2011 GAP Report®

Global Agricultural Productivity Report™

The 2011 GAP Report™ features the latest comparison of the current rate of global agricultural productivity with the rate required to sustainably meet the needs of the more than nine billion people expected to inhabit the Earth by 2050, and four national-level case studies which highlight the impact of key policies on agricultural productivity.

2011 GAP Report® – Print Version


The Task Before Us: Meeting the Needs of a Growing World

Today there are nearly one billion people who do not have access to a safe and adequate food supply. In fact, around 20 percent of the world’s population lives on less than $1.25 per day and many of them are children who suffer from severe long-term health problems resulting from inadequate nutrition. Between now and 2050, the global population is projected to grow by more than 30 percent, resulting in an estimated 2.3 billion more people to feed.1 The May 2011 United Nations population projections show world population growing from about seven billion in 2011 to more than nine billion by 2050.2

Global Population & Growth by Region

Figure 1: Global Population Growth and Percent of Growth by Region

Most of the population growth is expected in Sub-Saharan Africa (49 percent, an increase of one billion by 2050) and Asia (41 percent, an increase of over 900 million), both of which are low-income areas with relatively low levels of agricultural productivity. Most of the poor people in these regions obtain their food and earn their meager incomes from farming small plots of land, and spend nearly 80 percent of that income on food.

In addition to the challenges presented by a rapidly growing population, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) analysis highlights the increase in protein-based diets, which causes per capita caloric intake to increase by nearly one-third. Therefore, the total supply of food measured in kilocalories for the region will need to increase by more than 170 percent.

Global Arable Land and Population

Figure 2: Global Arable Land and Population

However, the basic calculation of caloric requirements oversimplifies the challenge facing Sub-Saharan Africa.  While the consumption of staple foods like roots, tubers and cereals will increase at a slower rate than total caloric intake, consumption of meat–currently about 20 pounds per person per year–is expected to nearly double by 2050.  Additionally, consumption of vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables and sugar is also projected to rise more rapidly than overall calories.

The above trends indicate the need for a substantial increase in food production, as well as improvements in both domestic agricultural production patterns and trade flows, in order to meet the needs of changing dietary patterns. Changing diets are just one reason why trade is an important food security strategy. By 2050, a larger fraction of agricultural production will need to move through trade because the world’s population distribution by region is not the same as the distribution of arable land (Figure 2). Regions like North America, South America, Europe and Oceania have a higher proportion of arable land and will continue to be a source of agricultural output for other regions, including Asia. It is also important to note the continuing population migration to urban areas. Today more than 50 percent of the population lives in urban areas. By 2050, that proportion will increase to 70 percent.

In order to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture, the challenges of meeting the food, feed, fiber, energy and industrial needs of a growing world must be accomplished sustainably, primarily by utilizing existing land and natural resources to increase production.
Just as there are constraints on available land, constraints also exist on the availability of water. Globally, agriculture accounts for nearly 70 percent of all water withdrawals. However, this percentage varies greatly by region (Figure 3). In areas such as Asia, where irrigation is vital, water supply will be significantly stressed to keep up with demand. In addition, rainfed agriculture will be important to meeting future production needs.
Total Global Water Withdrawn

Figure 3: Total Global Water Withdrawn

In the near future, human society will have to make fundamental decisions about food and agricultural policies and how to meet the rising demand for agricultural output. Policies that support agricultural development and productivity improvement are important to meeting aggregate food needs and are also a means of improving nutrition and alleviating poverty; when farmers become more productive, they improve the nutrition of their families and are able to move out of poverty.

Rural poverty reduction, in particular, depends on growth in yields and improved agricultural labor productivity, but those links vary widely across countries and regions. In addition, there is strong research evidence that GDP growth originating in agriculture often drives income growth among the poorest rural residents in developing countries. The potential poverty-reducing impact of agriculture-related growth is three times larger than growth originating from other sectors of the economy.3,4

2011 Global Agricultural Productivity Index™

The Global Agricultural Productivity Index™ (GAP Index™) was developed by GHI to measure ongoing progress in achieving the goal of sustainably doubling agricultural output by 2050. The GAP Index measures the difference between the current rate of agricultural productivity growth and the pace required to meet future needs. A twofold increase in agricultural output by 2050 will require total factor productivity (TFP)* to grow at an annual global rate of 1.75 percent.5

The Global Agricultural Productivity Index

Figure 4: The Global Agricultural Productivity Index

In 2010, GHI reported that the global TFP growth rate stood at 1.4 percent annually and that a 25 percent increase in the rate of TFP growth was needed to close the gap. This year’s GAP Index includes an additional year of data (2008) and incorporates revised FAO data on the inputs and outputs applied. The updated GAP Index shows that the TFP growth rate is now increasing at a 1.74 percent annual rate (Figure 4). As this snapshot indicates, TFP growth rates will fluctuate year to year, just as yields will rise and fall, reflecting changing weather patterns, disease outbreaks and other factors.

