For a growing world, improving farm productivity is right goal
© Global Harvest Initiative (GHI)

Today's food and agriculture systems must provide more food, feed and industrial products while also focusing on sustainability.

To satisfy a peak global population of 9.7 billion people in 2050, agricultural economists project that total agricultural demand will increase by 60 percent to 100 percent, compared to 2005 levels.

A recent call by researchers at Penn State to reexamine the projected demand for food in 2050 is being discussed across the agriculture and food security sector. The authors state that we must lower global food targets, as measured by estimated cereal demand, and prioritize ecosystem conservation over agricultural production.

Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) believes that it is too soon to revise these goals downward. A focus on improving agricultural productivity, not just total agricultural output, and reducing post-harvest lossis the key to meeting global food demand while conserving natural resources.

Models and climate change matter

Climate change and the skyrocketing demand for livestock products must be considered when estimating food production needs, but they are not incorporated into the Penn State analysis. To omit them results in an incomplete picture of the future resources required.

The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) compared 10 of the leading models for projecting food demand and found:

  • World agricultural production of crops and livestock between 2005 and 2050 will need to rise by between 60 percent and 111 percent.
  • "Production growth [will be] particularly strong for ruminant meat as well as for commodities used in the production of biofuels — sugar, coarse grains, and oilseeds."
  • "Climate change will generate higher prices for agricultural commodities in general, and for crops in particular."

Economic growth matters                           

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG8) lays out specific targets for the economic growth required to end poverty and hunger: In the least-developed countries, this must reach at least 7 percent annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth.


However, those calling for lower global ag and food goals assume economic growth rates too low to make a dent in poverty and hunger, averaging only between 2 percent and 3 percent annual GDP.


If we are to realize SDG 8 with higher economic growth, we will in turn see higher demand for agricultural output in the developing countries, where there is presently insufficient agriculture and food production.

Balancing the required economic growth with ensuring food and agriculture prices are affordable, particularly for those in countries that are vulnerable to food price fluctuations, will be key as we move forward.

Productivity matters most

By focusing on productivity, we take a vital step toward more sustainable food and agriculture systems while still keeping food available and affordable.

Productivity is not simply producing more food, or even achieving higher yields of crops. In agriculture, total factor productivity (TFP) is the ratio of agricultural outputs (gross crop and livestock output) to inputs (land, labor, fertilizer, feed, machinery and livestock) (Figure 1).

TFP measures changes in the efficiency with which all inputs are transformed into food, feed, fiber and biofuels through improved crop and livestock genetics, new technologies and practices — essentially, a measure of innovation adoption.

Productivity is the right goal

Revising agricultural output goals downward may lead to a decrease in investment in agricultural research and development, and may slow down the pace of innovation reaching the field. These investments enable farmers to produce food more sustainably while conserving natural resources.

Without these innovations, farmers, particularly in food-deficit countries, may put more land into production to increase output.

GHI believes that doubling agricultural productivity from 2005 to 2050 is the right goal and is aligned with the U.N. SDG 2 target of doubling agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale farmers.

GHI has developed a benchmark tool, the GAP Index, to track global progress toward doubling agricultural output from productivity (Figure 2).

Our data show that for the third straight year, global TFP growth is not meeting the required rate of growth of 1.75 percent. Most concerning is that for low-income countries, productivity is only increasing 1.31 percent, well below the U.N. SDG 2 target of doubling productivity.

Accelerating agricultural productivity, particularly for the low-income countries and small-scale farmers, must be at the core of a comprehensive strategy to sustainably feed the world.

With more than 75 percent of the world's poor heavily dependent on agriculture as their primary source of food as well as for income, agricultural development through productivity is essential to improving their food security, nutrition and incomes.

Margaret M. Zeigler is executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI), a private-sector voice for productivity growth throughout the agricultural value chain. To learn more about productivity, sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition, visit the GHI website.

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