In late February, farmers from across the United States will gather in Houston, Texas to witness the crowning of their champion: the winner of the National Corn Yield Contest. Each year, thousands of participants brush up on the competition’s 17-page rulebook and then attempt to plow, plant and fertilize their way into the record books. Their purpose? Squeezing as much corn as possible from every square meter of field.

In 2023—and in 2021, 2019, and nine times before that—the overall winner was David Hula, a farmer from Charles City, Virginia. Hula is like the Michael Phelps of competitive corn production. He sets records, breaks them, then comes back for more. In 2023, its corn yield was three and a half times the national average of 623.84 bushels per acre.

A group of peasants competing to win the national garland might sound like a bit of rustic frippery, but Hola’s record turns into something significant. It shows how much food can be grown if farmers use every tool at their disposal: high-yielding seed varieties, balanced combinations of pesticides and herbicides, correctly applied Fertilizer, right amount of water when needed, etc. Get these factors right and farmers can dramatically increase how much food they produce on a given piece of land – potentially freeing up land elsewhere for afforestation or reforestation.

Oh A new study Crop production between 1975 and 2010 looked at where crop production lagged or advanced. The findings give us some tantalizing clues about where farmers and policy should focus to feed more people without turning too much land into farmland. More importantly, they suggest some large areas where skyrocketing production could point to missed opportunities when it comes to feeding the world more sustainably.

Winners of national maize production competitions showcase farmers’ outstanding yields, but most farmers globally do not have access to the latest farm technology. As a result, their output is lower, which brings us to a concept called the output gap. Roughly speaking, it is the difference between the theoretical maximum amount of crops a farmer can harvest per hectare in a given climate if all goes well and the actual amount they grow.

To see the yield gap in action, compare two major corn producers: the United States and Kenya. in America, Average yield is about 10.8 tonnes per hectare, compared to 1.5 tonnes in Kenya. While the United States is very close to its maximum theoretical maize yield, Kenya—taking into account its different climate—is far below its theoretical limit. In other words, the maize yield gap in the US is barely there, while Kenya’s yield gap is about 2.7 tonnes per hectare below the theoretical maximum.

Yield differences are important because they tell us where farms can be more productive, says James Gerber, a data scientist at the climate nonprofit Project Drawdown and lead author of the paper. Increasing productivity in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly important because it is already one of the The hungriest parts of the world, and its population is estimated. Double by 2050.