Agricultural productivity growth – increasing output of crops and livestock with existing or fewer inputs – is growing globally at an average annual rate of 1.63%, according to the 2019 Global Agricultural Productivity Report, "Productivity Growth for Sustainable Diets, and More," released by Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
According to the report’s Global Agricultural Productivity Index, global agricultural productivity needs to increase at an average annual rate of 1.73% to sustainably produce food, feed, fiber, and bioenergy for 10 billion people in 2050.
Productivity growth is strong in China and South Asia, but it is slowing in the agricultural powerhouses of North America, Europe, and Latin America.
The report calls attention to the alarmingly low levels of productivity growth in low-income countries, where there also are high rates of food insecurity, malnutrition, and rural poverty.
Agricultural productivity growth in low-income countries is rising at an average annual rate of just 1%. The UN Sustainable Development Goals call for doubling the productivity of the lowest-income farmers by 2030.
The GAP Report was released at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa. Speakers at the GAP Report Launch event included Tim Sands, president of Virginia Tech; Miguel Garcia Winder, undersecretary for agriculture for Mexico; Rose Mwonya, vice chancellor of the Egerton University in Kenya; and Alan Grant, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
What does the report call for?
The report calls for a strong focus on countries with high rates of population growth, persistent low levels of agricultural productivity, and significant shifts in consumption patterns — the primary drivers of unsustainable agricultural practices, such as converting forests to crop and rangeland.
“These productivity gaps, if they persist, will have serious ramifications for environmental sustainability, the economic vitality of the agriculture sector, and the prospects for reducing poverty, malnutrition, and obesity,” said Ann Steensland, author of the 2019 GAP Report and coordinator of the GAP Report Initiative at Virginia Tech.
What role does agricultural productivity play?
“Decades of research and experience tell us that by accelerating productivity growth, it is possible to improve environmental sustainability, while ensuring that consumers have access to the foods they need and want,” said Tom Thompson, associate dean and director of global programs for the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Productivity growth is generated by such innovations as precision agriculture technology and improved seeds and best practices for nutrient management and animal health. Attention to ecosystem services, such as pollination and erosion prevention, can increase and sustain productivity gains over time.
Due to widespread adoption of improved agricultural technologies and best farm management practices, especially in high-income countries, global agricultural output has increased by 60%, while global cropland has increased by just 5% during the past 40 years.
Between 1980 and 2015, productivity gains led to a 41% decrease in the amount of land used in U.S. corn production, irrigation water use declined 46% greenhouse gas emissions declined 31%, and soil erosion declined (tons of soil loss per acre) by 58%.
Animal agriculture in the U.S. has experienced similar productivity gains, dramatically reducing the environmental footprint of the livestock production. According to Robin White, assistant professor of animal and poultry science at Virginia Tech, if livestock production in the U.S. was eliminated, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would decline by only 2.9%.
What are strategies for accelerating productivity growth?
The GAP Report describes six strategies for accelerating productivity growth: investing in public agricultural R&D and extension, embracing science- and information-based technologies, improving infrastructure and market access, cultivating partnerships for sustainable agriculture and nutrition, expanding regional and global trade, and reducing post-harvest loss and food waste.