When a Productive World isn't Productive Enough

By Joy Benning

Equipment mechanization allows today’s producers to plant 10 times more soybean acres a day than in 1970. Thanks to innovation in animal genetics, the U.S. grew from a net importer of pork products to the world’s third largest exporter in just two decades. And in the last 50 years, agricultural output has tripled — even as land use decreased by 24 percent. 

Surely, this ingenuity and productivity is enough to sustainably meet the feed, food, fiber and fuel needs of nearly 10 billion people in 2050?

It’s not. 

For the fifth year in a row, the Global Harvest Initiative’s (GHI) 2018 Global Agricultural Productivity Report has found that worldwide agricultural productivity is not accelerating quickly enough to sustainably meet the demands of our growing world.

Measuring Productivity

Total factor productivity (TFP) is a ratio that looks at how efficiently agricultural inputs, like land, labor and feed, are transformed into outputs. TFP rises when producers use technologies and practices that increase output from the same amount of resources. 

How does actual TFP stack up against what’s needed? It misses the mark by .25 percent. GHI calculates TFP must grow by an average rate of 1.75 percent annually to double ag output through productivity growth by 2050. But, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates since 2010, global TFP growth has been rising by only 1.51 percent.

What’s needed to increase productivity? And how can producers play a role in overcoming mounting challenges like changing weather patterns, volatile markets and shifting consumer demands? Margaret Zeigler, GHI executive director, shares possible solutions to key challenges.

The Challenge:

One-third of the Earth’s surface is used for agriculture. By 2050, more than half of river, lake and aquifer withdrawals will be used for the industry.

A Solution:

“Shifting weather patterns impact soil and water resources,” says Zeigler. “Globally, the biggest water challenges will be found in fragile drylands and tropical regions, but even U.S. producers are reliant on rainfall and will be vulnerable to future temperature increases. Understanding a farm’s diversity and soil variation provides a baseline to know where the most and least productive soils are. Using precision agriculture and data to judiciously apply nutrients and water, and building soil health through cover crops and no-till systems are a start. Partner with ag retailers that can design plans and recommend best practices.”

The Challenge:

A major imbalance in TFP between countries creates disparate food availability.

A Solution:

“The U.S. is projected to produce 190 percent of its food through productivity by 2030,” Zeigler notes. “With higher productivity, we can produce more crops and livestock at better prices on the same or even less land with fewer inputs. That makes maintaining functional markets and trade critical for growing consumer demand in regions like Asia and Africa.”

The Challenge:

In the midst of growing populations and nutritional needs, consumer demands are evolving and middle classes rising, resulting in the need for sustainable, diversified protein. 

A Solution:

“Take milk, for example. The environmental footprint of animal and plant-based milk varies depending on production methods — both can be produced in sustainable and unsustainable ways,” Zeigler says. “Genetic and feed efficiency improvements and better animal care practices enable cows to produce more milk and less methane. While greenhouse gas emissions from plant-based systems are lower, water use must be carefully managed. In both animal and plant production systems, land-use best practices will be vital to sustainability.”

To learn more about the 2018 GAP Report, visit www.globalagriculturalproductivity.org

When a Productive World isn't Productive Enough