If the world’s farmers are to grow enough food to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050, they’d better get a move on.

A study released at the World Food Prize’s Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, today Oct. 13) says the growth rate of agricultural productivity is lagging behind that needed to feed an additional 3 billion people.

The Global Harvest Initiative’s 2010 GAP Report, developed with the Farm Foundation and USDA’s Economic Research Service, was designed to gauge the pace of global agricultural productivity growth against future needs for food.

Doubling agricultural output to meet global demand by 2050 will require and annual average growth of at least 1.75 percent in total factor productivity, according to Neil Conklin, president of the Farm Foundation and author of the report. USDA economists estimate global agricultural TFP growth averaged 1.4 percent per year between 2000 and 2007.

Closing the gap

“To close the gap without additional land and resources, we must increase the rate of productivity growth an average an average of 25 percent more per year over the next 40 years,” said Conklin. “And, productivity will need to grow faster than that during the next two decades, when the population will be increasing more rapidly than when it levels off around 2050.”

The study was released during one of the numerous side events held with the Borlaug Dialogue, which is conducted annually in conjunction with the World Food Prize, which the late Dr. Norman Borlaug founded 24 years ago to recognize individuals who have helped feed an increasingly hungry world.

Former USDA Chief Economist Bill Lesher, executive director of Global Harvest Initiative, emceed a lunch in which the results of the GAP Report were presented to editors and representatives of governmental and food groups.

Lesher noted that pinning down numbers on world food production and population demographics is a “very hard job to do.”

9 billion by 2050?

Some experts say world food production must be doubled in the next 40 years because the world’s population could increase from the current 6 billion to 9 billion. Others say those numbers are inflated or too conservative.

“Maybe it’s an 85 percent increase (rather than 100 percent) or maybe 115 percent,” Lesher said. “Whatever it is it’s a very large number to meet. It will take all of us – farmers, input suppliers, governments, NGOs working together to make this happen. If we don’t, we face the prospect of 2 billion to 3 billion starving people.

“We need to do more with less and we must start implementing measures and policies that increase productivity today,” he said. “A ramp up of this order is achievable, as the public and private sectors, demonstrated during the green revolution.”

Lesher and Conklin were joined by Keith Fuglie, branch chief for Resource, Environmental and Science Policy in the Resource and Rural Economics Division of USDA ARS, who discussed the development of the study.

Total factor productivity

“Assessing total factor productivity – the amount of output per unit of total factors, or inputs, used for production – for the entire global agricultural sector provides a more comprehensive picture of changes in resource requirements to produce farm commodities,” said Fuglie. “A 1 percent increase in TFP, for example, means that 1 percent fewer agricultural resources are required to produce a given bundle of crop and livestock outputs.”

While economists have developed estimates of agricultural TFP for most industrialized nations, these measures have only recently become available for major developing countries, he said. ERS has combined country-specific studies together with additional analysis of productivity growth in other regions to construct a global measure of agricultural TFP growth since 1961.

This year’s three-day event is expected to draw 1,100 participants from 65 countries to downtown Des Moines.