While the new evidence of faster productivity growth for this year is welcome, it does not alleviate the concern or urgency about addressing the pace of agricultural development in parts of the world where much of the population increase will take place, especially Sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, TFP growth for Sub-Saharan Africa averages approximately 0.85 percent, in sharp contrast to growth rates well above two percent in Brazil and China.

If Sub-Saharan Africa had to meet its expected food needs independently, a twofold increase in TFP growth would be needed. While some of the region’s growing demand for food may be met by input intensification, reduction in post-harvest loss and increased imports, the challenge remains daunting and will require other policy changes that will aggressively support agricultural development.

Solutions to Close the Gap

The Global Harvest Initiative has identified five policy areas that foster agricultural development to help close the global productivity gap:

  • Improving Agricultural Research Funding, Structure and Collaboration
  • Removing Barriers to Global and Regional Trade in Agriculture
  • Strengthening and Streamlining Development Assistance Programs
  • Embracing Science-Based Technologies
  • Enhancing Private Sector Involvement in Agricultural and Rural Infrastructure Development

The following section features national-level case studies of the emerging market economies of Brazil, China, Indonesia and Ghana, which highlight the impact of GHI’s five policy areas on agricultural productivity and development. The case studies seek to provide an understanding of how select policies can be effective in addressing food security and hunger through agricultural development.

Agricultural Case Studies: Four Emerging Market Countries

Productivity growth varies widely among countries and regions, with some having more success than others. Brazil, China, Indonesia and Ghana are examples of four emerging market countries from different parts of the world that have had varying success in agricultural development. Total factor productivity for Brazil and China has outpaced the rest of the emerging market and developing countries, while Indonesia has been closer to the developing country average (Figure 5).6

Agricultural Total Factor Productivity Indexes

Figure 5: Agricultural TFP – Brazil, China and Indonesia

Ghana’s TFP, on the other hand, did not begin to improve until nearly a decade after Brazil, China and Indonesia. However, since the early 1980s, Ghana has achieved rates above that of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 6).7

While each country’s approach has been different, certain fundamental policies exist that are necessary to promote agricultural development. These policies include: supporting research and development (R&D) to create new science-based technologies; supporting the widespread adoption of technologies; investing in critical infrastructure; improving access to domestic and foreign markets and removing trade barriers; and fostering an environment that is conducive to private sector investment in the agriculture and food sectors.

Agricultural Total Factor Productivity Indexes

Figure 6: Agricultural Total Factor Productivity Indexes – Ghana and Sub-Saharan Africa

The following sections highlight policies that have contributed to agricultural productivity and development improvements in Brazil, China, Indonesia and Ghana.


Brazil is characterized by large and well-developed agricultural, mining, manufacturing and service sectors. It is South America’s largest, most populous nation and its leading economic power.

Brazil’s productivity growth accelerated in the early 1980s and has grown relatively steadily in recent years with significant government support. The government’s approach has been unique, focusing heavily on investment in R&D. In 1973, Brazil established a public research company, Embrapa, known as the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, at a time when sharp increases in petroleum prices were making the country’s high levels of agricultural subsidies extremely costly. The government pledged to invest $20 in Embrapa for every $50 saved by reducing subsidies, a policy that provided sufficient funds to turn Embrapa into a leading tropical-research institution with broad expertise and projects ranging from plant genetics to livestock breeding. Embrapa has been successful in helping to create effective technologies uniquely suited to the expansion of Brazilian agriculture.8

Today, Brazil maintains a large and growing public research system. On a purchasing-power parity (PPP)** basis, the nation spent more than $1.3 billion on public research in 2005, second to China, which spent more than $4.2 billion. However, Brazil’s total investment in agricultural research represents 1.66 percent of its agricultural GDP, a far greater share than China’s research investment, which amounts to 0.53 percent of its agricultural GDP (Figure 7).9

A longer-term example of Embrapa’s R&D success is its role in developing the broad range of efficient crops and production systems in the Cerrado region. Once regarded as unfit for farming by the father of the Green Revolution and Nobel laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, today the Cerrado region accounts for a massive 70 percent of Brazil’s farm output.8

