Alarming new data shows fragility of agricultural systems, global inability to sustainably feed a growing population
Without swift action and long-term resolve, the systems will remain vulnerable to environmental, economic, and societal shockwaves, the data from the 2022 GAP Report shows.
Global agricultural productivity growth is in steep decline and current efforts to expand sustainable agriculture production to feed a swelling global population are inadequate to deal with the challenges that the world faces, according to the 2022 Global Agricultural Productivity Report (GAP Report) that was released on Oct. 4 at an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Without swift action and long-term resolve, the systems will remain vulnerable to environmental, economic, and societal shockwaves, data from the 2022 GAP Report, titled "Troublesome Trends and System Shocks," show. The GAP report is produced by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.
To sustainably produce food and agricultural products for more than 9 billion people in 2050, agricultural productivity must increase an average of 1.73 percent annually. From 2011-20, global agricultural productivity grew at an average of just 1.12 percent per year, a significant drop from the average growth rate of 1.99 percent from 2001-10, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service.
Current efforts to accelerate productivity growth are inadequate, the climate is going to have a significant impact on production, and regional inequities around the world exacerbate the problem, the report says.
“When agricultural productivity grows, it means we’re producing more with fewer inputs and resources; this increases agricultural sustainability,” said Tom Thompson, an associate dean and director of Global Programs in the college. “Data presented in the 2022 GAP Report shows that global agricultural productivity growth has slowed dramatically, and in the world’s poorer countries, it is even shrinking. We urgently need to reverse this trend so that we can improve food and nutrition security, sustainability, and resilience.”
The current downward trajectory of agricultural productivity growth must be reversed. Climate change, conflict, and extreme weather events add multiple layers of difficulty and complexity to an already challenging task.
Governments, the private sector, research institutions, international development organizations, and civil society groups need to work collaboratively to create an enabling environment for agricultural innovation, services, and knowledge to take root. In addition, small-scale producers must have access to technology and innovation in order to accelerate productivity growth, improve the resilience of food security, increase incomes, and strengthen sustainability. Only then can the world be assured that its agricultural systems are sustainable and resilient to shocks.
“The technology that is relevant for smallholder producers is there, but the systems and incentives are not in place for success,” said Robert Fries, a panelist at the event and chief technology officer for ACDI/VOCA.
The panelists had five recommendations at the event:
- Turn around agricultural productivity trends in developing countries.
- Advocate for awareness of technology.
- Partner with local organizations to disseminate and advance technology.
- Create an environment for better policy and diverse climate smart approaches.
- Help incorporate research and innovation into agricultural productivity.
“If we can accelerate TFP [total factor productivity] in low-income countries, there could be substantial improvement in nutrition and poverty,” said Keith Fuglie, a panelist and senior economist at USDA Economic Research Service.
The 2022 GAP Report offers six policy and investment recommendations to increase productivity growth:
- Invest in public agricultural research and development and Extension services.
- Embrace science- and information-based technologies and practices.
- Improve the infrastructure and market access for agricultural inputs and outputs.
- Cultivate partnerships for sustainable agriculture and improved nutrition.
- Expand and improve regional and global trade.
- Reduce post-harvest loss and food waste.
The report also includes original Virginia Tech research on the impacts of extreme climate events on agricultural productivity growth.
“This research can help us better predict how future climate changes affect the agricultural sector and the whole economy. Preliminary findings of my research show that extreme climate events on average harm agricultural productivity growth,” said Wei Zhang, an assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech.
Extreme climate events are estimated to have, on average, a negative and statistically significant impact on the total factor productivity growth rate, according to Zhang. The estimated impact of droughts is more than three times the impact of an average extreme climate event. These climate shocks can have a sustained effect on the growth trajectory of agricultural productivity.
“It is hard to overemphasize the importance of enhancing agricultural productivity for poverty reduction and economic transformation,” Zhang said. “Sustainable agricultural practices could be important drivers of total factor productivity, the most common productivity measurement growth, and TFP growth could further lead to a more resilient and sustainable agricultural system. The ultimate goal of our research is to shed light on the design of government programs and private-public partnerships for climate adaptation and agricultural sustainability.”
Agricultural productivity growth supports resilience during system shocks. Productivity-enhancing innovations and services reduce risks for producers and support resilience from weather events, conflicts, and more. This includes drought-tolerant seed varieties, drip irrigation systems, cover crops, improved animal genetics, mobile phone-based extension programs, and access to financial and insurance services.
Regional differences in productivity growth reveal varying areas of concern, alarm, and hope. Productivity growth is no longer the primary driver of agricultural output growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. Instead, regional producers rely on input intensification, applying more inputs, such as labor, fertilizer, and capital, per hectare of land to increase output. In sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural output grew a healthy 2.98 percent per year from 2011-20.
However, most of the growth was driven by opening up new land for cultivation and pasture, while agricultural productivity contracted by 0.12 percent annually. South Asia, especially India and Bangladesh, has had steady productivity growth since 2001. TFP grew by an average of 2.34 percent annually from 2001-10, remaining steady at 2.28 percent annually from 2011-20.
“We know how to grow agricultural productivity. The most pressing current need is for leaders to enact policies to create an enabling environment for productivity growth. That is why we’re strongly focused on getting the lessons of the GAP Report into the hands of decision- and policymakers around the world,” Thompson said.
The GAP Report will be available in printed form, as well as on the website. The website features a new interactive world map with country-level TFP data from 173 countries.