UNVEILING AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTIVITY TRENDS IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is one of the largest net food exporters globally, and, in the decade up until 2015, was an outperforming region in terms of poverty and malnutrition reduction (FAO, 2023). Major climatic and economic disruptions have presented LAC agri-food systems with challenges, such as rising input prices, constrained ability to participate in global markets, and crop devastation resulting from droughts (Piñeiro et al., 2020; Wilson Center, 2022). This has resulted in an increasing number of people who are unable to afford a nutritious diet and growing sustainability concerns. However, increased investment in scientific research and innovation, especially in precision agriculture, more robust policy frameworks for sustainable and productive food systems, and inter-sectoral cooperation, can reposition the LAC region at the forefront of regional and global agricultural needs for improved livelihoods and environmental sustainability (FAO, 2023; CGIAR, 2023).
SOURCES OF LAC AGRICULTURAL OUTPUT GROWTH SINCE 1960
During the 1960s and 1970s, land newly converted to agricultural production was the major driver of agricultural output growth in the LAC region; however, average TFP growth was the second largest contributor during this period (Figure 7). Land expansion and TFP growth tapered off during the following decade, and intensification of input use was the largest contributor to output growth. During the 1990s and 2000s, TFP growth was robust in the LAC region, led by technological change that contributed the most to output growth. However, during 2011–2021, average TFP growth in the region decreased to only 0.69 percent annually, an almost 70 percent decline compared to the previous decade (2001–2010). Currently, in LAC, producers are once again relying primarily on input intensification to increase output, applying more inputs, such as labor, fertilizer, and capital, per hectare of land (Figure 7). Agricultural output growth in LAC also decreased significantly during 2011–2021 compared to 2001–2010, to its lowest decadal value since before 1961.
LAC regions with strong TFP growth during 2001–2010 suffered serious growth declines during 2011–2021, including Central America, where average TFP growth declined from 1.6 percent annually during 2001–2010 to 1.0 percent annually during 2011–2021. Similar declines occurred in Andean countries (Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru), where average TFP growth fell from 2.0 percent annually to 0.79 percent. Brazil experienced a strong 3.8 percent annual average TFP growth during 2001–2010, but this growth fell sharply to 1.53 percent annually during 2011–2021 (Figure 8).
Input intensification also grew sharply from 2001–2010 to 2011–2021 in Central America, Andean countries, and Southern Cone countries (Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay). For example, during 2011–2021, fertilizer consumption increased by almost 4.0 percent annually across Central American countries. Input intensification (an average of 2.46 percent annual increase) was especially important in Mexico as a means of increasing output. During 2011–2021, for example, fertilizer and livestock feed use by Mexican producers increased annually by an average 2.2 and 3.4 percent, respectively. In sharp contrast to Brazil and Mexico, Haiti suffered from shrinking TFP and a 2.5 percent loss of agricultural output during 2011–2021. Serious and ongoing civil and political unrest, resulting in the abandonment of agricultural land, extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, and little to no infrastructure for irrigation or transportation have contributed to a troubling state of the Haitian agricultural sector, detrimentally affecting its predominantly agrarian population.
The LAC region, and indeed the world, benefitted from strong TFP growth during the decades of the 1990s and 2000s. The sharp decrease in TFP growth from 2011-2021 emphasizes the need for commitment to strengthen the enabling environment for productivity-enhancing tools, reduce barriers to adopting those tools, and find opportunities to reduce the impact of external shocks and forces to make innovations available to producers at all scales of agriculture.
LAC’S ENABLING ENVIRONMENT INVESTMENTS
New policy initiatives and investments in LAC are focused on improving agricultural productivity to address the rising costs of a nutritious diet and stagnating poverty reduction, while protecting the region’s vast natural capital and biodiversity.
