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Tech Critical To Close Food GAP

Gregg Hillyer
By  Gregg Hillyer , Progressive Farmer Editor-in-Chief
U.S. agricultural output, inputs, and total factor productivity, 1948-2021 (USDA Economic Research Service)

Innovation is synonymous with farming, yielding big results. According to USDA, technological advances have made it possible for America's farmers to nearly triple total agricultural output between 1948 and 2021.

But, where does ag stand globally to meet the challenge of feeding 9 to 10 billion people by 2050?

Experts use total factor productivity (TFP) to measure the amount of agricultural output produced from the combined inputs utilized by farmers ... land, labor, capital, intermediate inputs. Growth in TFP indicates positive changes in the efficiency with which inputs are transformed into outputs. Long term, this growth is generally fueled by the adoption of new and updated technology by farmers, along with gains in labor and efficiency practices.

The most recent "Global Agricultural Productivity Report" (GAP), which includes the U.S., shows TFP from 2011 to 2021 grew an average of 1.14% annually. That falls well short of the 1.91% annual TFP growth needed to meet global food demands by 2050. In fact, TFP growth has dropped sharply compared to 2001-2010, when it was 1.93% annually. The GAP report authors concluded the slower rate suggests the pace of innovation and the adoption of ag innovations are declining, especially in low-income countries.

China and South Asia were the only world regions that experienced strong TFP, growing 1.97 and 2.18%, respectively, during 2011-2021. Meanwhile, annual average TFP growth in the U.S. has fallen from 1.49% during the 1990s to 1.39% in 2001-2010 to negative .01% through 2021. It's not a coincidence that in 2019, U.S. public ag research expenditures in constant dollars reached their lowest level since 1970, whereas China's ag research and development budget is now more than twice that of the U.S.

To jump-start the sluggish TFP growth to reach 1.91% and reduce the need to increase production by cultivating fragile lands or using unsustainable practices, GAP authors stress barriers must be reduced so farmers everywhere and at all scales of production can adopt appropriate and proven practices and technologies. These include:

-- Improved Genetics. Enhanced crop and livestock genetics will help to maximize yield and nutritional quality, while minimizing input requirements and increasing tolerance to environmental stresses.

-- Precision Agriculture. Data, technology and automation are leveraged to make production management more precise and resource efficient.

-- Soil-Health Management. Healthy soil practices reduce erosion, maximize water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling, reduce inputs and improve land resilience.

-- Integrated Production Systems. Local integration of production practices (crops, livestock, aquaculture) increases output while strengthening ecosystem services and reducing the environmental impacts of resource use.

-- Pest/Disease Management. Controlling these threats while also maintaining ecosystem services is critical to sustainable productivity growth.

-- Mechanization and Automation. Machinery and agricultural engineering maximize labor productivity, improve output quality and maximize resource utilization efficiency.

-- Knowledge-Sharing Platforms. Training on new and existing productivity-enhancing tools is necessary for optimizing the use of the tools, minimizing costs and maximizing uptake. Sharing knowledge on how to incorporate new technologies into indigenous farming practices is critical to attaining productivity growth.

America's farmers certainly know ... and have demonstrated ... the power of technology to help boost production. Yet, regulatory, political, social, economic and other roadblocks prevent many of the world's farmers from using some of these same tech tools. The GAP report presents a tech adoption road map to close the food fissure. But, it will also require adequate research funding across all countries to maintain stable and sustainable agricultural growth to meet the food needs of a global population.

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