Total Investment in Ag R&D and Percentage of Ag GDP

Figure 7: Total Investment in Ag R&D and Percentage of Ag GDP

Like the United States, China, Argentina, India and Canada, Brazil has embraced science-based technologies, including biotechnology, to accelerate productivity growth. Brazil also has a streamlined and effective regulatory approval process for new technologies, which allows farmers to gain access to the latest technological advancements. Brazilian farmers subsequently invested heavily in mechanization, as well as other more advanced, large-scale farming practices. For example, the number of tractors in Brazil per 100 square kilometers has grown from just over 32 in 1961 to around 130 in 2006.10

While R&D and science-based technologies have demonstrated notable results for Brazil, an additional and important stimulus for growth came from macroeconomic stabilization and greater openness to trade, which encouraged more private-sector investment in agriculture. Brazil opened markets by substantially reducing tariff rates from an average of 51 percent to just more than 10 percent currently.10 Today Brazil is one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural products and continues to seek access to new markets.

The biggest constraint to Brazil’s future agricultural growth is a lack of infrastructure. Producers still face competitive bottlenecks arising from internal distance to markets, partly due to the size of the country. For example, parts of the important Mato Grosso agricultural region are 2,000 kilometers away from the main soybean export facility at Paranaguá, which cannot yet handle the largest, most modern ships. In addition, much of the crop marketing chain involves the movement of relatively low-value commodities by truck, the most expensive means of transportation. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of improved roads;8 only 10 percent of the country’s road network is paved, yet more than 60 percent of agricultural production is transported by truck, often for thousands of kilometers. Brazil’s rail system, meanwhile, is one-seventh the size of the U.S. system, and consists of several short line railroads that do not connect because of different rail sizes. In Mato Grosso, some farmers have tried to overcome these challenges by building roads that link farms to federal and state highways.11


China has the largest population in the world and benefits from large land area and sizable domestic markets. However, only 15 percent of China’s land is arable. Any review of China’s recent development progress must recognize that it was traditionally one of the poorest countries in the world, where most rural people struggled to survive. In 1978, 250 million rural Chinese, or one-third of the entire rural population, did not have access to food or income sufficient to maintain healthy and productive lives.12

This changed dramatically beginning in 1978 when rural reforms began, including the introduction of the “household responsibility system,” which replaced communal farms. This system allowed households to contract land, machinery and other facilities from collective organizations, to make operating decisions independently and to freely dispose of surplus production over and above national and collective quotas. This greatly improved economic incentives, and productivity on the farms improved significantly, beginning the agricultural productivity growth that continues today.

Mechanization as an indicator of investment in farm-level productivity reveals a dramatic increase in the number of tractors in China per 100 square kilometers since 1961 (Figure 8).13

A second source of stimulus for productivity growth in China was investment in R&D, starting in 1990. Government spending on agricultural research and extension is generally credited with contributing significantly to agricultural productivity improvements, which has resulted in large benefits for the rural poor.

China’s agricultural research system has expanded rapidly during the past four decades and is now one of the largest systems in the world. On a PPP basis, in 2005, China invested more than $4 billion in research,9  far more than Brazil, Indonesia or Ghana. Research and development spending as a percentage of agricultural GDP was just under 0.6 percent, large in comparison to both developing country standards and the size of the agricultural economy.

Number of Tractors Per 100 Square Kilometers, China

Figure 8: Number of Tractors Per 100 Square Kilometers, China

Both education and agricultural R&D are seen as highly effective and efficient policies to address China’s long-term food security concerns and to simultaneously deal with the need for growth, poverty reduction and equity. Since 1978, China has promoted education through the implementation of nine years of compulsory schooling for all children.12 The result is an increase in education for the labor force from 4.38 years in 1975 to 6.35 years in 2000, the latest year for which data are available.14

The investment in education improved labor quality and reduced illiteracy from 28 percent in 1985 to 10 percent in 1997. These investments have been important in providing farmers with the skills to use modern farming technology and to engage in non-farm activities in both rural township enterprises and urban industrial centers.12


Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the world’s fourth most populous country, with nearly 246 million people. Fluctuations in government policy that ranged from discrimination against the agricultural sector to support for productivity and technology growth have caused Indonesia’s agricultural development to be somewhat erratic.

