Alarming new data show the fragility of agricultural systems

BLACKSBURG, VA. — According to the 2022 Global Agricultural Productivity Report (GAP Report), global agricultural productivity growth is in steep decline and current efforts to increase sustainable agricultural production to feed a growing world population are insufficient to meet the challenges facing the world faces.

Without quick action and long-term resolution, systems will remain vulnerable to environmental, economic and societal shock waves, shows data from the 2022 GAP report, titled “Troubling Trends and Systemic Shocks”. 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 nine billion people in 2050, agricultural productivity must increase by an average of 1.73% per year. From 2011 to 2020, global agricultural productivity grew by an average of just 1.12% per year, a significant decline from the average growth rate of 1.99% from 2001 to 2010 (USDA ERS).

Current efforts to accelerate productivity growth are insufficient, the climate will have a significant impact on production, and regional inequalities around the world compound the problem, the report says.

“When agricultural productivity increases, it means that we produce more with fewer inputs and resources. It increases agricultural sustainability,” said Tom Thompson, associate dean and director of global programs at the college. “The data presented in the GAP 2022 report shows that global agricultural productivity growth has slowed significantly and is contracting even in the world’s poorest countries. 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 levels of difficulty and complexity to an already difficult task.

Governments, the private sector, research institutions, international development organizations and civil society groups need to work together to create an enabling environment for agricultural innovation, services and knowledge to take root. In addition, small producers must have access to technology and innovation in order to accelerate productivity growth, improve food security resilience, increase incomes and enhance sustainability. Only then can the world be confident that its agricultural systems are sustainable and resilient to shocks.

“The technology that’s relevant to small-scale producers is there, but the systems and incentives aren’t in place to be successful,” said Robert Fries, event panelist and chief technology officer for ACDI/VOCA.

The panelists had five recommendations at the event.

• Reverse agricultural productivity trends in developing countries

• Advocate for technology awareness

• Partner with local organizations to disseminate and advance technology

• Create an environment for better policies and various climate-smart approaches

• Help integrate research and innovation into agricultural productivity

“If we can accelerate TFP in low-income countries, there could be substantial improvement in nutrition and poverty,” said Keith Fuglie, panelist and senior economist at USDA’s research service.

The GAP 2022 report offers six recommendations for policy and investment to increase productivity growth.

• Invest in public agricultural research and development as well as extension services

• Adopt science and information-based technologies and practices

• Improve infrastructure and market access for agricultural inputs and products

• Cultivate partnerships for sustainable agriculture and better nutrition

• Develop and improve regional and global trade

• Reduce post-harvest losses and food waste

The report also includes original research from Virginia Tech on the impacts of extreme weather events on agricultural productivity growth.

“This research can help us better predict how future climate change will affect the agricultural sector and the wider economy. Preliminary results from my research show that extreme weather events harm agricultural productivity growth on average,” said Wei Zhang, assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech.

Extreme weather events are estimated to have, on average, a negative and statistically significant impact on the growth rate of total factor productivity, according to Zhang. The estimated impact of droughts is more than three times that of an average extreme weather event. These climatic shocks can have a lasting effect on the growth trajectory of agricultural productivity.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of improving agricultural productivity for poverty reduction and economic transformation,” Zhang said. “Sustainable agricultural practices could be important drivers of total factor productivity. The most common measure of productivity growth and total factor productivity 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 public-private partnerships for climate adaptation and agricultural sustainability.

Agricultural productivity growth supports resilience to systemic shocks. Productivity-enhancing innovations and services reduce risks for producers and build resilience to weather events, conflicts, etc. This includes drought-tolerant seed varieties, drip irrigation systems, cover crops, improved animal genetics, cell phone extension programs, and access to financial and insurance services.

Regional differences in productivity growth reveal various areas of concern, worry and hope. Productivity growth is no longer the main driver of agricultural production growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. Instead, regional producers rely on input intensification and the application of more inputs such as labor, fertilizer, and capital per hectare of land to increase production. In sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural production increased by 2.98% per year between 2011 and 2020.

However, most of the growth was driven by the opening of new land for cultivation and pasture, while agricultural productivity contracted by 0.12% per year. South Asia, particularly India and Bangladesh, has experienced steady productivity growth since 2001. Total factor productivity grew by an average of 2.34% per year from 2001 to 2010, remaining stable at 2.28% per year from 2011 to 2020.

“We know how to increase agricultural productivity. The most pressing current need is for leaders to adopt policies to create an environment conducive to productivity growth. That’s why we’re working hard to put the lessons of the GAP report into the hands of decision-makers and decision-makers around the world,” said Thompson.

The GAP report will be available in print, as well as at https://globalagriculturalproductivity.org. The website features a new interactive world map with national total factor productivity data from 173 countries.

Lana T. Arthur