In the coming decades, continued population growth, rising meat and dairy consumption and expanding biofuel use will dramatically increase the pressure on global agriculture. Even as we face these future burdens, there have been scattered reports of yield stagnation in the world's major cereal crops, including maize, rice and wheat. Here we study data from ∼2.5 million census observations across the globe extending over the period 1961-2008. We examined the trends in crop yields for four key global crops: maize, rice, wheat and soybeans. Although yields continue to increase in many areas, we find that across 24-39% of maize-, rice-, wheat- and soybean-growing areas, yields either never improve, stagnate or collapse. This result underscores the challenge of meeting increasing global agricultural demands. New investments in underperforming regions, as well as strategies to continue increasing yields in the high-performing areas, are required.