Between 1968 and 1992, agriculture and food security were given priority in economic policy, and producers received large subsidies for agricultural inputs. During this time, Green Revolution crop varieties (especially high-yielding rice varieties) were promoted, and resulted in above average productivity growth. By the mid-1980s, trade and fiscal imbalances led to a gradual shift in economic policies in favor of export-led manufacturing, and agricultural subsidies and investments began to wane, resulting in a period of stagnation after 1993, when productivity growth slowed sharply.14

Following the severe economic contraction and political challenges caused by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, a reform government emerged with a more market-oriented agricultural policy. A sharp devaluation of the currency, liberalization of food crop markets and changes in land-use policy shifted comparative advantage in agriculture toward export commodities like tropical perennials, horticulture, animals and aquaculture, as well as food crops. Throughout this period, commodity diversification was an important source of productivity growth.15

Research suggests that while agriculturally-focused liberalization efforts and major shifts in monetary policy succeeded in buoying farm technology growth, government-sponsored research has played only a modest role in that improvement. While the government price and trade policies presumably attracted private investment into the agricultural sector and public investment in agricultural and rural infrastructure was important, most of the productivity growth can be attributed to informal technological adoption from private rather than government sources.16

Relatively low government agricultural R&D spending continues to be a significant constraint to productivity growth in Indonesia, and the nation continues to struggle with poverty and unemployment, inadequate infrastructure, problems in achieving good governance, a complex regulatory environment, and unequal resource distribution among regions. In late 2010, rising inflation (driven by higher and volatile food prices), posed an increasing challenge and reduced the nation’s capacity to improve its infrastructure and address important environmental concerns.


Ghana was formed by the 1957 merger of the British colony of the Gold Coast and the Trust Territory of Togoland and became the first Sub-Saharan country in colonial Africa to gain its independence. Agriculture accounts for roughly one-third of Ghana’s GDP and employs more than half of the workforce, including many small landholders. Ghana reflects the conditions in many African nations where agricultural production is central to the lives of citizens. World Bank reports indicate that up to 80 percent of Africa’s poor live in rural areas and nearly all work primarily in agriculture.18 Agricultural productivity is the key determinant of the welfare of these groups, and agricultural productivity growth is their primary hope for poverty reduction, at least in the short- to mid-term.

For Ghana, agricultural productivity began to increase in the 1980s, primarily as a result of economic reform policies, which reduced discrimination against agriculture and strengthened incentives to farmers.

Like other countries, Ghana also benefited from the adoption of improved crop technologies developed abroad, mainly from the international agricultural research system. However, the nation is still struggling to realize all of the benefits of those practices. Between 1984 and 1996, the Ghanaian Development Project developed and released twelve improved varieties of maize, promoted use of chemical fertilizers to complement these improved varieties, and improved management practices.18 By 1997, a nationwide survey found that 54 percent of farmers planted modern varieties of maize. A 2010 survey found that approximately 80 percent of the farmers in Ghana’s Eastern Region have adopted improved maize but less than half of them received commercial fertilizer.19 The survey also found that the likelihood of adoption of improved maize was a positive function of both road access for farmers and the number of visits by extension agents.17

The need for investment in agricultural productivity is now better understood, at least at government levels, but the country’s yield gaps remain substantial. For example, an average maize yield of 1.5 metric tons per hectare is reported to be 40 percent short of the achievable yield. Still, national officials suggest that the country simply lacks resources to increase R&D spending or fertilizer use—key determinants of productivity growth.17

Since the 1980s, Ghana has maintained a higher growth rate of TFP than the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. However, Ghana continues to face many of the same constraints as the rest of the sub-continent, including low R&D spending and poor infrastructure. More public and private investment is necessary to close the productivity and food system gaps, including storage, processing and distribution.

Closing the Gap

These four case studies highlight the importance of investment and implementation of policies that will continue to boost agricultural production. Closing the gap requires focusing on agricultural productivity at the farm level as well as throughout the entire food system.

Government Support for Agricultural Development

Relative Rate of Assistance

Figure 9: Relative Rate of Assistance – Brazil, China, Ghana, and Indonesia

All four case studies demonstrate the importance of government support for agricultural development and the impact on productivity of removing unnecessary burdens on these systems. The relative rate of assistance (RRA)*** is especially useful in defining this relationship because it provides internationally comparable indicators of the extent to which each country’s policies have biases for or against its agriculture sector (Figure 9).20 In the early 1970s, support for agriculture was extremely negative (-20 to -50 percent), but reforms in the 1980s and 1990s changed that pattern. By 2000, three of the four governments in the case studies had removed the negative policies and were supporting agriculture at least equal to other sectors.

Improving Agricultural Research Funding, Structure and Collaboration

Both public- and private-sector investments in agricultural research and development are critical in maintaining a productivity rate that will meet the needs of a growing global population. For Brazil and China, publicly funded R&D was a primary growth stimulus. Even in Indonesia, where private-sector investment played the larger role, public-sector research succeeded in creating opportunities for subsequent private commercial operations.

