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Sustainable Agricultural Productivity Growth: What, Why and How

Sustainable agricultural productivity growth is essential for meeting the challenges facing agricultural and food systems around the world. See below for answers to common questions about agricultural productivity growth and sustainable agricultural productivity growth.

What is agricultural productivity growth?
  • Agricultural productivity growth measures the increase in agricultural outputs per a given quantity of inputs – or the reduction in inputs per a given level of outputs. In other words, it measures the efficiency with which inputs are used to produce agricultural output.
  • Agricultural productivity growth, as measured by total factor productivity (TFP), which is the most comprehensive measure of productivity growth, means producing more (or the same amount) of food, fiber, and other agricultural outputs with less total input, including less land, water, labor, capital and all materials used in production. TFP is not a measure of output from input intensification (more labor, capital, and other inputs per acre) or land expansion.
  • Agricultural productivity growth is a powerful engine to increase food production without using more resources. It is also a powerful engine to reduce resource use for the production of the same amount of food. Productivity growth is not synonymous with output growth; it is growth in resource efficiency.
Why do we need agricultural productivity growth?
  • Since the 1990s, agricultural TFP growth has substituted for land expansion and resource intensification to maintain growth in world agriculture production, though from 2011-2019, TFP slowed and the rate at which new land was brought into production grew.
  • Over the last half century, agricultural TFP growth helped reduce poverty, increase food security, decrease land expansion and associated biodiversity loss, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. It supported economic growth that put money in farmers’ pockets and boosted rural economies.
    • Drilldown: Agricultural productivity growth alleviates poverty and improves food security
      • Agricultural productivity growth has led to dramatic reductions in global poverty and food insecurity and continues to be a primary engine of growth in many parts of the world.
      • There is broad consensus about the critical role of productivity growth for alleviating poverty and improving food security:
        • “In the agriculture-based countries, which include most of Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture and its associated industries are essential to growth and to reducing mass poverty and food insecurity. Using agriculture as the basis for economic growth in the agriculture-based countries requires a productivity revolution in smallholder farming.”-World Bank, World Development Report 2008
        • “Addressing low productivity in food production can be an effective way of raising the overall supply of food, including nutritious foods, by reducing food prices and rising incomes, especially for the poorer family farmers and smallholder producers in low-income and lower-middle-income countries, like farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk.” FAO 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World
        • “Continuing to make improvements to agricultural productivity, especially in low-income nations, is necessary to ensure sufficient food for an increasing global population and to traverse the last mile toward eliminating extreme poverty in developing nations: Two-thirds of the global extreme poor earn their livelihood in farming and productivity growth in agriculture has the largest impact of any sector on poverty reduction.” World Bank, 2019, Harvesting Prosperity
        • “Improvements in agricultural productivity, in particular total factor productivity (related to all production factors), offers an opportunity to simultaneously lower the pressure on the environment and increase farmer income by decreasing the input requirements.” 2021 UN Food Systems Summit Scientific Group Paper on Achieving Zero Hunger by 2030
    • Drilldown: Agricultural productivity growth is key to conserving resources, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and ensuring the viability of agriculture
      • The expansion of farmland and the intensification of resource use needed to meet the ever-growing global population’s food demand places a heavy burden on natural ecosystems.
      • Raising the productivity of existing natural resources—rather than bringing new natural resources into production—is the only viable option to meet food security needs of current and future generations.
      • Through its impact on drought, floods, pests, weather variability, and even human health, climate change will, and in many cases already is, challenging farmers to produce more with reduced and less reliable natural resource inputs. Innovative approaches to sustainable agricultural productivity growth will be critical to adaptation and to limiting the food security impacts of climate change.
      • There is broad consensus about the critical role of productivity growth for conserving resources, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and ensuring long-term food and nutrition security:
        • “Just as improved TFP has so far played an essential role in economic growth, it can play a major role in the mitigation of, and in adaptation to, climate change in the future. Should technical progress slow or miss the sustainability goals, agricultural production cannot keep pace with the growth in population, while reducing its negative impacts on the environment.” Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 2021, Making Better Policies for Food Systems.
