DES MOINES, Iowa — Global agricultural productivity growth is not accelerating fast enough to sustainably meet the food, feed, fiber and fuel needs of nearly10 billion people by 2050.
The Global Agricultural Productivity Report’s Agriculture for a Healthy Sustainable World findings were announced Oct. 17 at the Borlaug Dialogue/World Food Prize. The report was released by the Global Health Initiative.
According to the report, global agriculture productivity must increase by 1.75 percent annually through 2050 to meet the demands of nearly 10 billion people. GHI’s annual assessment shows the current rate of growth is only 1.51 percent, down 0.15 percent from a year ago.
The report noted the rate of agricultural productivity growth for low-income countries is particularly troubling, reaching only 0.96 percent annually — a downward trend from 1.31 percent in 2016 and 1.24 percent last year.
“If this downward trend continues, farmers in low-income, food-deficit countries (where population growth is rapidly rising) will use more land and water to increase outputs, straining a natural resource base already threatened by extreme weather and climate change,” according to the report.
“Low-income countries will need to import food but lack sufficient income to purchase enough to meet the needs of their citizens. Poor urban households will bear the brunt of higher food prices in these countries, but they will also impact low-income rural populations since they are net food buyers.”
The report highlights innovations and practices farmers and all participants in the agriculture and food system are taking to conserve soil and water, improve the quality and safety of food and keep prices affordable for consumers. It also examines how food wasted is productivity lost.
Improved food production relies heavily on public agricultural research and development and extension systems as well as regulatory frameworks that incentivize risk-taking innovation and investment. The report highlights the critical investments needed in public policies such as research, improving trade, embracing science and information technologies, and public-private partnerships.
“Innovation and productivity are essential to keeping pace with the quantity and quality of food that consumers are demanding. We all have a role to play in creating a healthier, more sustainable world. The power of robust public research and strong public policy are often over-looked,” said Doyle Karr, Biotechnology Public Policy director, Corteva Agriscience, the Agriculture Division of DowDuPont, and GHI board of directors chair.
“The value that society places on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and better stewardship of soil, water and wildlife is leading to consumer demand for climate-friendly production methods and supply chains,” said Margaret Zeigler, GHI executive director.
“The GAP Report provides a number of case studies that illustrate how consumer demand, coupled with innovations developed in the public and private sectors can shape and improve the food and agriculture system of the 21st century.”
The report also includes the following regional productivity growth findings.
U.S. consumers benefit from the success of the agriculture and food sectors with year-round safe, nutritious and affordable foods. The average U.S. consumer spends just 6 percent of his household income on food eaten at home, the lowest percentage among 86 major countries.
U.S. agriculture also is a reliable source of affordable and safe food and agricultural products for the world, exporting $141 billion in agricultural products in fiscal year 2017, and the third highest level recorded. The U.S. had an agricultural trade surplus of $22 billion in 2017, a 30 percent increase from 2016.
Most of the success of U.S. farmers and ranchers can be attributed to Total Factor Productivity growth generated by the widespread adoption and efficient use of seed technologies, precision, mechanization and best practices for soil health, nutrient management and animal health.
For the past 65 years, U.S. agriculture has been a global leader in TFP and output growth. From 1949 to 2015, TFP grew by an average annual rate of 1.38 percent. Agricultural output has tripled, even as farmers and ranchers reduced their labor use by 75 percent and land use by 24 percent.
The enormity and complexity of the challenges facing China’s agriculture and food system are difficult to fully grasp.
Two decades ago, the Chinese middle class numbered just 2.5 million people. That number has increased by more than 100 times today. The middle class is expected to grow even further, reaching 950 million by 2030, roughly three times the current U.S. population.
The rise in population and income has radically transformed Chinese consumers’ food demand, with consumption of poultry, pork and dairy increasing exponentially. In response to demand, China’s imports of fresh and chilled pork increased from 136,000 metric tons in 2000 to 1.62 million metric tons in 2016.
Chinese consumers are focused on nutrition, with more than 72 percent of people willing to pay more for foods they know are higher quality and more nourishing. They are also concerned about the safety of the foods they eat, particularly domestic rice and other food crops that may have been grown on contaminated farm soil.
The average annual TFP in China grew from 1.9 percent in the 1980s to 4.21 percent in the 1990s. From 2001 to 2015, China’s TFP grew at an average rate of 3.5 percent per year, twice the global average during that period.
China also increased the amount of “sown area” to increase output. This has been achieved by extending irrigation to previously rain-fed cropland. Extending irrigation increases the output from the land and enables more than one crop to be grown each year.
Maintaining or increasing China’s phenomenal levels of productivity growth will be difficult. Climate change, combined with decades of poor farm management practices, has reduced the health and productivity of China’s agricultural land and water supply. Improving these soils, reducing erosion and ensuring widespread use of good nutrient management practices will be essential.
China has limited land resources of cultivation and the amount of agricultural land is likely declining already. The amount of available land will continue to decline as competition for land between urban and agricultural areas increases with population and urbanization growth.
The government has prioritized investments in agricultural development and food security. China invests twice as much as the U.S. in agricultural research and development, an investment that will stimulate productivity growth in coming decades.
The area has struggled to achieve the consistent gains in productivity seen in other parts of the world.
Farmers still rely on land expansion as their principal strategy for increasing output, rather than using improved inputs and practices to produce more on the land they already cultivate.
Lack of access to hybrid seed, fertilizer and crop protection products and veterinary medicine makes it difficult for small-scale farmers to cope with drought, crop pests and livestock diseases. Without irrigation, farmers are beholden to the rain and without healthy soils; the rain erodes the land and the soil nutrients. Agriculture is labor intensive, particularly for women, and mechanization is expensive and hard to access.
The majority of the continent’s farmers consume most, if not all the crop and livestock products they grow, and rely on non-farm labor for their income. They also have limited access to public goods such as training and education, roads, electricity or banking systems.
Africa has the potential to be an agricultural breadbasket. According to the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa, a one percent increase in crop productivity reduces the number of poor people by 0.72 percent.
Smart public policies, increased public sector investments and public-private-producer partnerships are the foundation for sustained agricultural productivity growth that will benefit producers, consumers and the environment.