Understanding Productivity Growth in Agriculture

May 11-12, 2017

Across the globe, agricultural productivity has increased sharply in the decades following the "Green Revolution." In the U.S., agriculture was surpassed only by communications in its industry-specific productivity growth rates in the closing decades of the last century. During this period, growth switched from the extensive to the intensive margin: output per acre increased significantly due to new seed varieties and increased use of fertilizer while growing area stabilized or declined slightly. In addition to yield growth, productivity was enhanced with steadily improving farm equipment, allowing each farmer to manage increasingly larger growing areas. Recently, some crops, most notably corn, have seen a slowdown in yield growth. This has led to speculation about a slowdown of productivity growth more generally.

On a global scale, supply growth has outpaced demand growth, causing agricultural commodity prices to decline in real terms. Today, agriculture's share of employment and of GDP is relatively small in developed countries, but food consumption generates substantial consumer surplus.

To promote economic research on agricultural productivity growth, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), with the support of Economic Research Service at USDA and the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California, will convene the 2017 Universities Research Conference on "Understanding Productivity Growth in Agriculture." The conference, which will consist of ten research papers, will be held in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 11-12, 2017. It will be organized by Wolfram Schlenker of Columbia University and the NBER. The conference will welcome both empirical and theoretical research on issues that relate to the productivity of crops and livestock, in developed, transition, and developing countries. Topics on which paper submissions would be welcome include, but are not limited to:

* Long-term drivers of productivity. What factors have historically contributed to productivity growth, and in what proportions? What factors slow the diffusion of innovations that might contribute to productivity growth? For example, how does opposition to genetically modified crops affect the potential for continued productivity growth?

* R&D spending and its effects on agriculture. How have public and private R&D expenditures contributed to the rising productivity of agriculture in the U.S. and in other nations? Are public and private R&D close substitutes? How does the patent system and the broader institutional environment governing access to innovation affect agricultural productivity?

* Environmental considerations and agricultural productivity. Are there factors related to the global environment, such as climate trends, pollution levels, or water availability, that may affect the path of productivity for crops and for livestock differently in the future than in the past? What are the implications of increased fertilizer use to boost productivity on the environment, in particular on water pollution? Has growing demand for corn, a fertilizer-intensive crop, increased fertilizer utilization with attendant consequences for the environment? What are the prospects for innovative ways to reduce water pollution, for example through modern GPS-assisted fertilizer application that recognizes within field heterogeneity and targets fertilizer application to the areas with the greatest potential improvement in yields?

* Trade and agricultural productivity. Has the deregulation of agriculture in some parts of the world led to an acceleration of productivity growth? What are the implications for international trade?

* Corporate structure, innovation, and productivity. Have there been structural changes in farm organization, such as shifts of production to large-scale operations or greater reliance on formal contracts between farmers and product buyers? How has this affected farm workers? Have changes in the concentration of firms that produce inputs for farming, such as seeds, agricultural chemicals, or machinery, affected productivity?

* Farm support programs and productivity. How does farm policy, including price and income support, risk management tools like crop insurance, and conservation programs, affect crop choices, input selection, and choice of technique? Do these factors discourage farmers from taking steps that would reduce the effect of natural disasters, for example by applying expensive irrigation water during droughts when crop losses are insured? Do public programs affect planting decisions, for example by encouraging repeated cycles of corn planting without time for the soil to recover?

* Energy and agriculture. How do energy prices affect agricultural productivity, in both developed and developing nations? Has the growing demand for bio-fuels affected agricultural productivity?

To be considered for inclusion on the program, papers must be uploaded by December 31, 2016 to the following site:

Authors chosen to present papers at the conference will be notified in late January 2017. The NBER plans to publish a conference proceedings volume, either as a special issue of a journal or as a University of Chicago Press volume, and submission of a paper is a commitment to contribute the paper to this collection if the paper is selected for presentation. Please do not submit papers that have been submitted elsewhere for publication, or that have been accepted for publication in another outlet. Accepted papers may also be included in the NBER working paper series.

The NBER will cover the cost of domestic travel and hotel expenses for up to two authors per paper and for discussants at the conference. Questions about this conference may be addressed to

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