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Leveraging total factor productivity growth for sustainable and resilient farming

Nature Sustainabilityvolume 2pages2228 (2019) | Download Citation


Increased global agricultural output since the 1990s has been largely driven by innovations that raised the efficiency of use of labour, land, capital and other inputs—referred to as total factor productivity (TFP) growth. Yet debates over the future of farming still weigh heavily on models of agricultural land use and socioecological trade-offs along traditional (partial factor productivity) growth paths of ‘intensification’ or ‘extensification’. Overlooking the role of TFP in the evolution of global agriculture not only obscures the changing drivers of productivity growth but also misses vital linkages with agricultural sustainability and farming system resilience. We describe two pathways for growth—technology-based and ecosystem-based—and link these in a heuristic framework that emphasizes sustainability and resilience outcomes in farming systems. Interdisciplinary research is urgently needed to empirically examine the dynamic interplay of TFP growth, farming system sustainability and resilience. Such insights will help to transform TFP growth as metric into actionable efforts on farms and beyond.

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Author information


  1. Department of Geography, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    • Oliver T. Coomes
    •  & Graham K. MacDonald
  2. Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA

    • Bradford L. Barham
    •  & Jean-Paul Chavas
  3. UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

    • Navin Ramankutty
  4. Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

    • Navin Ramankutty


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O.T.C., N.R. and B.L.B. conceived the paper. O.T.C., B.L.B. and G.K.M. developed the framework. G.K.M. designed the figures and table with input from the others. O.T.C., B.L.B., G.K.M., N.R. and J.-P.C. contributed ideas and wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Oliver T. Coomes.

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