A sustainability gap needing to be filled by farm innovation

Global Harvest Initiative GAP report 2010

A new report has come out which explains why agricultural innovation is important for conserving resources and benefiting the global environment.
It does this by showing that we need improvements in what economists call total factor productivity of agriculture to meet the demands on the farm output that will rise considerably by the year 2050. To do this without increasing usage of inputs like water we need to increase the economic productivity of agriculture which is measured by a number called total factor productivity (TFP). The graph from the report shown here shows the gap between current improvements in agricultural productivity and the productivity needed to raise farm output by 200% in the year 2050 without increasing net farm demand on resources.

There is a gap on this graph between necessary productivity improvement and actual current improvement rate,  which means we have to dramatically increase the productivity of global agriculture by numerous innovative approaches if we are going to avoid massive expansion of water and other farm input useage by  over the coming decades.

A key passage from this new report, the 2010 GAP Report, follows:

An Evergreen Revolution
Simply put, the challenge is on the scale of supporting an “Evergreen Revolution” that is longer in duration and “greener” than the last. It will take innovations like those that spurred the remarkable increases in productivity in the “Green Revolution” of the 1970s and 1980s, which averaged a staggering 2.2 percent growth in output per year. Yet this new “Evergreen Revolution” must endeavor to do more with less, in terms of natural resources and other inputs.
Increasing annual TFP growth from 1.4 percent to 1.75 percent may not seem like a big challenge. However, it takes years to reap the returns of investments in the infrastructure and research required to increase productivity. Failure to begin now could well mean that the gap will not be closed by 2050.
Achieving the goal will require meaningful innovation that leads to heightened, scalable productivity in every facet of agriculture. Central challenges that must be overcome to sustainably meet the world’s demands of agriculture for food, feed, fiber, fuel, and other uses include:

  • Dramatically increasing the efficiency of water utilization, including the development of drought-tolerant crops.
  • Focusing on sustainable use of croplands.
  • Maximizing yields through scientific advancements in cropping and livestock systems.
  • Improving nutrient utilization.
  • Raising human labor productivity with mechanization.
  • Improving utilization of feedstuffs by livestock.
  • Improving food system infrastructure and processing to benefit agricultural products distribution and minimize waste.

While great, the challenge is achievable. There is promise. Modern, productive agriculture has many new innovations in the pipeline. However, more must be done. With the right combination of tools and incentives, as well as both public and private sector investments around the globe beginning now, agriculture will be poised to close the global productivity gap and sustainably meet the world’s needs in 2050.

(Global Harvest Initiative GAP report 2010)

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.


  1. That is a very instructive graph (I guess the number on the left are % of current productivity). I haven’t thought much about whether we can reach our current goals with current rates, and by how much we may be ahead or behind the curve. I figured we were behind, but now I have some idea of by how much. I attended a symposium on the Green Revolution at the ACS conference this week, I’ll be sure to post something about it because there was some interesting stuff.

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong (I haven’t had a chance to read the report yet), but isn’t the level set here (200% or a continuous doubling), somewhat arbitrary? We can make this “Gap” as big or small as we want by manipulation. Is 200% actually what’s necessary?
    Also, even if it is, how long can humans realistically continue on this curve? Things have to start bottoming out at some point. The planet is, in practical terms, a finite system for most resources.

    1. I think this is in part because of Monsanto’s commitment to double yields by 2050 – given that the list of the partners in the GHI features Monsanto I’d imagine this is why the arbitrary number was picked.
      Although I was under the impression the doubling was from an earlier start date rather than 2010 (I want to say 2000 for a nice round figure of 50 years, but I’m not sure and am too lazy at the moment to do any research)

  3. The doubling by 2050 (200%) is based on estimates of how much DEMAND for fuel, feed and food will increase by 2050 I believe. It’s therefore not arbitrary .

    1. Thanks David. After getting a chance to look at this more, I see that the GHI report says: “FAO Director General Jacques Diouf declared that global agricultural output needed to double by 2050” (See: 2010 GAP Report). In Director Diouf’s 2009 statement, he actually says “Food production must expand by 70 percent in the world and double in developing countries, to meet the food needs of a world population expected to reach 9.1 billion in 2050. “ There is no information on where he gets these numbers, but the 70% figure agrees with an earlier 2006 report.
      Not really trying to be overly critical here, just trying to understand where these estimates are coming from. The GHI is a bit misleading implying that global production needs to be 200%. More interesting, and probably more important, is that whatever the rates need to be will vary depending on where on the planet we are looking. Developing areas will need to push harder than developed. This makes a huge difference in where we should focus efforts and resources, as well as what directions we should pursue.

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