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Agricultural Productivity and the Environment: Filling the Knowledge Gap

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Agriculture and the environment of our planet are closely linked. Farmers, ranchers, fishermen and those working daily to produce food and agriculture products understand the critical interface between their work and the natural resource base. But the very nature of agricultural production is changing at a rapid pace.

As farmers across the world adopt new systems of crop production, what are the impacts on water and soil quality? How can production systems of crops, livestock and aquaculture be more productive and “climate smart”? How can farmers of all scales be more productive while conserving water and soil? How can we sustainably feed a rising global middle class without destroying our natural resource base?

As agriculture moves through rapid technological changes across the globe, the environment is impacted in both positive and negative ways. Technological changes can contribute to greater productivity, helping us meet the increasing global demand for food and agriculture products while using fewer resources and inputs.

Since 2010, Global Harvest Initiative has been tracking agricultural productivity worldwide with its GAP Report®. This annual report monitors progress being made toward increasing sustainable global agricultural output, which must double to feed the world’s population in 2050. The 2014 report indicated productivity in agriculture is not accelerating fast enough to meet the expected agricultural demand by 2050 through sustainable practices. Investment is needed in understanding and implementing proven strategies that boost productivity and conserve the natural resource base.

Adopting technologies and farming practices that result in more output from existing resources—known as total factor productivity (TFP)—is measured as the ratio of agricultural outputs (gross crop and livestock output) to inputs (land, labor, fertilizer, machinery and livestock) (See graphic).

TFP results from adopting such strategies as better and more resilient genetics in crops and livestock, shifting to better practices for applying fertilizer and crop protection products, and better animal care and disease management.

It is vital to understand this interface between agricultural productivity and the environment so that we can better conserve natural resources, adapt to climate change, adapt to consumer preferences, and improve the lives of producers and consumers across the agricultural value chain. Unfortunately, understanding of how technological change and productivity growth in agriculture affect environmental outcomes is limited and based more on anecdote than on systematic empirical research.

In a step toward filling that knowledge gap, international researchers in economics, natural resources, ecology, trade and other social sciences will gather in Washington, D.C., this week to examine the interconnectivity of their respective disciplines, agricultural productivity and the environment.

During the two-day event, the researchers will explore such topics as how productivity growth and technological change affect environmental resources and how to value these resource effects. Research will be presented on topics ranging from land use and greenhouse gas emissions to soil health in Africa and the implications of aquaculture for the environment. An important aspect of the meeting will be to identify areas where further research is needed to expand our understanding of the connections between agricultural productivity growth and the environment.

Much work is needed to achieve the global agricultural productivity growth needed to meet the world’s food needs by 2050 through sustainable practices. Understanding the issues and the knowledge needed is a step forward.

The agricultural productivity conference Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, March 11 and 12, is a collaboration of USDA’s Economic Research Service, Global Harvest Initiative and Farm Foundation, NFP. Register here to attend the conference; seating is limited.

On Wednesday morning, March 11, the Farm Foundation® Forum will examine the “Nexus of Technology, Agricultural Productivity and the Environment”. Information is available here to register to attend the 9 a.m. EDT Forum in person at the National Press Club, or via live audiocast.

Margaret Zeigler Margaret Zeigler (
Executive Director, Global Harvest Initiative
View more posts by Margaret Zeigler

4 comments on “Agricultural Productivity and the Environment: Filling the Knowledge Gap”

  1. Professor George Omodi Angira
    Posted Thursday, May 28, 2015 at 4:30:36 AM

    I wish to thank you very kindly.I will follow

  2. Professor George Omodi Angira
    Posted Tuesday, December 08, 2015 at 9:26:51 AM

    I so much admire the intensive education and training you are providing to us;I however would like. to request that apart from the literature you are providing it must also go along with funds.We have been taught enough so we want to implement.Kindly

  3. Professor George Omodi Angira
    Posted Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 12:15:36 AM

    I wish all of you a very happy new year.I shall be back at the soonest

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The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.