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Towards More Sustainable Production: International Conference Explores the Intersection of AG Productivity & the Environment
Governments and industry are seeking to understand how to make their agriculture sectors more productive, by producing more food and agricultural goods while simultaneously reducing costs and the impact on the natural resource base. One tool for analyzing this process is a measure called Total Factor Productivity (TFP), which is a data-driven ratio that measures output compared with input.
Increasing agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability are two of the greatest global challenges of the twenty-first century. Productivity and sustainability are inextricably linked, but their relationship is complicated and there is great interest in finding ways to understand and measure their interactions, particularly in order to move towards more sustainable production systems. On March 11-12, some of the world’s top researchers in agronomy, sustainability, and economics gathered in Washington, DC for an international conference to discuss agricultural productivity and the environment, and the role technology-based tools play in improving both.
Global Harvest Initiative (GHI), the Farm Foundation, and USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) hosted the event which included participants from Kenya, Sweden, France, Germany, Australia, and the UK, as well as representatives from several US government agencies, including USDA.
Researchers discussed the environmental implications of rising global demand for animal protein, changes in land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, nutrient balances, and soil health. Several themes echoed throughout the conference presentations and discussions. First, the conferees highlighted opportunities for using science and information based technologies to increase productivity while freezing or reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture. Second, the discussion centered on trade-offs between productivity and sustainability; not all interventions are mutually beneficial and difficult choices lie ahead. Third, evidence shows a strong correlation between environmental sustainability and agricultural production methods that use inputs (i.e. land or fertilizer) more efficiently, but we don’t yet have a good way to quantify this relationship. Several presenters stressed the importance of providing the right incentives to farm producers to encourage adoption of technologies and farming practices that save environmental resources.
In his closing remarks, Dr. Keith Fuglie, a global expert on productivity at USDA-ERS, said that the key to maximizing the opportunities and managing the trade-offs of productivity and sustainability is improving incentives for farm producers to save environmental resources. Better measurement tools will be essential to track progress toward more sustainable agricultural systems. Fuglie believes that existing tools, such as TFP, can be transformed to measure the sustainability, as well as the efficiency, of agricultural production. A promising trend towards better measurement of the environmental performance of agriculture is being developed by the OECD within their new Agri-Environmental Indicators dataset (OECD AEI) and these indicators could be incorporated within TFP frameworks.
These tools can guide policymakers, researchers, companies, even farmers as they seek to preserve our natural resource base while producing enough food to feed the world in 2050, and beyond.
Click here for a list of conference presentations and presenters.