WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2016 - Rapid increases in productivity have more than doubled U.S. agricultural output since the end of World War II, allowing food production to keep pace with or exceed population growth. But several voices have begun to question whether productivity gains can be sustained – and some to speculate that they can be enhanced with application of new technologies in the short term.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was born in 1950, mentions often that agricultural production has increased 180 percent during his lifetime. USDA Chief Economist Robert Johansson has been explaining to several audiences how production is nearly 2.5 times greater even as the amount of inputs has held relatively steady over the past six decades.

Mechanization became widespread beginning in the late 1940s, Johansson notes, with no-till cropping gaining popularity in the 1960s. The first use of satellite-enabled precision farming began in the early ’90s, followed by the adoption of herbicide-resistant and pest-averse biotech crops. He asks whether the application of “big data” could drive a new gain in productivity.

For example, the recently-formed AgGateway consortium says that electronic exchange and use of data “will be one of the strongest drivers of productivity impacting agriculture in our lifetimes.” Its website sees productivity gains, greater efficiency, and cost reductions “from a manufacturer’s back office and the ag retailer’s warehouse to the farmer’s smart phone.”

USDA data shows dramatic gains in productivity to date. Between 1948 and 2011, soybean yields per acre doubled and corn yields grew more than fourfold. All this occurred on about 25 percent less farmland and with 78 percent less labor than in 1948. USDA’s Economic Research Service believes, based on modeling estimates of different levels of investment in research and development, that productivity should continue to increase over the next decade. But in the longer term, its analysts expect the annual rate of growth to fall from the historical average of 1.42 percent to 0.86 percent by 2050, if research investment holds at current levels.

“Growth in crop yields slowed in the 1990s and, along with slowing growth in U.S. public agricultural research funding, raised concerns about the growth potential of U.S. agricultural productivity,” the ERS economists point out.

If there is to be long-term growth in productivity, it will require innovation from research funded by both public and private sectors, ERS analysts believe, along with extension activities and some public infrastructure spending. But public investment in agricultural research and development began to erode in 2009 and was nearly 6 percent lower in 2012 than in 1982. On the other hand, private research and development spending has grown by over a third.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, in their recently released Agricultural Outlook 2016-2025, said that increased demand for food is projected to be satisfied through productivity gains. Yield improvements are projected to account for 80 percent of the increase in crop output over the next decade. However, they add, “Yield growth is expected to be slower in the main producing countries, as it becomes progressively more difficult to shift the technological frontier forward.”

The Global Harvest Initiative – a confederation of DuPont, Elanco, John Deere, Monsanto, The Mosaic Company, Farmland Partners Inc. and Novozymes created in 2009 to encourage renewed research investment – noted in a 2015 report that U.S. agricultural productivity growth has slipped from its historical average of 1.5-2.0 percent in 1960-2000 to less than 1 percent in 2001-2010. To GHI, that generates “concerns about the long-term potential for sustainable agricultural and economic growth.”

Yet GHI Executive Director Margaret Zeigler sees in the short term “some very exciting products and technology that are the result of a lot of those investments made over a decade ago in research and development.” She told Agri-Pulse, “Technologies available now and coming on line can help productivity primarily by managing nutrient input as well as being able to tackle some of the mitigation that is going to be required in greenhouse gas emission.”

As an example, she cites promising research by Raj Khosla, a professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State, showing that precision application of nitrogen in corn holds potential for minimizing losses, thus improving water quality and reducing emissions of nitrous oxide, a significant greenhouse gas. “It’s not going to be that difficult once these techniques are verified,” she says. “Farmers all over the world – large, medium and small size – can do it. It’s not just limited to large U.S. farms. It’s valid for the small farmer in China too.”

In a recent essay advocating increased appropriations for USDA agricultural research, Zeigler argues that “agricultural productivity – producing more food, feed, fiber and biofuel using less land, water, livestock and other inputs – is a critical strategy to help feed the world, and to minimize agriculture’s environmental impact.” She adds that R&D investments, and the capacity to extend new innovations to farmers, are some of the “most important predictors of a country’s ability to increase the productivity and sustainability of its agriculture system.”

Congress is also aware of the need for additional agricultural research. In the 2014 farm bill lawmakers authorized the creation of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, putting up $200 million to be matched by the same amount in private donations.


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