Total global agricultural productivity is growing at the rate needed to meet the demand for feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050, the Global Harvest Initiative said in a report released at a World Food Prize event in Des Moines, Iowa, today.

But the rate of food productivity gains in some of the fastest-growing regions of the world such as Africa and Southeast Asia are falling short of the 1.7 percent required to meet the ambitious goal of feeding those billions, analysts speaking at a briefing said.

“Based on the new FAO estimates, the current rate of global total factor productivity (TFP) is 1.7 percent, on target for the projected rate required each year to produce enough food to feed the world by 2050,” said Keith Fuglie, branch chief for resource, environmental and science policy of the Resource and Rural Economics Division of USDA’s Economic Research Service.

“But many parts of the world are falling short; Africa’s TFP rate, for example, is growing at less than 1 percent a year. A productivity measure like the GAP Report allows us to track TFP progress on both a global and regional scale, and gauge the capacity to feed a growing global population in the future.”

Skyrocketing growth

“Combined, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia will account for nearly 90 percent of the population growth over the next 40 years,” says Neil Conklin, president of the Farm Foundation, NFP, who also spoke during the briefing.

“Looking past the necessary productivity improvements to meet future needs, even greater challenges to address hunger and food security lie in our ability to facilitate the movement of food through international trade and to develop the necessary infrastructure to support more food production such as roads, processing, and storage facilities.”

In those regions and throughout the world, Conklin said, countries are also seeing a notable increase in protein-based diets, which will increase overall demand on agriculture.

Those were some of the findings in the second annual Global Agricultural Productivity Report released by the Global Harvest Initiative at the World Food Prize Symposium. GHI was organized two years ago to address the problems of feeding a growing world population.

The report finds progress in the current growth rate of agricultural productivity worldwide but highlights the challenges that lie ahead to maintain the current growth rate over each of the next 40 years.

“The 2011 GAP Report sheds new light on the steps necessary to address the challenge of feeding the more than 9 billion people expected to inhabit the earth by 2050,” said William G. Lesher, GHI chairman of the board and former chief economist at USDA.

Challenges 'daunting'

“We can be cautiously optimistic about the new evidence of faster productivity growth revealed this year, but the long-term solutions to hunger and food security remain daunting. We must continue to pursue key policies with proven results in improving global agricultural productivity and development, such as investing in agricultural research, removing trade barriers, adopting new technologies and innovation and enhancing the role of the private sector.”

Factoring in new data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the 2011 GAP Report includes an updated GAP Index, which measures the difference between the current rate of global agricultural productivity growth and the rate required to meet future needs.

During the briefing, Laura Barringer, a John Deere economist on loan to the Global Harvest Initiative, discussed national-level case studies of the emerging market economies of Brazil, China, Indonesia, and Ghana. Those studies highlights how select policies can help address hunger and food security while also addressing poverty by empowering farmers with new technologies to boost productivity.

While each of the four profiled nations applied a different strategy with varying levels of success, active government support for the agriculture industry, investment in research, the adoption of science-based technologies and a shift toward more open markets enabled all four nations to achieve meaningful increases in agricultural productivity.

fourfold return

“Oftentimes, the amount of investment in agricultural research and development is a key factor in the growth in agricultural productivity in a country,” she said. “We’re finding that a $1 investment can bring a $5 to $20 increase in economic activity.”

She said the study found that Brazil is increasing its investment in agricultural research and development by more than 1 percent of its GDP growth per year. China, meanwhile, is spending $4 billion a year on agricultural research.

“The study found that China has tripled the number of farm tractors it’s using in the last 10 years,” she said. “They are also making big strides in increasing the use of biotechnology and crop nutrients.”

The full 2011 GAP Report is available on GHI’s website.