For the third year in a row, the rate of global agricultural productivity growth has failed to meet its target, according to a report by the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) released Wednesday. GHI's seventh annual "Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report: Sustainability in an Uncertain Season" warns that unless this trend is reversed, the world may not be able to sustainably provide the food, feed, fiber and biofuels needed for a booming global population.
Improving agricultural productivity is not just about producing more or achieving higher yields; it allows more to be produced while maximizing the use of and impact on precious natural resources. Agricultural productivity lowers the cost per unit of output, helping producers succeed in today's competitive business cycle, and supplies food and agricultural products for consumers at lower prices. It is part of a comprehensive strategy to sustainably meet global demand for food and agricultural products.
According to GHI, global agricultural productivity must increase by 1.75% annually in order to meet the demands of an estimated 9.7 billion people in 2050. GHI's annual assessment of global productivity growth – the GAP Index – shows that the current rate of growth is only 1.73%. The rate of productivity growth for low-income countries is of special concern, as it is stagnating at only 1.3% annually – far below the level required to meet food and agriculture needs in a sustainable manner.
Dr. Margaret Zeigler, executive director of GHI, said the productivity growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is stagnating more than anticipated. “Some of what we see in Africa is a number of pilot projects and good stories, but we’re still not getting the scale we need,” she said.
Zeigler explained that output is growing in low-income countries, but most of it is from land expansion, not smarter use of inputs. “Their output is growing, but not productivity,” she added.
Global demand for food and agricultural products is skyrocketing, driven by a growing population and middle class, yet in high-income countries like the U.S., productivity growth rates have slowed, and agricultural output has declined to levels not seen since the 1980s. This downward trend in productivity raises questions about the health of U.S. agriculture, which is a key driver of the economy, providing $2 trillion in revenue annually and employing 19 million people.
GHI calls for a renewed commitment to public agricultural research and development (R&D) and improvements to regulatory systems to stimulate innovations that will improve productivity and support the development of resilient food and agriculture systems that adapt to and help mitigate climate change.
"Participants in every part of the value chain need to be able to manage their costs, by investing for innovation and growth," Ziegler said. "Public-sector investments in agricultural R&D, coupled with sensible, efficient regulatory systems, provide the foundation for innovation and ensure it gets into the hands of the farmers and producers who need it. For farmers who need access to land and finance, new opportunities for partnership are emerging that can expand their options and reduce their risks."
GHI presented the 2016 GAP Report's findings before an audience of farmers and global leaders in science, research, policy and private agriculture industry attending the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa. The event included a discussion of the importance of agricultural productivity and policies and investments that can help farmers remain competitive while transforming agriculture into a force for mitigating climate change.