WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2015 – Significant growth in the agricultural sector is needed to feed a projected world population of 9.7 billion people by mid-century, but it must be done sustainably in order to ensure food and nutrition security, according to a new report.

The 2015 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report was released today by the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) as part of the World Food Prize events in Des Moines, Iowa. The report says demand for agricultural output will double by 2022, in large part due to a middle class that will grow to 70 percent of the world’s population by 2050, from the current 50 percent. Most of that middle class growth will happen in developing countries.

The 80-page report projects that in the next seven years demand for dairy in developing countries will increase 12 percent; cotton demand will jump 15 percent; course grain, by 22 percent; meat, by 24 percent; and poultry, by 28 percent. Demand for vegetable oils used in food and fuel will increase by a dramatic 32 percent, according to the report.

For global agricultural producers to meet these demands they will need more water – 19 percent more water in 2050 than today – and will put more pressure on natural resources, like soil, the GAP authors argued. Additionally, more livestock production and continued land conversions will contribute to the effects of climate change by producing additional greenhouse gas emissions, the report says.

The report recommends that policymakers and agricultural producers use the latest management practices - in both the United States and countries like Zambia - to simultaneously deliver greater yields and meet higher demand for protein while reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

“Sustainable agriculture must preserve the environment and provide a decent standard of living for producers,” explained Margaret Zeigler, executive director of GHI, during an event at which the report was released.

She noted that the current rate of global Total Factor Productivity (TFP) has been rising by an average annual rate of only 1.72 percent, below the target of 1.75 percent. And in the lowest income countries, the TFP has been stagnating at only 1.5 percent.

As a result of this productivity gap for low-income countries, there could be strains on the resource base that may lead to price spikes, further harming those who can least afford to purchase food, the GAP report notes.

To foster the adaptation of existing technologies and the development of new ones, and to guide sustainable ag growth, the report suggests five “building block” policy goals:

-          Invest in public agricultural research, development and extension.

-          Embrace science-based and information technologies — and scale up efforts to get them in the hands of farmers.

-          Enhance private sector involvement in agriculture and infrastructure development.

-          Remove barriers to regional and global agricultural trade.

-          Strengthen and coordinate international development assistance and productive safety nets for nutrition

The GAP report argues that U.S. agriculture’s successes can be attributed to the country’s “collaborative system of public and private agricultural research and development” that enables the delivery of “science-based innovation and best practices to achieve abundant food production with low prices for consumers.” Similar investments in innovation will yield comparable results on a global scale, the report said.

Yet, Zeigler pointed out that U.S. public expenditures in agricultural research and development are now falling behind. Research and development funding for agriculture grew by at least 2.6 percent annually after World War II and continued to grow throughout the early 1980s but has declined 6 percent since 2000, according to the GAP report.

GAP panelists noted the importance of continued funding and said the results from previous public research investments must be viewed over the longer term.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is making the investment in productivity for decades to come,” said Keith Fuglie, an economist with USDA’s Economic Research Service. “We enjoy a very affordable, abundant food source and we forget the role that research has played.”

“The investments we are making today are for next 20-25 years,” added Cory Reed, senior vice president, Intelligent Solutions Group, Deere and Co. “Sometimes it’s easy to take your eye off the ball.

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The report notes that U.S. agriculture is a key driver of the U.S. economy, employing 19 million people in full- and part-time jobs. U.S. farmers and agribusinesses generate $2 trillion in revenue, with agricultural exports totaling $176 billion, or 9 percent of all U.S. shipments overseas.  

Another aspect of the GAP report highlights the importance of soil conservation and resource management in improving on-farm productivity.

“How we can use less and less to grow more – that’s what TFP is all about,” added Reed.

(Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant contributed to this report.)