        • “If today’s levels of production efficiency were to remain constant through 2050, then feeding the planet would entail clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing enough GHG emissions to exceed the 1.5°C and 2°C warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement—even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated.” World Resources Institute, 2019, Creating a Sustainable Food Future
        • “Transformation to sustainable food production by 2050 will require at least a 75% reduction of yield gaps.” EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019, Food in the Anthropocene
Agricultural productivity growth is necessary, but is it sufficient?
  • Agricultural TFP growth has eased resource constraints facing agriculture, and continued improvement in TFP is critical in the coming decades if agricultural supply is to keep up with global food and nutrition needs while protecting the natural resource base on which agriculture depends.
  • Agricultural TFP growth on its own, however, is not sufficient to sustainably meet the world’s food needs now and into the future due to the possibility that in some cases, productivity growth could have unintended negative impacts on environmental quality, equity, and long-term farm viability and food security.
  • Agricultural productivity growth, even as measured by TFP, typically does not incorporate input costs associated with the use of non-marketed ecosystem services or other non-marketed services. Nor does it incorporate non-marketed outputs such as improved water quality or soil health.
What is sustainable agricultural productivity growth?
  • Sustainable agricultural productivity growth guards against the potential unintended negative impacts of productivity growth and leverages the benefits of productivity growth to advance social, environmental and economic development objectives. Measuring sustainable productivity growth will require expanding TFP to incorporate non-marketed services and outcomes or complementing TFP measures with indicators related to environmental and social outcomes.
  • Sustainable agricultural productivity growth aims to improve food security and nutrition for all, alleviate poverty, enhance the wellbeing of farmers and agricultural workers, conserve natural resources, mitigate climate change, and build more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food systems.
  • In short, sustainable agricultural productivity growth is agricultural productivity growth that advances social, environmental, and economic development objectives to meet the food and nutrition needs of current and future generations.
Why do we need sustainable agricultural productivity growth?
  • Increasing sustainable agricultural productivity growth is essential for simultaneously meeting the multiple challenges facing agriculture and food systems around the world and for ensuring the long-term viability of agriculture. It is critical for meeting the world’s food and nutrition needs, conserving natural resources, shrinking agriculture’s environmental impact, and improving the livelihoods and wellbeing of farmers, fishers, and ranchers now and into the future.
  • Without sustainable agricultural productivity growth, our ability to meet the food and nutrition needs of current and future generations, conserve natural resources, and support the long-term viability of agriculture is endangered.
  • Without sustainable agricultural productivity growth, meeting the world’s growing nutrition needs could bankrupt farmers, consumers and nature.
How do we get sustainable agricultural productivity growth?
  • Sustainable agricultural productivity growth requires investment in knowledge capital to spur innovation; investment in outreach to increase innovation adoption; and holistic assessment and management of intended and unintended impacts of productivity growth on social, environmental and economic outcomes.
  • The major driver of long-run sustainable productivity growth is innovation, including technological and managerial innovations, innovative nature-based solutions, and new institutional arrangements and infrastructures.
  • Knowledge capital—the engine for innovation and productivity growth—is fueled by public and private investments in R&D and the evolving expertise of farmers, ranchers, natural resource managers, and food systems actors.
  • Productivity growth also relies on investments in outreach and the dissemination of innovative approaches and best practices; only innovations that are adopted can accelerate productivity growth.
  • Sustainable agricultural productivity growth is not a one-size-fits all technological solution; it depends on place-based strategies appropriate to different geographies, crops, farm types, markets, and social-economic conditions.
  • Sustainable agricultural productivity growth is facilitated and amplified through uncommon collaborations that leverage diverse types of knowledge and help to widely disseminate and increase the uptake of best practices.
  • Sustainable agricultural productivity growth supports and is itself supported by environmental, social, and economic sustainability through, for example, improved ecosystems services, better educated and healthier workforces, and stable markets and communities.
  • Further advances in understanding sustainable agricultural productivity growth and the drivers of productivity growth remain critical for eradicating widespread extreme poverty, advancing human welfare, meeting new environmental challenges, and ensuring food and nutrition security.
  • Harnessing the power of productivity growth to advance social, environmental, and economic sustainability goals requires a holistic assessment of intended and unintended impacts of productivity growth—and a systematic approach to managing tradeoffs and safeguarding social and environmental welfare.
  • The Coalition on Sustainable Productivity Growth Coalition for Food Security and Resource Conservation (the SPG Coalition) provides resources on best practices and lessons learned for advancing sustainable productivity growth.