Take, for example, Panama’s recent State Agrifood Policy Act, which aims to increase access to healthy and nutritious food at affordable prices. The law establishes four areas of structural reforms: agrotechnology use and production value chains; agri-food education; public sector legal framework and management model; and a welfare model for rural families. It aims to create conditions for the technological transformation of agriculture and establishes guidelines related to productivity, competitiveness, food sovereignty, and legal security (IICA, 2023a). Its launch catalyzed a portfolio of investment projects, valued at $1.2 billion over the next ten years, focused on technological transformation of agriculture, especially emphasizing the inclusion of youth, rural women, and family farmers. “Protected Horticulture” is one such project, which will aim to improve family horticultural operations using controlled environment agriculture, such as greenhouses and indoor farming operations, through technological innovations that reduce applications of pesticides.
One of the Act’s priorities is taking into account the voices of commercial producers, consumers, importers, traders, family farmers, and indigenous peoples in developing its projects (IICA, 2023b). This inclusion of Panamanian voices, including incorporating the input of family farmers in the “Protected Horticulture” project, is vital for developing policy that is relevant, tailored, and sustainable over the long-term.
In Panama and other tropical nations, there has been underdevelopment of adequate technologies for crop production, which has resulted in the importation of foreign tools (Collado et al., 2018)—but the introduction of innovative tools alone does not equal agricultural productivity growth. Amid the backdrop of the State Agrifood Policy Act, the development of locally-sourced crop protection tools aimed at increasing food security, coupled with robust business models that are inclusive of the specific needs of farming communities, is hoped to increase sustained adoption and success of these tools.
Horticultural production is a growing and increasingly competitive market, especially for Central America and the Caribbean (OECD & FAO, 2019). In the Dominican Republic (DR), the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Technology is collaborating with the Specialized Institute of Higher Studies Loyola and faculty from Virginia Tech to research water use for avocado farming and identify potential applications of remote sensing technologies for the estimation of water needs. The country produces 5.7 million tons of avocados every year; however, since 2019, multiple reports have described increased avocado plantings within natural reservation areas, established by low-income farmers with little to no access to farming land. One of the primary public concerns is the detrimental effects that deforestation and the planting of fruit crops could have on the aquifers and water sources of the country, ultimately impacting agricultural production overall.
Researchers from the collaborating teams assessed four irrigation treatments to better understand if the crops were over-irrigated, using drones to measure plant health from different physical ranges. Data from the study indicated that avocado farmers in the DR are significantly over-irrigating their avocados. Improving farmer knowledge of irrigation needs and access to advanced management tools will yield benefits for farmers and the nation. In order to increase the adoption of productivity-enhancing tools, it’s vital to make known to producers the returns for improving management practices, such as water cost savings in avocado production, by sharing the results of the research.
Enabling environments can more effectively facilitate the transfer of agricultural R&D and productivity-enhancing tools when the sector is more efficiently organized. In Argentina, for example, the establishment of farm organizational structures called “planting pools” has played a significant role in increasing agricultural productivity throughout the country. Planting pools are formal contracts between producers, investors, and other agricultural supply chain actors that are responsible for production processes, such as inputs, labor, and financing. Investors enter into rental contracts with landowners across regions to engage in production activities. These agreements are often overseen by professional agricultural consultants who manage production. Planting pools have been successful at attracting new financial capital into agriculture, incorporating improved production practices and technologies on the farm, and using mechanisms such as insurance to better organize agri-management.
The establishment of planting pools could lead to improved production practices and the use of more advanced technology among farmers. Data from an early agricultural census shows that those involved in planting pools are more likely to perform soil analysis and monitor pests, ultimately improving production in the long term (Lence, 2010). Increasing farmers’ access to non-traditional contracts and financing opportunities has the potential to de-risk business, which is especially meaningful for small-scale farmers who may not be as capable of taking early major financial steps on their own.
There is no single solution to alleviating the complex and ever-evolving impacts of an unpredictable climate, rising global population, and resource scarcity—or for introducing more effective tools to farmers. Nevertheless, context-relevant policy development, evidence-based research, and the expansion of agricultural financing are valuable pathways toward developing an enabling environment that not only fosters access to but also the long-term use of productivity-enhancing tools in Latin America.