Editorial: Exporting agriculture’s productivity miracle

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Global productivity in agriculture production continues to grow healthily, but not yet fast enough to feed the expected 10 billion people on the planet by 2050.

That’s according to the 2019 Global Agriculture Productivity (GAP) Report, recently released by Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The report says that agriculture productivity is increasing at an average annual rate of 1.63 per cent per year. It also says 1.73 per cent growth per year is needed to produce food, feed, fibre and bioenergy for the globe by 2050.

This report, which was taken over by Virginia Tech last year from a global group that was putting the number together, talks about 10 billion people by 2050.

I thought we were aiming to feed nine billion by 2050? I didn’t know another billion had been added to the projection. Increasing the market by 10 per cent significantly increases the production needed.

The report is also funded by the global agribusiness heavyweights: Corteva Agriscience, Bayer, John Deere, Mosaic and Smithfield. They also stand to gain from increasing agriculture production and the need for technology. On the flip side, they, and their brilliant employees, have supplied many of the products that have made agriculture the productivity improvement marvel that it is.

The GAP report acknowledges the massive environmental impact of farming, including greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, and unsustainable water use. Productivity improvements have the potential to reduce that impact. Indeed, the project identifies agricultural productivity, measured as Total Factor Productivity, as increasing “when the output of crops and livestock increases using existing, or less, land, labour, fertilizer, capital, and livestock.”

It also points out the large number of people on the planet who are undernourished, or hungry because of conflict.

It doesn’t address the fact that there likely are enough calories produced on the planet right now to feed everyone — we just waste too much.

Let’s unpack a few more of the points that are good to keep in mind.

Productivity improvements that we take for granted are not shared everywhere.

North America keeps trudging along, using technology, great sharing of information and building of infrastructure, gradually increasing its productivity. Europe is stagnating due to its rejection of scientifically proven tools that would increase its agricultural production. It’s then outsourcing its environmental impact to other parts of the world.

The greatest concern, however, is the lack of improvement in productivity in the poorest areas of the world. They are also where the population will be growing quickest. That new billion will come from southern Asia and Africa, and in Africa, especially where there remains little growth in productivity.

“Total Factor Productivity in low-income countries is alarmingly low, growing at one per cent annually, far below the UN SDG target of doubling the productivity of the lowest-income farmers.”

There are many reasons for this reality. The first is corruption and violent political conflict. Another is a lack of infrastructure, both for information and product flow. There’s also the interference by groups who want to keep people producing food as they always have, which is a recipe for disaster. Yes, we need to preserve local customs and food and plant varieties. But these people deserve modern agriculture technology as much as they deserve modern medicine, buildings and sanitation.

I understand the need to respect local customs and history. That can be done with an evolution of systems that support healthier human life.

The GAP report identifies a reliance on grains instead of the availability of animal protein and fruits and vegetables as a risk to the health of that region (as it is here).

There are some exceptional examples in Canada of our farm community helping out.

A group of Ontario farmers were in Kenya this year helping to develop local co-operatives and systems to help encourage small livestock production.

Indeed the GAP project identifies small and medium-sized livestock farm productivity improvements as having the greatest impact in poor areas.

A southern Ontario group, including some involved in agriculture have been involved in encouraging production improvement in the war-torn, but highly fertile Sudan.

Small projects make a difference. Empowering local people with the technology and practical knowledge that fits their markets will be what helps. It’s not throwing them expensive solutions that don’t fit and leaving them to flounder with them.

Despite our productivity gains in North America, it will be productivity boosts in areas of high population growth that will make the most difference.

About the author


John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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