Plants acquire carbon through photosynthesis to sustain biomass production, autotrophic respiration and production of non-structural compounds for multiple purposes. The fraction of photosynthetic production used for biomass production, the biomass production efficiency, is a key determinant of the conversion of solar energy to biomass. In forest ecosystems, biomass production efficiency was suggested to be related to site fertility. Here we present a database of biomass production efficiency from 131 sites compiled from individual studies using harvest, biometric, eddy covariance, or process-based model estimates of production. The database is global, but dominated by data from Europe and North America. We show that instead of site fertility, ecosystem management is the key factor that controls biomass production efficiency in terrestrial ecosystems. In addition, in natural forests, grasslands, tundra, boreal peatlands and marshes, biomass production efficiency is independent of vegetation, environmental and climatic drivers. This similarity of biomass production efficiency across natural ecosystem types suggests that the ratio of biomass production to gross primary productivity is constant across natural ecosystems. We suggest that plant adaptation results in similar growth efficiency in high- and low-fertility natural systems, but that nutrient influxes under managed conditions favour a shift to carbon investment from the belowground flux of non-structural compounds to aboveground biomass.