Ag productivity far off needed pace, according to new data


WASHINGTON, D.C – Agricultural productivity worldwide isn’t growing nearly fast enough to keep up with the global demand for food in 2050 amid the impact of climate change, according to an annual report that incorporates fresh data from USDA.

The 2021 Global Agricultural Productivity report, released each year by Virginia Tech with support from major agribusiness firms and nongovernmental organizations, says productivity is growing at an annual rate of 1.36%, well below the rate of 1.73% needed to keep up with rising food demand between now and 2050.

The new estimate of actual annual growth is based on data for 2001-2019 that USDA’s Economic Research Service will publish in the coming days and is sharply lower than the estimate of 1.63% in the 2020 GAP report. (The main reason for the lower ERS estimate of ag productivity was the incorporation of new data on agricultural capital.)

The 2021 GAP report, released Wednesday in conjunction with the World Food Prize Foundation’s annual conference, suggests that the 1.73% target rate may be on the low side due to the effects of climate change.

Climate change already has reduced productivity growth globally by 21% since 1961, the equivalent of losing seven years of productivity gains, the report says. In drier regions of Africa and Latin America, productivity growth has been cut as much as 34%.

The report measures productivity trends in terms of “total factor productivity.” Growth in TFP occurs when farmers produce larger amounts of crops, livestock and aquaculture products with the same or less land, labor, fertilizer, feed, machinery and livestock.

“New modeling on the impact of climate change on productivity suggests the GAP Index target of 1.73% average annual TFP growth could be the minimum threshold to meet growing demand sustainably,” the report says.

Farmers in poor countries will be the “most vulnerable to climate change, given their minimal access to technologies and agronomic knowledge that could help them adapt to the increasingly extreme weather and climate conditions,” the report says.

Productivity is actually falling — by an estimated 0.31% — in low-income countries, such as sub-Saharan Africa, while rising fastest in middle-income countries and transitional economies such as China and the former countries of the Soviet Union.

China’s TFP growth, which averaged just 1% in the 1970s, rose to 2.48% from 2001 to 2010 before slipping to 1.61% in the following decade, the report says.

“It is encouraging to see that market-driven policy changes have sparked a TFP transformation in these (transitional) countries. Yet history shows that these reforms have a shelf life. Once these changes are integrated into the agricultural sector, TFP growth settles down,” the report says.

The report’s release comes as the Biden administration is organizing a coalition of countries to promote the use of technology to increase global food production. The coalition will be formally launched at the international climate conference that starts Oct. 31 in Glasgow.

Jim Gaffney, an agricultural development officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development, said farmers in Africa are often planting seed varieties that are 20 to 30 years old and not adapted to changes in the climate. “The options for farmers to adapt and become more resilient aren’t there,” he said on a webinar launching the GAP report.

The challenges are different in Europe, where there is a push by consumers and the European Union to reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides and farmers don’t have access to genetically engineered seeds.

“We don’t have access to these new technologies because the French citizens … want a greener world, less pesticides, less tractors, less everything,” said Eric Demotte, who grows corn and wheat near Bordeaux in southwestern France.

He said, however, that more farmers are using conservation tillage, which can improve soil heath and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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