A good place to start finding solutions to a burgeoning world food shortage is Africa.
The Dark Continent is home to 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, yet Africa produces only 10 percent of the global food supply. And, according to the United Nations, food production will need to double by 2050 to meet the worldwide demand.
Enter Ying “Maggie” Zhang, a Clemson University assistant professor of management in the College of Business. Her research, “Optimal Seeding Policy under Rainfall Uncertainty,” focuses on how to improve agricultural yields in African countries by optimizing planting schedules and introducing mechanized planting.
“The agricultural yield problem in Africa stems from issues such as a lack of irrigation, outdated equipment and farming techniques,” Zhang said. “Compounding the problem are climate changes that are forecasted to decrease crop yields 20 percent by the middle of this century.”
Zhang, whose research focuses on agriculture operations, the food supply chain and how they relate to food security, said 10 to 20 percent of the world’s population suffers from hunger and malnutrition, including many in Africa. But, she adds, Africa has the potential to address this global issue with the help of others.
“Unlike the U.S. and China, African countries are undeveloped in their potential for sustainable food production. By generating only 10 percent of the global agricultural output, hunger is an issue affecting about 240 million people in Africa,” she said. “And, Africa’s hunger problem has doubled in the last 12 years.”
Research conducted by Zhang and her associate, Dr. Jayashankar Swaminathan, GlaxoSmithKline Distinguished Professor of Operations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, aims to develop planting strategies that take into account weather conditions, soil moisture and seed availability.
“If the weather is good, the yield is also. But if not, the yield is bad. It’s the reason why so much arable land is not producing food and crop yields are so low,” she said. “Africa’s agricultural output is driven primarily by rainfall, as irrigation is too expensive for these resource-poor small-scale farmers.”
Making matters worse are climate changes affecting the timing of rainfalls necessary for crop growth, according to Zhang.
“El Nino climate change events have resulted in rainfall coming later than usual, meaning it doesn’t come on time during their traditional growing season. If the rain comes late, the crop yield is going to suffer,” she said.
In an effort to address the poor crop yields due to precipitation and resource issues, Zhang’s research suggests strategic planting techniques may be the answer to sustainable food production.
“Our approach is applying an optimal seeding policy that guides farmers on when and how many seeds to plant based on weather, soil moisture and the amount of seeds they have available to them.”
Zhang and her associate studied field weather data in African countries from 2011-17. Using that data, they modeled a farmer’s planting problem for a single crop under rainfall uncertainty.
“We show that even with hand planting, farmers can significantly improve their yields by following the strategies we propose compared to their current practices,” she said. “If farmers plant down to the optimal planting threshold rather than their current practice of planting after observing enough cumulative rainfall, our models show the potential for an 8 percent increase in yield. And, for commercial farmers, it would be more than 8 percent.”
Zhang and Swaminathan are collaborating with AGCO, a global manufacturer of agriculture equipment such as Massey Ferguson tractors, on research in Zambia.
“AGCO is conducting pilot studies in Zambia, as part of an effort to expand their market and introduce mechanized planting in Africa. Their simulations of hand and machine planting using our optimal planting strategy validates our findings of the potential for much higher yields,” Zhang said.
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