested area devoted to non-direct food crops has grown by 77% to 512 million hectares. The largest increases were in the export, processing, industrial/other and feed categories (an additional 87 million hectares, 81 million hectares, 35 million hectares and 25 million hectares, respectively). The industrial/other category experienced the largest proportional increase, of nearly 500% between 1960 and present day. 

Share of harvested cropland that goes to direct food

If current trends continue, non-food crops will account for more than 70% of all harvested hectares by 2030, with those harvested for exports, processing and industry accounting for approximately 23%, 17% and 8%, respectively, of overall harvested hectares. Crops harvested for direct food use will decrease to approximately 29% of the total.  

These patterns are driven in part by an increasing demand for meat, dairy and other processed foods in countries with growing wealthy and middle classes, along with policies that incentivize non-food uses of croplands, like for biofuel.  

3) Food Crop Yields Are Not Keeping Up with Yields for Non-food Crops. 

Crops grown for processing and industrial uses have higher yields and have seen faster yield gains over the last 50 years than crops grown directly for food use. The total yields for all 10 major crops are projected to grow by 22.7% (or 2.84 million kcal/ha) by 2030 (from 2010). However, if current trends continue, direct food crop yields will be less than half of yields of industrial/other use crops. 

Lagging yields for direct food crops are due in part to agricultural policies and economic incentives that prioritize other crop uses. Research and development in North America and Europe have an outsized focus on crops that are largely not used directly for food, such as corn and soybeans which are often used for biofuels and animal feed, rather than crops more directly used as food such as wheat, barley and cassava.  

As agricultural investments into new genetic strains or technologies benefit crops meant for feed and processing, direct food crops’ yield growth is not increasing at the same rate. This disproportionately impacts food-insecure countries where populations are projected to grow and which largely depend on domestic direct food crops to feed those populations.  

Furthermore, some nations have policy mandates on biofuels that drive the expansion of corn, soybean, rapeseed, oil palm and sugarcane production for biofuels instead of food. For example, incoming EU policies promoting bioenergy may lead to additional land conversion outside of the EU, at great cost to carbon and nature. 

4) How Crops Are Used Varies by Region and Affects Domestic Food Security. 

What crops are used for varies from place to place. The relative impacts on food security vary as well, depending on many factors including diets, population growth and agricultural expansion.  

Many non-direct food crops are grown in or exported to wealthy countries for industrial use or to supplement western-style diets (such as feed for meat and dairy production, or to support production of processed foods) and yields of these crops are relatively high. For example, the United States has an abundance of cropland and has often been thought of as a “food basket,” but today, it is more like a “feed basket,” where much of the cropland is devoted to animal feed and processing. 

Contrastingly, many developing nations grow more direct food crops, but face food insecurity due to more rapidly growing populations and the lagging expansion and relatively low yields of direct food crops. For example, Sub-Saharan African nations will likely fall short of eliminating undernourishment in 2030 even if all harvested calories are used directly as food due to the population growth projected in this region combined with relatively low yields. 

This region is only one example; many countries will be unable to close the gap between calories needed to nourish their growing populations and calories harvested as direct food crops in 2030. Doing so in a way that avoids conversion of natural ecosystems and increased emissions is an even bigger challenge.  

A prime example of what’s at stake is Brazil. Since the 1960s, agricultural production in Brazil has shifted significantly from primarily direct food use crops to primarily processing. Yet the country is still on track to adequately feed its population because of massive expansions in total agriculture area alongside investments in agricultural research and development, as well as improvements in logistics, credit and the open market. But this expansion has come at a steep cost: The Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, some of the most vital ecosystems in the world for biodiversity and combating climate change, are threatened by deforestation and land conversion in part due to expansion of crops like soy.  

How to Feed More People with Less Cropland 

If we want to achieve food security while curbing climate change, we recommend the following actions: 

  • Prioritize food for people: Policymakers should prioritize food for people in their national agricultural plans, programs and subsidies. This could include relaxing biofuel mandates so that farmers get the market signal to grow crops for human food rather than vehicular fuel. For example, the EU ends up using 1 hectare of cropland abroad for every 4 hectares of cropland in Europe. Biofuel mandates will only exacerbate this problem.  
  • Reduce demand for non-food crops: Wealthy nations can reduce the demand for non-food crops for things such as biofuels (as discussed above) and animal feed. Shifting diets high in meat and dairy toward plant-based foods can reduce total cropland demand by tens to hundreds of millions of hectares across the globe, helping to avoid further deforestation and freeing up some lands for ecosystem restoration. Investing in development of meat substitutes, improving marketing of plant-based foods and plant-rich dishes, and changes to food policies and public procurement practices can all support shifts to diets that use less cropland
  • Minimize food loss and waste: More than 500 million hectares of cropland produces crops or (indirectly) meat or dairy products that are lost or wasted between the farm and the fork. Governments and companies should adopt waste-reduction targets in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which calls for halving waste by 2030, and advance action in all countries and across all stages of food supply chains. 
  • Increase domestic self-sufficiency: Identifying yield gaps and increasing agricultural development assistance to — and agricultural research budgets in — developing countries to boost productivity and resilience of under-researched crops (e.g., sorghum, millet, potatoes, cassava and beans) is important for domestic food security and self-sufficiency. Advances in crop breeding technology, as well as soil and water management practices such as agroforestry, can help to sustainably increase local food production and reduce reliance on imports. 

Feeding a population projected to grow to 10 billion by 2050 sustainably is one of the critical existential issues facing humanity. Wealthy nations, policymakers and other practitioners and decision makers must commit to solutions to produce, protect, reduce and restore to provide adequate nutrition for the world’s growing population — especially for the most food insecure.

Editor’s Note: 12/23/22: This piece was updated to clarify that our data does not distinguish what happens to crops once they are exported. While crop exports do feed people, portions are used for industry, processing and other non-food uses. Even if we were to aggressively assume that all exported crops were used for direct food consumption—which they are not—yield growths for crops used as direct foods would still be outpaced by yield growths for crops used for industry, processing and animal feed.

We hope to further refine this data set to better determine what happens to crops once they are exported to other countries.


1 This is based on the average daily energy requirement for 86 countries that report undernourished populations. Fifteen different undernourished population scenarios for 2030 show that global calorie shortfalls may range from about 880.7 to 1,755.6 trillion kcal per year. The kcal shortfall ranges from 587.2 to 1,269.3 trillion kcal per year when assessed using minimum instead of average daily calorie requirements.