Listen to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast in your favorite podcast app

Welcome to Episode 24 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. In this episode, we meet with two Virginia Tech researchers to discuss the 2019 Global Agricultural Productivity Report (also known as the GAP Report), which was released at the World Food Prize last week.

Are we on track to feed 10 billion people (the projected world population in the year 2050)? What role will meat and livestock play in sustainably feeding the world? Get the answers in this episode of The Spokesman Speaks!

Click here to view the transcript +
Narrator: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast from Iowa's leading agricultural news source. Brought to you by the Iowa Farm Bureau. Now, here's your host, Laurie Johns.

Laurie Johns: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. This is our October 21st edition. This week's episode features two interviews from the 2019 World Food Prize celebration, which was last week in Des Moines. This time of year, we're all thinking about bringing in the harvest that will provide not only for our needs, but also the needs of our neighbors across the country and around the globe. The World Food Prize is an opportunity to discuss how we'll meet those global needs now and in 2050 when we're projected to have 10 billion people. Virginia Tech released a new report during the World Food Prize that shows just how far we've come and how far we have to go towards feeding 10 billion people while conserving resources and protecting the environment. Farm Bureau's Zach Bader caught up with the author of Virginia Tech's Global Agricultural Productivity Report. It's also known as the GAP Report. Here. They're discussing the details. Let's listen in.

Zach Bader: Joined by Ann Steensland of Virginia Tech University at the World Food Prize celebration here in Des Moines. Ann, you actually wrote the 2019 GAP Report, which was just released here moments ago. For those who aren't familiar with the GAP Report, give us a little bit of background information about it.

Ann Steensland: Sure. Thank you so much. The GAP Report was created in 2009 at a time when we were in the middle of a global food price crisis. The amount of commodities were low around the world. Food prices were skyrocketing and suddenly the world was paying attention to what do we need to do to grow more food? And a group of agribusinesses got together and said, you know, we've got to focus on productivity growth. And so they reached out to USDA and found some partners there to develop this report to share with folks, this is what productivity is, this is why it's important and these are the ways that productivity can grow. And so for the last 10 years, an organization called Global Harvest Initiative has housed the GAP Reports. And just this year for the first time we are now at Virginia Tech and we will carry that mission forward at our new institution.

Zach Bader: So who are all the contributors to the report and where does the data come from because I know that we're going to get into it a little bit as far as what we're on pace to do and the goals of that. But where does that come from?

Ann Steensland: Sure. So the supporting partners that we have are Bayer Crop Science, Corteva Agriscience, John Deere, the Mosaic Company and Smithfield Foods. We are also have about 15 consultative partners and these are NGOs, nutrition organizations, conservation groups and others who also provide content and insight for the report. The data for total factor productivity is calculated through ERS, USDA ERS and some folks there for whom this is their, they are the world leaders and understanding productivity growth around the world. And they use data from their own data at USDA, from the World Bank, from FAO, from a whole variety of sources of information that are calculated together to help us understand how efficiently we are transforming our agricultural inputs into outputs.

Zach Bader: So we're trying to get to the goal of feeding 10 billion people by the year 2050. We're measuring that growth or progress along that path using total factor productivity. For those who maybe aren't familiar with what that term is, can you explain what that is? Because that's something you're tracking every year.

Ann Steensland: That's right. So it's a very technical term that ag economists use. But it's important to understand because it often gets confused with other things. So sometimes people use the word productivity when they really mean output. So they're trying to measure the total amount of something that's produced or sometimes they use it when they actually mean yield, so the amount that's produced per unit of land, so to speak. But total factor productivity is different. So it calculates, it's a ratio and it says productivity increases when we produce more crops and more livestock using the same amount or less land labor, fertilizer, machinery and livestock inputs. So when that group of inputs, if that amount stays the same or goes down, but we're producing more, that's productivity growth. And essentially it's a measure of efficiency, but it tells us two very important things. One, productivity grows when there is widespread adoption of better technologies and practices. So when we see productivity growth in the U.S. or other parts of the world, what we know is that more farmers are accessing and using better technology and better practices. The second thing TFP tells us is it's a good indicator of how sustainable our agricultural systems are because one of the factors it contributes to is land. So if we're growing more or producing more livestock using less land or the same amount of land, that's an indicator of sustainability. So it's not a perfect metric, but I think ag economists still agree that if we're trying to track where we are in terms of sustainability, TFP is the best we've got at the moment. So it's important to track and we've estimated working with USDA that if we will sustainably produce enough food, feed, fiber and bioenergy for 10 billion people in 2050, we need TFP to grow at an average annual rate of about 1.73% a year. So what we do through the report and through what we call our GAP index is we track where are we, how are we doing? And so that's what the GAP Report does and that's what we did here today is present our latest results.