The benefits from R&D globally are well understood and can be measured. Estimates vary, but the benefits of $1 invested in agricultural research range from $5 to $20, or more.21 As budget pressures are growing globally, the challenge going forward will be to adequately fund agricultural research.

Research and development can help identify solutions to limit post-harvest loss and improve the nutritional composition of food. Additionally, R&D can identify new management practices to increase the efficiency of inputs—including water and fertilizer—that will help maximize the amount of yield to ensure sufficient productivity growth over the next 40 years.

Enhancing Private Sector Involvement in Agricultural and Rural Infrastructure Development

In 2011, the Global Harvest Initiative commissioned a study that estimated the investment needed to support agricultural development in all developing countries to be $90 billion annually.23 This gap will only be closed if the environment is suitable for both public and private investment.

One critical area for investment that is necessary for adequate development is infrastructure, especially roads, which serve as a vital part of the infrastructure needed for adequate development. Without sufficiently maintained roads, producers and communities are often isolated, leading to high costs and low returns. As Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, says, “Poverty begins where the roads end.” Roads, however, are just one essential infrastructure component for sustained development and accelerated agricultural productivity. Moreover, doubling agricultural output over the next 40 years will also increase the need for more storage, processing, and distribution capacity, and require a significant amount of capital investment to create the appropriate infrastructure.

Dr. William G. Lesher, GHIEmbracing Science-Based Technologies

Brazil and China, like many developed nations, have benefited greatly from the adoption of science-based technologies. Traditional plant breeding, biotechnology, Global Positioning System (GPS)-guided equipment and agricultural management practices such as variable-rate planting and harvesting, among others, are technologies that have played a significant role in increasing agricultural productivity while reducing the environmental footprint. For example, since 1996, the use of pesticides on biotech crops was reduced by 359 million kilograms of active ingredient, an 8.8 percent reduction, and the overall environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops was reduced by 17.2 percent. Additionally, a recent study estimates that the average GPS-induced yield gain is 10 percent and the average input savings is 15 percent.22

The impact of science-based technologies is also illustrated by the Field to Market Index, which has shown soil-loss efficiency improvements of 30 to 70 percent for corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat over the last two decades. In addition, energy use per unit of output has decreased in corn, soybean and cotton production by nearly 40 to more than 60 percent. Irrigated water use per unit of output has dropped by about a third for corn, soybeans and cotton.24

The story is different for small-holder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. In order to provide adequate nutrition for their families and operate their farms as businesses, smallholder farmers must be able to gain access to and adopt appropriate technologies, including seeds that thrive in local environments and soils, appropriate fertilizer, and mechanization and irrigation. Additionally, it is critical to establish property rights to provide the incentives that will help farmers increase agricultural productivity.

Removing Barriers to Global and Regional Trade in Agriculture

Trade is a vital component of increasing global agricultural productivity. Today, about one-quarter of all food and agricultural products are traded internationally, a figure that must grow to meet the increasing demand. Considering the imbalance between the locations of population centers and sources of food, trade and access to markets are fundamental to global food security. Because population centers and natural resources are not evenly distributed around the world, most nations cannot achieve food self-sufficiency without an enormous economic and/or environmental cost. Trade is the mechanism that links supply to demand, and trade liberalization plays an essential role in promoting global food security by making the international food system more efficient. By providing producers with access to larger markets outside of their local and regional areas, economies of size can be utilized, enabling countries to expand food output efficiently. In all four case studies, the movement toward more open markets has enabled Brazil, China, Indonesia and Ghana to improve agricultural productivity.

Meeting the Challenge

As noted, the evidence of an increased rate of productivity growth indicates that achieving the necessary increases to meet the rising demands of the future is possible. However, the critical challenge will be in maintaining this rate for each of the next 40 years. Countries across the globe, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, must actively invest in agricultural research, reduce trade barriers, and embrace science-based technologies and innovation while working to establish a business environment to attract private capital.

While the challenge of sustainably meeting the needs of a growing global population is daunting, with the right set of policies, progress can be made toward increasing agricultural productivity to address global hunger and food security.


*This measure reflects the amounts of total inputs used per unit of output, including comparisons of the growth of output to growth of input use. A one percent increase in TFP, for example, means that one percent fewer agricultural resources are required to produce a given bundle of crop and livestock outputs so that, if prices were unchanged, the average cost of production would decline by one percent.

**The theory of purchasing-power parity says that in the long run exchange rates should move towards rates that would equalize the prices of an identical basket of goods and services in any two countries. Source: The Economist

***The RRA is a ratio of nominal assistance to agriculture to the nominal assistance to non-agriculture. If both of those sectors are equally assisted, the RRA is zero.


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