Sustainably Doubling Agricultural Productivity: The Right Global Goal for 2050

Posted by on March 15th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

By: Dr. Margaret M. Zeigler, Executive Director
Global Harvest Initiative

Today’s food and agriculture systems must rise to the challenge of providing the food we eat, feed for livestock, materials for the clothing we wear, forestry products for homes and industry, as well as bio-based industrial products and biofuels—all while becoming increasingly focused on sustainability.  To satisfy a peak global population of 9.7 billion people in 2050, agricultural economists project that total agricultural demand will increase by 60 percent to 100 percent compared with 2005 levels.

A recent call by researchers[i] at Pennsylvania State University to re-examine the projected demand for food in 2050 is being discussed across the agriculture and food security sector.  The authors state that the dominant “narrative” calling for a doubling of food production from 2005 to 2050 is outdated and argue that the current global targets have created a production-at-all-costs mentality, leading to widespread environmental degradation. Their goal is to “rebalance this narrative” to prioritize ecosystem conservation over agricultural production by revising targets for food production downward.

The authors generate lower food demand projections by shifting the baseline from which they measure and by limiting their analysis to cereal crop demand.  Current projections cite a need to nearly double food, feed, fiber and biofuels by 2050, starting with an original baseline date of 2005. The Pennsylvania State authors start with a 2014 baseline, and conclude that since global agricultural production rose about 33% between 2005 and 2014, we don’t need to double food supply by 2050, only raise cereal crop production by 66%.

This current analysis argues that the Penn State authors have overlooked or discounted significant factors influencing future food demand, including climate change and the skyrocketing demand for livestock-based products.  In addition, the researchers underestimate the level of sustained economic growth that is required to meet global goals for reducing poverty, which will in turn generate more demand for food and agriculture products than they currently account for.

Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) believes that it may be too soon to revise these goals downwards.  A focus on improving agricultural productivity, not just total agricultural output, is the key to meeting global food demand while conserving natural resources. 

Models and Climate Change Matter

The Penn State study overlooks a large and growing body of sophisticated modeling by agricultural economists examining long-term scenarios for agriculture, food and the environment.  The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) is a major international collaborative effort to improve the state of agricultural simulation and to incorporate state-of-the-art agricultural economic model improvements.  AgMip stakeholders coordinate regional and global assessments of climate impacts and use multiple scenarios for crop and livestock production across differing geographies to explore uncertainty and the effects of data and methodological choices. AGMIP has shed light on why projections differ and how sensitive they are to assumptions.

One paper released by the AgMIP Project explores why global long-term scenarios differ for agricultural demand across 10 leading global multi-sectoral models.   They find world agricultural production of crops and livestock between 2005 and 2050 will need to rise by between 60% and 111% with demand growth particularly strong for ruminant products (cows, sheep) as well as for commodities used in the production of biofuels—sugar, coarse grains and oilseeds.  An analysis focusing only on global cereal demand would omit these additional demands, and would provide an incomplete picture of the future resources required.

Most importantly,  AgMIP points to the impact climate change will have upon future agricultural ability to meet demand. Results from most of the 10 models suggest that climate change will generate higher prices for agricultural commodities in general and for crops in particular.  Failure to include this impact would lead to a downward bias in projected supply estimates.

Economic Growth Matters                                        

A critical challenge at hand is how to reduce poverty and hunger through economic growth while simultaneously conserving natural resources and reducing the climate impacts of agricultural production.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG8) lays out specific targets for the economic growth required to end poverty and hunger: in the least developed countries, this must reach at least 7% annual GDP growth.

However, the Penn State paper cites studies that assume economic growth rates too low to make a dent in poverty and hunger, averaging only between 2% and 3% annual GDP.

 The realization of UN SDG 8 will lead to higher demand for agricultural output in the developing countries, where there is presently insufficient agriculture and food production. Balancing the required economic growth with ensuring food and agriculture prices are affordable, particularly for those in countries that are vulnerable to food price fluctuations, will be key as we move forward.

Productivity Matters Most

The Penn State authors also overlook how significant improvements in agricultural productivity are helping farmers of all scales around the world more efficiently use and conserve resources, such as land, labor, livestock, fertilizer, feed and machinery.   By focusing on productivity, we take a vital first step towards more sustainable food and agriculture systems while still keeping food available and affordable.

 Productivity is not simply producing more food, or even achieving higher yields of crops.  In agriculture, total factor productivity (TFP) is the ratio of agricultural outputs (gross crop and livestock output) to inputs (land, labor, fertilizer, feed, machinery and livestock) (Figure 1).

 TFP measures changes in the efficiency with which all inputs are transformed into food, feed, fiber and biofuels through improved crop and livestock genetics, new technologies and practices—essentially, a measure of innovation adoption.

 Productivity also matters when it comes to reducing incentives for cropland conversion – a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which the authors of the Penn State study acknowledge is an important challenge.

For example, in high-income countries, decades of public and private investments in agricultural research and development, extension services and rural infrastructure, and adoption by farmers and ranchers of innovations in crop and livestock genetics and machinery have made productivity the principal source of growth in agricultural output (Figure 2). Land conversion has contracted and a reduction in the amount of fertilizer, machinery, feed, labor and other inputs put hectare of output is evident.

 Conversely, a lack of investment in productivity results in land-use conversion, particularly in fragile dryland or tropical forest zones, accelerating carbon release and land degradation and reducing biodiversity.  In low-income countries, land expansion to meet agricultural output demand has accelerated. Productivity on existing farmland must increase in order to sustainably meet demand (Figure 3).  Investments in public and private agricultural research and development are vital for productivity in agriculture and investments must be dramatically boosted in low-income countries.

Productivity Is the Right Goal

Getting the global food production goals right matters because they have impacts that go far beyond “narratives” about food production.  For example, revising agriculture goals downwards may lead to a decrease in investment in agricultural research and development.  These investments enable farmers to produce food more sustainably while conserving natural resources.  Without these innovations, farmers, particularly in food-deficit countries, will put more land into production to increase output.  In other words, reducing the agricultural production targets could work against the authors stated desire to protect fragile ecosystems.

GHI believes that doubling agricultural productivity from 2005 to 2050 is the right goal and is aligned with the UN SDG 2 target of doubling agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale farmers and food producers.

 To measure and track progress towards doubling productivity by 2050, GHI has developed a benchmark tool, the GAP Index™ that measures agricultural output from productivity (TFP) (Figure 4).

TFP must increase annually by 1.75%, but recent data show that for the third straight year, global TFP growth is not accelerating fast enough: the rate of TFP growth is 1.73%.   Most concerning is that for low-income countries, productivity is only increasing 1.31%, well below the UN SDG 2 target of doubling productivity.

Accelerating agricultural productivity, particularly for the low-income countries and small-scale farmers, must be at the core of a comprehensive strategy to sustainably feed the world. With more than 75% of the world’s poor heavily dependent on agriculture for their direct subsistence food needs as well as for income, agricultural development through productivity is one of the most powerful ways they can rise out of poverty.

To learn more about productivity, sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition, visit the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) website.   


[1] Mitchell C. Hunter, Richard G. Smith, Meagan E. Schipanski, Lesley W. Atwood, and David A. Mortensen. 2017. “Agriculture in 2050: Recalibrating Targets for Sustainable Intensification.” BioScience XX: 1-6. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

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  1. Re-posted as Sustainably Doubling Agricultural Productivity: The Right Global Goal for 2050