Zach Bader: So what does the 2019 report say? How are we doing on that goal and maintaining on that pace to reach the goal for 2015?

Ann Steensland: So currently we are seeing productivity growth that is relatively stagnate globally as we look sort of aggregating it globally. So we're currently at 1.63% average annual growth rate. We need to be at 1.73, which doesn't sound like much of a difference, but if you start to project that out over to 2050, that difference grows and becomes very problematic. The other thing we presented today, which we're very concerned about is what's happening in low income countries. Their productivity growth is only growing at about 1% a year, which is far too low to provide the food that they need for their own people. It means that their economies will struggle to grow. And as we know for U.S. farmers, a lot of these countries are markets and so we need their economies to grow. We need them to be more efficient than productive cause that creates more opportunities for us. So these are the basic data points that we presented today and it's not all bad news by any means. And what we consistently see in the data is the U.S. farmer is the most efficient in the world and a lot of the global productivity growth that we see has come right here from our U.S. farmers. And so they are continuing that trend. Although we are seeing some stagnation here as well. But, again, you know, this is where productivity lives and grows, right here in the U.S.

Zach Bader: Just building off that point you mentioned, I read that in the report as well, that total factor productivity in North America is starting maybe to slow down a little bit. Is there any theory behind and sure, it's a variety of variables. Is it a lack of ag research and development? Is it a regulatory environment that makes it more difficult for things, products to get to or technology to get to market? Is it all of the above or something different? Because, like you noted there, it seems like in the past the U.S. has kind of been a leader in this front, so it's kind of interesting to see, like you said, it's slowing down at least relatively speaking.

Ann Steensland: Yes, it is slowing down, relatively speaking. And I think the two items you just mentioned are our top areas of concerns. I think some of the change or the slowdown that we're seeing is part of it is a response to sort of where the markets are and our producers struggling to, you know, first we've got high prices and then low prices and then, you know, trying to figure out how to navigate a very difficult and volatile agricultural economy in the last 10 years. So that's part of it. But I think our real concern is we know that the strongest driver of productivity growth bar none is investments in public agricultural R & D and extension programs and the ability to turn the research that's done there into technology from the private sector that can then be accessed affordably by farmers all over the country. So our ag R & D funding has been stagnant and even gone down in recent years. And as we know, it takes a long time for those dollars to really pay off. And so it's a huge area of concern when we think about how are we going to get that next boost of productivity here in the U.S. We really need to start with our R & D investments.

Zach Bader: That was kind of leading into my next question there. What's, so those are the issues we're facing. What's the answer? What do we need to do to get put the U.S. and the rest of the world back on track to meet that goal of 10 billion by 2050. Some of the same things you were just saying there.

Ann Steensland: Some of the same things that are there. Other things that we highlight as being important in addition to R & D and embracing science-based and information technology. Regional and global trade. It's an incredibly important part of our system. And farmers want markets and need markets and that's with markets they have the resources and the ability and the opportunity to invest in their own operations and become more efficient. So trade is incredibly important for improving our productivity. Growth infrastructure is hugely important. So, particularly here in the U.S. we have wonderful technology that has the possibility of, you know, looking at the plants and looking at the animal and, but if we don't have mobile broadband in the places where the plants and the animals are, then that technology doesn't work very well. So infrastructure investments like that are incredibly important. And then I think as we look around the world, what we heard today from some of our speakers was the importance of partnerships. And working not only between companies and governments and NGOs, but the critical importance of partnering with farmers and the voice of the farmer and working with them to understand what their needs are rather than coming to them and saying, here are the solutions that you need. Good luck. We need to be listening to and working with farmers a lot more.

Zach Bader: I believe food waste was another one of the factors that you referenced as well.

