Economists Gather to Discuss Agricultural Productivity Growth

Agricultural productivity “is not a trade off with preservation,” said Dr. Spiro Stefanou, administrator of the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) during opening remarks at the “Agricultural Productivity Growth: Measurement, Drivers, and Climatic Effects” workshop, held March 2023 at Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus. The two-day workshop was hosted by ERS in tandem with Virginia Tech’s Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Initiative and Farm Foundation.  

The event gathered agricultural economists to share ideas and research on global agricultural productivity. Dr. Sun Ling Wang, senior economist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service and Dr. Jessica Agnew, associate director of CALS Global at Virginia Tech, organized the event along four key thematic questions: 

  • How can different methodologies result in distinct productivity estimates, and does it matter? 
  • How does public R&D and patent knowledge stock affect agricultural productivity growth? 
  • How does climate change influence agricultural productivity growth and what are the consequences? 
  • What are the causes and consequences of agricultural productivity growth? 

In his opening remarks, Stefanou rejected the notion that agricultural total factor productivity (TFP) will necessarily exacerbate environmental degradation and identified the need for “productivity growth that preserves natural resources.”  

The presentation then continued with a consideration of how global agricultural productivity research fits into the framework Stefanou put forward. Agronomist Dr. Tom Thompson, associate dean and director of global programs at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which houses the GAP Initiative, summarized the GAP Initiative’s vision as a world in which “every farmer has access to every tool,” whether agronomic, economic, or environmental. He went on to describe the GAP Initiative’s progress in “promoting evidence-based solutions,” leveraging research such as that done by the more than 40 agricultural productivity economists attending the workshop. 

Considering Inputs and Environmental Accounting 

After opening remarks, the day’s sessions focused on topics such as measuring inputs in agricultural productivity analysis, with discussion centering on biological capital, irrigation water value, hedonic pricing in seed markets, and seed breeding impacts on productivity; and the interplay between climate and agricultural productivity growth, touching on extreme weather, changing crop yields, agricultural trade impacts, and long-term climate scenarios.  

The first day of the workshop also included several presentations assembled around environmental accounting in agricultural productivity analysis. Presenters addressed environmental stress on productivity, undesired climactic outputs, environmentally-adjusted TFP measures, and environmental factor accounting in TFP. A panel discussion concluded the day by further diving into environmental accounting. 

The workshop continued on the second day with a focus research and development analysis. A report on the agriculture venture capital landscape began the morning, and preceded presentations on Chinese R&D and its effects on agricultural productivity, the US patent knowledge stock, as well as research into the lag between research and observable effects and solutions.  

Then, two sessions themed around drivers of productivity growth and its climactic consequences featured presentations on food security implications of climate change, a case study of agricultural productivity growth in Argentina, and the relationship between farm labor and climate. Papers in the second of these two sessions discussed poverty reduction and agricultural productivity, climate change-induced crop yield growth, extreme heat and productivity, as well as the criteria of productivity indices under climate change.  

Perspectives from the Public and Private Sector 

Tying together the two days of productivity analysis papers, the workshop’s final presentations focused on the private and public realm. These applied presentations reminded attendees of the importance of their economic research on agricultural productivity by providing the real-world context. 

Dr. Elise Golan from the Office of the Chief Economist of USDA identified key challenges facing policymakers, and how solutions discussed in the room would help advance the fight against food insecurity, shrinking farmer incomes, and environmental degradation. Ruth Bradley, a representative from Tyson Foods Agribusiness, outlined how Tyson’s business plan offers solutions to the problems that Golan identified. Attendees then heard from Jennifer Billings, global agricultural development lead at Corteva, a supporting partner of the GAP Initiative. Billings detailed how Corteva is helping farmers across the Global South to grow agricultural productivity in the face of a shifting climate.  

Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Global Programs, which houses the GAP Initiative and hosted the workshop at the Innovation Campus, is committed to building public-private partnerships, showcasing agricultural productivity research, and creating opportunities for ideation in this space. This co-hosted workshop did just that. Agnew, co-lead of the GAP Initiative, concluded the two-day workshop with remarks on how the GAP Initiative is the ideal platform for academics, policymakers, and private sector partners to convene and make progress in feeding the world, while doing so responsibly and sustainably in a changing climate. 

Evan McKay is a participant in the 2023 Farm Foundation Agricultural Scholars program. He is a first-year master’s student in agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech, where he focuses on commodity markets, risk management, and agricultural productivity. He previously studied French West Africa and the Middle East before working in oil and gas finance. Evan hopes to pursue a career in international commodities markets and one day return to Virginia to farm. 

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