The annual Global Agricultural Productivity Report links production growth to sustainability. How are we doing?
Agricultural output must increase by as much as 70 percent if we are to continue to feed our growing population, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. And we must also do this sustainably, even as we face a changing climate.
To better understand both the challenges we face and how we can best meet them, the Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report, first published by Global Harvest Initiative and now produced by Virginia Tech, measures our progress toward sustainable agriculture using what it calls total factor productivity, or TFP.
To quote the GAP Report, “TFP is a ratio that measures changes in how efficiently agricultural inputs (land, labor, fertilizer, feed, machinery, and livestock) are transformed into outputs (crops and livestock).” TFP allows us to measure how sustainably we are growing our agriculture output. Is TFP increasing fast enough? Here are the key findings from the report.
1. Worldwide, TFP is rising at an average annual rate of 1.63 percent.
That’s pretty impressive—it means that we are increasing agricultural productivity faster than we are increasing the inputs needed to produce that output. This is especially true in high-income regions, where the vast majority of output growth can be attributed to increases in efficiency.
2. TFP must increase by 1.73 percent globally if we are to meet sustainable production goals by 2050.
Overall, however, TFP isn’t rising fast enough. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is growing at just 1 percent. Most of the gains in agricultural productivity there are coming from increases in the amount of land under cultivation, not from more-productive, more-efficient ways to grow the food the region’s rapidly growing population needs.
3. In order to reach those goals, food loss and waste must be reduced by 50 percent.
Boosting the amount of usable agricultural outputs is critical to increasing TFP. After all, there’s little point in increasing the efficiency with which we grow our food if much of that output goes to waste.
4. New agricultural technologies and farming practices are key to improving TFP around the world.
The introduction of new seeds, crop-protection products, precision agricultural technologies, and sustainable practices such as no-till and cover crops allows farmers to grow food much more efficiently. But we still need more innovation.
5. We also need the help of the “free” ecosystem services available throughout the world.
Ecosystem services include all the benefits from the plants, water, soil, air, microbes, and animals that are present in a well-functioning agricultural area. By properly managing pollination, preventing erosion, sequestering carbon, recycling nutrients, boosting soil fertility, improving the quality of the air and water, and better managing pests and diseases, we can make all our agricultural activities more productive, sustainable, and resilient in the face of climate change.
2019 Global Agricultural Productivity Report: Productivity Growth for Sustainable Diets, and More. A. Steensland. Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Blacksburg, Virginia, 2019. https://globalagriculturalproductivity.org
“Global Food Security Index 2019.” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2019).