Ann Steensland: It is. Very much so. And I think that for a couple of reasons. One, we can't really grow our way to 10 billion. We've got the food waste and the post-harvest losses in the world are just very extreme. And we've got to deal with that because not only are we throwing away food, which is an environmental cost, not only are we throwing away nutrients, which means somebody isn't eating that food. But all of the resources that went into produce that food, the land, the water, the fertilizer, all of that also goes to waste. And that gets right to the heart of our sustainability questions. And so it's a very important factor. I hope that we will really build the public and political will to address that globally in a major way cause it's absolutely critical to achieving what we need to achieve.

Zach Bader: Anything else that you'd add that I haven't asked?

Ann Steensland: I think I would just add that encouraging folks to tell the stories of productivity. We present numbers which are very interesting and can be very powerful. But unless we make human connections to those numbers, it's hard for folks who are in positions to make decisions, policy makers and others to understand why they should care. So to the extent that, particularly producers here in the U.S. who really understand the power of productivity can share that story and what it means to them and their families and the future of their farms. It's incredibly powerful voice and they have a great opportunity to share their story.

Laurie Johns: As you heard Ann say, worldwide agriculture has a bit of catching up to do, to get back on pace to meet the food needs of all of those people by the year 2050. What role will meat and livestock play in meeting those needs? Well, if you ask anti ag groups, they'll tell you that we need a lot less meat in livestock. On the other hand, Virginia Tech's GAP Report says something completely different. Zach tracked down Dr. Robin White, an assistant professor of animal and poultry science and one of the GAP Report presenters. They discussed livestock's role in feeding our global population.

Zach Bader: Joined by Dr. Robin White, who's an assistant professor of animal and poultry science at Virginia Tech and one of the experts whose on hand to help us understand the newly launched 2019 GAP Report. Dr. White. I know one of the key takeaways that I saw in the report was the need to accelerate productivity growth, especially in small and medium livestock production. That seems to run counter to some of what we hear from folks who say that what we really need to do in the future is drastically reduce or eliminate animal proteins altogether. Why does the GAP Report point to livestock as a part of the solution?

Dr. Robin White: Yeah, I think that this is one of the most common misconceptions about our food production system today. People highlight animal in sort of a negative light associated with negative human health outcomes and negative environmental impact outcomes. In reality, there's a lot of uncertainty around our understanding of how livestock products influence human health and how they influence the environment. What we do kind of understand from a fairly reliable standpoint or a consistent information is that enhancing productivity of animal production systems reduces the footprint, environmental footprint, of that production system. Meaning anything we can do to increase the output of meat, milk, eggs, et cetera from our livestock production systems tends to help reduce a carbon footprint. Now, what that also means is that we are producing human edible nutrients at a lower environmental cost. And livestock products, again, although there's some kind of muddied waters in terms of discussing their human health outcomes, they provide really important sources of micronutrients like quality amino acids, vitamin B12, our Omega fatty acids, calcium, et cetera. And those are all nutrients that humans absolutely require. So improving productivity tends to help reduce environmental impact and increase availability of those micronutrients.

Zach Bader: So what do you think some of those groups might be missing or omitting when they advocate for a reduction in meat and livestock as the solution?

Dr. Robin White: Yeah, you know, I like to think of this as just a byproduct of human nature. We like one size fits all solutions and we like absolutes because we're very comfortable with understanding them. If animals have a high environmental impact, it makes sense to eliminate them. But in reality, animals exist as a part of an agricultural food web. And eliminating any portion of that agricultural food web is going to have collateral impacts that aren't considered by kind of that simplistic view of the world. So I like to chalk it up to human nature and that as people are more divorced from our agricultural system, they fail to understand its complexity.

Zach Bader: You mentioned some of those unintended consequences. You mentioned nutrients that come from livestock. I mean, could we even feed everyone without animal based foods and then there's the fact that I saw in the report as well that it says that 500 million people depend upon livestock for their livelihoods. Roughly two thirds of livestock producers are women. What other kinds of unintended consequences are we talking about here by eliminating livestock?

Dr. Robin White: Yeah. One of the biggest ones that I don't think was in your list is the recycling role that livestock, ruminant livestock in particular play. Both domestically and abroad, ruminant livestock are fed human inedible products and so they provide this opportunity to recycle those inedible products into high quality sources of human edible foods. So if we eliminate them, not only do we eliminate kind of their direct benefit, but we also eliminate that opportunity to leverage that recycling function. Meaning we need to find other ways to get rid of those products or in some cases to utilize marginal land.

