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Uneven agricultural productivity growth raises concerns in a time of pandemics

The 2020 Global Agricultural Productivity Report (GAP Report) — “Productivity in a Time of Pandemics” — released by the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences raises concerns about the resilience of our agricultural systems in the face of pandemic-scale outbreaks that afflict people, crops, and livestock. 

New data from the USDA Economic Research Service presented in the report indicate that globally, Total Factor Productivity, or TFP, is increasing by an average annual rate of 1.63 percent, unchanged from 2019.

This is below the target of 1.73 percent required to double agricultural output through productivity growth from 2010 to 2050 as set by the report’s Global Agricultural Productivity Index (GAP Index). 

TFP growth varies widely across the world, leaving some countries more vulnerable to pandemic-scale outbreaks than others.

In high-income countries, TFP is increasing at 1.19 percent annually.

The traditional productivity powerhouses in North America and Europe have distinct advantages in times of pandemics. Advanced seed technologies, veterinary services and animal care, and accurate agronomic and market data, make it easier for producers to adapt in a time of crisis.

Access to affordable insurance and financing, as well as safety net programs, enable producers to absorb the worst financial impacts of a pandemic-scale crisis.

High-income countries have infrastructures for detection, management, and eradication of pests and disease outbreaks in people, crops, and livestock. Agricultural extension networks and robust research systems develop preventative tools and practices to keep pandemics at bay.

In upper-middle income countries, TFP is growing at an average annual rate of 2.37 percent, driven largely by China and Brazil.

In Brazil, precision agriculture, advanced seed technologies, and improved livestock management systems have driven substantial TFP growth in feed grains and livestock production.

The Chinese government has prioritized the consolidation of agricultural land, creating opportunities for greater efficiency, especially in the wheat-growing regions. Mechanization services and fertilizer use efficiency have also improved, generating productivity gains.

The TFP data do not yet reflect the impact of the African Swine Fever outbreak that has killed 40 percent of China’s swine population, but it will likely be significant.

Lower-middle income countries are also experiencing TFP growth above the global average at 2.19 percent, led by India, which has invested heavily in agricultural research and higher education.

The presence of advanced technologies and agricultural research systems in middle-income countries supports resilience in the face of pandemics. Nevertheless, there are significant vulnerabilities, for example, underdeveloped or inefficient infrastructures for detection, management, and eradication of pests and disease outbreaks.

TFP growth in low-income countries has dropped from 1.0 percent in 2019 to just 0.58 percent in 2020.

Under-funded agricultural research and extension programs in low-income countries leave producers highly vulnerable to disease and pest outbreaks. Fall armyworm, for example, destroys 18 million tons of maize annually in Africa alone.

COVID-19 impacts on TFP growth are uncertain, nevertheless, there are areas of concern. Travel restrictions and health anxieties have reduced the amount of agricultural labor available. As a result, fields have gone unplanted and unharvested. Disruptions to global and local supply chains are limiting access to essential inputs, such as fertilizer, especially for smallholder farmers.

The theme of the 2020 GAP Report was inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Ann Steensland, who leads the Global Agricultural Productivity Initiative and is the author of the annual report.

“Agricultural producers grapple with disease and pest outbreaks with alarming frequency,” Steensland said. “While most of our current attention is on COVID-19, in East Africa, swarms of desert locust are decimating crops, wiping out a source of food and income for millions of people.”

The GAP Report is launched every October as part of the Borlaug Dialogue and World Food Prize events in Des Moines, Iowa, but this year it is a virtual event.

The report’s findings are presented as part of a film, “Agricultural Productivity in a Time of Pandemics: Stories from the Front Lines,” featuring agricultural producers and experts from the U.S., Peru, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and India. 

“We are disappointed to not be in Des Moines again this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Tom Thompson, associate dean and director of global programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and executive editor of the GAP Report.

“However, we’re excited about how this new GAP Report launch format will help us reach more people with our message about agricultural productivity and resilience,” Thompson said. “For example, this year the launch event will be available not only in English, but also in French, Hindi, Kiswahili, and Spanish.”

The 2020 GAP Report and film are available on the website

Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences said, “The GAP Report not only provides thought leadership about agricultural productivity, resilience, and food security, it is also key to CALS’ determination to be a leading global College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.”

Virginia Tech’s partner in Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia State University, is also featured in the 2020 GAP Report.

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