Initiative (GHI) officials said in a report released at a World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, IA, this week. 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% needed to meet the ambitious goal of feeding those billions.

That was among the findings in GHI’s second annual Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) report. GHI was organized two years ago to address the problems of feeding a growing world population.

“Based on the new UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates, the current rate of global total factor productivity (TFP) is 1.7%, on target for the projected rate required each year to produce enough food to feed the world by 2050,” says 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%/year.”

Neil Conklin, president of the Farm Foundation, who also spoke during the briefing, said that Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia combined will account for nearly 90% of the population growth over the next 40 years.

“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,” he says.

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

The GAP report finds progress in the current growth rate of ag productivity worldwide but highlights the challenges that lie ahead to maintain that 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,” says William G. Lesher, GHI chairman and former USDA chief economist.

“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 FAO, the 2011 GAP report includes an updated GAP Index™, which measures the difference between the current rate of global ag productivity growth and the rate required to meet future needs.

During the briefing, Laura Barringer, a John Deere economist on loan to GHI, discussed national-level case studies of the emerging market economies of Brazil, China, Indonesia and Ghana. The studies highlight 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 ag 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.

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

She says the study found Brazil is increasing its investment in ag research and development by more than 1% of its GDP growth per year. China, meanwhile, is spending $4 billion/year on ag research.
“The study found China has tripled the number of farm tractors it’s using in the last 10 years,” she says. “They’re also making big strides in increasing the use of biotechnology and crop nutrients.”

See the full 2011 GAP Report at ow.ly/6T2yA.