The recently released 2022 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report tells a disturbing story: Growth in global agricultural productivity is in steep decline, a fact that should be of universal concern to environmentalists, hunger advocates, policymakers, and the general public alike. Yet, this is a story we can consider and assess best solutions in hopes of a brighter narrative. Atop that list should be a regulatory system that encourages research, innovation, and fact-based, common-sense decisions that work with, and not against, our farmers.
Farmers love productive agriculture. A bumper crop typically means a better bottom line, but there are sound reasons everyone should cheer agricultural productivity. A 2021 USDA analysis found that, since 1948, U.S. agricultural output has almost tripled, yet land use and labor needs have decreased by 28% and 76%, respectively. U.S. soybean production alone has increased by more than 50% in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, usage of ag inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides has remained relatively static. Consider how amazing this is: We have nearly tripled world food production while cutting land and labor use and also controlling input usage. This productivity increase, largely attributed to innovations in genetics, equipment, and precision agriculture, has allowed us to avoid global famine and ecological catastrophe while feeding a global population that has increased threefold in the last 70 years.
But past need not necessarily be prologue. This trend may not continue, especially if policymakers fail to support continued innovation through a modern, flexible and science-based regulatory system. Enter the 2022 GAP report.
Alarmingly, the report found global agricultural productivity grew by only 1.12% annually from 2011-20, far below the 1.73% needed to sustainably feed the 9 billion world population expected by 2050. As troubling, some of the regions with greatest productivity gains, including Sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America, came from converting grasslands, forests, and other wildlands to agriculture or significantly increasing inputs. In other words, globally, we are no longer innovating: The world is simply putting more land into production and dumping increased inputs into it—a move in the wrong direction for both productivity and sustainability.
It is not too late to course correct, and here in the U.S., we are already taking positive steps. The Biden administration’s recent executive order advancing biotechnology regulatory modernization has the potential to be indispensable in paving the way for the use of gene edited crops, livestock, and microbes. Gene editing has unimaginable prospects to advance breeding efforts and significantly boost yields, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve disease resistance, ease mechanization, and decrease food waste. However, our regulatory approach must reflect the science of myriad breeding and technology applications consistently proven safe. To do so, the administration must finish the work of the past two administrations by modernizing archaic rules at USDA, FDA, and EPA, and thus unleash the transformative potential of this tool for agriculture.
Growers must also continue to have access to safe, effective crop inputs. While the administration’s recent investments in domestic nutrient production were welcome, EPA’s pesticide program is in distress. The agency lacks resources and guidance needed to complete the colossal task of implementing the Endangered Species Act into its pesticide program. This jeopardizes continued grower access to tools needed to protect crops and support vital conservation practices, like reduced tillage and cover crops, and the ability of new, more environmentally friendly tools to come to market. Congress should ensure the agency has the financial resources it needs to put this program back on path, with lawmakers giving clear direction that decisions must be based on the best available science in order to both protect species and support agriculture.
The GAP report also highlighted concerns with slowdowns in agricultural research investment, noting that dips in U.S. agricultural productivity coincide with reductions in public sector research. A June report from USDA’s Economic Research Service shows investment in U.S public agricultural research and development has fallen by a third over the past two decades and lags major trade competitors—like China, now the world’s largest funder of ag R&D—that have either held steady or increased their investments in public-sector agriculture research. USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area and our land grant universities, combined with corporate and start-ups, are critical to the research projects needed to support U.S. agriculture’s continued success—and in turn, combat global food insecurity. Congress should carefully consider how we can better embolden these researchers to gain the upper hand on the growing productivity gap demonstrated in the GAP report.
These are but a few opportunities policymakers should pursue to improve agricultural productivity. Numerous others remain. However, the GAP report has made one thing clear: The world is no longer on track to increase productivity in a way that will allow us to sustainably feed its populations in the decades to come. In response, we have the ability, at least here in the U.S., to enable the new tools and innovations needed to get back on track—or we can face a future that is much less secure for farmers, the people they feed, and the environment they steward.
Stephen Censky is CEO of the American Soybean Association.
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