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Leveraging total factor productivity growth for sustainable and resilient farming

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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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Fig. 1: Agricultural output growth over time.
Fig. 2: Heuristic framework for assessing sources of TFP growth.

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  • 12 February 2019

    Line breaks have been added in Table 1.


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Authors and Affiliations



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.

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Correspondence to Oliver T. Coomes.

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Coomes, O.T., Barham, B.L., MacDonald, G.K. et al. Leveraging total factor productivity growth for sustainable and resilient farming. Nat Sustain 2, 22–28 (2019).

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