Agricultural productivity growth in low-income countries is falling further behind the increase needed to feed their growing populations, and the output of rich nations is insufficient as well, according to the Global Harvest Initiative’s annual GAP report.

The U.N. sustainable development goals call for doubling agricultural output by 2050 through productivity growth, but productivity has been rising by just 0.96 percent in poor countries, down from 1.31 percent in 2016 and 1.24 percent in 2017, says the report, released Wednesday in conjunction with the annual World Food Prize events in Des Moines, Iowa. 

“If this downward trend continues, farmers in low-income, food-deficit countries (where population growth is rapidly rising) will use more land and water to increase their output, straining a natural resource base already threatened by extreme weather and climate change,” the report says.

Globally, productivity growth is increasing at a rate of 1.51 percent, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service, but that is well behind the rate of 1.75 percent that is needed to double agricultural output, according to the Global Harvest Initiative’s calculations. 

GHI is sponsored by five major agribusiness firms: Corteva Agriscience, John Deere, Monsanto Co. (now part of Bayer), The Mosaic Co. and Smithfield Foods. 

GAP stands for global agricultural productivity. 

GHI’s work draws on advice from 13 consultative partners, including ACDI/VOCA, the Congressional Hunger Center, Conservation International, the Farm Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank and The Nature Conservancy.

Despite the emphasis on increasing productivity, the report frequently mentions the need to reduce food waste as a way to meet consumer demand: “Productivity alone is insufficient to ensure the sustainability of food and agriculture systems. Reducing post-harvest loss, food waste and economic and climate risks to the value chain need attention and investment.”

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The report lays out five goals that policymakers and industry need to pursue: 

  • Increased research and development, including into farming practices that “improve sustainability and resilience.”
  • Development of science-based and information technologies, from biotechnology to including apps that help consumers learn more about the food and agricultural products they consume. 
  • Incentives for private sector investment in infrastructure needs, including new roads, waterways, railroads and port improvements. 
  • New partnerships between local and international private businesses, non-governmental organizations, foundations, multilateral institutions and development agencies. Farmer organizations should be included in the design, management, monitoring and evaluation of the partnerships, the report says. 
  • New trade agreements and “consistently enforced laws and regulations” that make it easier for farmers to export and consumers to get access to imported products. 

The report highlights some of the initiatives of sponsor companies to increase productivity. In Nigeria, a local company called Alluvial has partnered with Deere to lease as many as 300 tractors to 100,000 smallholder farmers at a cost to each producer of about $100 per growing season. 

(Photo by the U.S. Agency for International Development)

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