Zach Bader: So if we did take the approach of someone saying, take even the most extreme measure of saying what would be the environmental impact if we're talking about eliminating livestock and would it be even less here in the U.S. where we're more efficient to your point of doing that. So what is even the impact of that?

Dr. Robin White: Yeah, so our work suggests that eliminating livestock from us agriculture will decrease national greenhouse gas emissions by 2.9% which certainly from my personal standpoint, isn't a tremendous impact. I'll leave that up to kind of the listener to gauge whether that's a substantial impact or not, but 2.9% for the loss of those nutrients, the loss of that recycling function, the loss of those jobs, the loss of the export income seems like a very high cost for very little output. Now as you suggest, it is actually a lower result in the U.S. than we would expect internationally because our agricultural system is so efficient and on a national scale agriculture accounts for really about 9% of our emissions. Whereas in some other countries it accounts for more and we might see a bigger effect from something drastic like eliminating animal agriculture.

Zach Bader: So if we're not eliminating animal agriculture as a part of the solution here, what are some things that you see in the GAP Report is opportunities for us either individually or collectively to be working on that could help us get to that goal of producing for a growing population in the year 2050 and doing that sustainably?

Dr. Robin White: Yeah, I think that from my standpoint, the biggest opportunity from a food system standpoint to enhance kind of our global food security is actually in food distribution and food waste based on our numbers. At any rate, we produce sufficient food on a global scale to meet the nutrient requirements of a 10 billion person population, which is probably above what we're expecting for the year 2050. The main challenges there that we would need to literally eliminate food waste in order to do that and there's a lot of political issues there. There's a lot of economic issues there, but I think that those are the more important issues to be addressing right now because we need to make use of the food we produce, otherwise we can optimize the system all we want, but it will have limited impact.

Zach Bader: Are there any messages that you'd like to share with farmers who are out there listening to this podcast? Out there doing that daily work of obviously, hopefully they're out in the fields harvesting right now or working with their livestock. Any message you'd like to pass along to them as key contributors and obviously this goal that we have?

Dr. Robin White: Yeah. At first and foremost, my sincere thanks for the work that you do. In my opinion, it's absolutely the most important occupation that we can have these days, is working toward providing a high quality, safe and nutrition nutritious food supply. I think the second thing is, you know, we experience a lot of negativity, particularly about animal agriculture. And please don't let that get you down. We're working very hard to try and counter those claims to try and help the average American understand that livestock are an incredibly important part of our agricultural system and it's always going to be the few voices that are heard the loudest. And hopefully we can effectively influence the many voices that are not heard so loud.

Laurie Johns: Good stuff from Dr. White. We know that Iowans will approve as well. Our recent Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index, and annual scientific survey conducted by the Harris Poll, found that 99% of Iowa households eat meat, eggs, or dairy, at least weekly. 94% of Iowa grocery shoppers feel that meat is a healthy option, which is exactly what Dr. White said, talking about the essential nutrients in meat. And in fact, roughly three quarters of those shoppers said they'd be likely to increase their consumption of meat, milk, and eggs after learning about the high quality protein and vitamin B12 found in those foods. Farmers, rest assured, Iowans crave the food you're growing and so does the rest of the world. So keep up the great work. And if you'd like to read the GAP Report for yourself, checkout That's all for this episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. Be sure to tune in for our next episode of the podcast on November 4th. Until next time, thanks for reading The Spokesman. Thanks for all the great stories and inspiration, and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to The Spokesman Speaks, a podcast by Iowa Farm Bureau. Check out more podcasts and articles from The Spokesman at You can also find and subscribe to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast in the Apple Podcasts app, Google Play, and other popular podcast apps. We appreciate your ratings and reviews and welcome your feedback at

About The Spokesman Speaks Podcast

Since 1934,  The Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman has been Iowa’s leading agriculture news source, and today it is the largest circulation ag newspaper in Iowa. While the Spokesman newspaper is available exclusively to Iowa Farm Bureau members, The Spokesman Speaks podcast is available publicly, reaching farmers on-the-go with stories that matter to them. You can find episodes of the podcast here or subscribe and listen in your favorite podcast app, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, TuneInRadio, or

We release new podcast episodes every other Monday. Episode 25 will be released on November 4, 2019.