Can more productive agriculture also be sustainable and resilient?

Innovations in farm system management and smart use of natural capital underlie the bulk of recent agricultural productivity growth. Coordinated research on total factor productivity (TFP) can show us how to ‘do more with less’ in agriculture, enhancing the sustainability and resilience of farming systems.

Jan 23, 2019
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Our Perspectives paper in Nature Sustainability is the fruit of a collaboration between agricultural economists and geographers who work on issues related to agriculture, technological change, environment and land system change. The reasons why we felt compelled to come together in this work are illustrative of our paper’s contributions.

We believe that the scientific community needs to consider the challenge of raising the productivity of agriculture to meet the growing global demand for food by taking a new perspective.  We argue that a major research effort is needed on the dynamic interplay of productivity growth in agriculture, farming and ecosystem sustainability, and resilience. We offer a framework that identifies two pathways for growth—technology-based and ecosystem-based—and explores two-way linkages with sustainability and resilience outcomes in farming systems.

As a geographers working in land system science, we had been struck by the lack of connections among researchers working on agriculture-related issues – including sustainable intensification, agricultural specialization vs. diversification, GMOs, land-sparing vs. sharing, land conservation, and ecosystem services – and how few researchers were paying attention to the veritable farming revolution that had occurred – at home and abroad – that is raising agricultural output – not by intensification or farming new land – but by making farming more efficient, i.e., raising “total factor productivity” (TFP).  It seemed that work on TFP was both under-recognized (beyond agricultural economics) and under-developed analytically in terms of how exactly farmers “get more for less” and the potential synergistic or negative linkages with ecosystem services that could profoundly affect future productivity.

 As agricultural economists, we were examining the sources of productivity growth in farming, with emphasis on the potential synergies/tradeoffs associated with diversification versus specialization. For example, what were the productivity benefits of crop rotations or integrated livestock-cropping systems? We were also interested in the role of investment in R&D for future productivity growth, and concerned about the recent decline in public investment dollars in agricultural R&D.

Together, we realized that the potential synergies between TFP growth and ecosystem services as well as resilience were underexplored.  Some of the synergies are clearly dynamic, based on more effective use of natural capital resources that held potential for positive feedbacks on future agricultural productivity. Could we get ‘win-win’ outcomes of rising productivity and improved ecosystem service outcomes? How did different farming systems, technologies, and other innovations play into this process? We wanted to get inside the ‘black-box’ of TFP and conceptually link agricultural systems to ecosystem services, with improved outcomes for production, sustainability and resilience. Though the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’ recently captured the imagination of scholars studying food system, it seemed rather like an oxymoron given observed tradeoffs between sustainability and intensification. TFP growth lends credence to the idea of sustainable intensification and, we believe, could be leveraged for broadly positive outcomes well beyond growth in agricultural productivity – maybe we can have our cake and eat it too.

Oliver Coomes

Professor, McGill University

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