Facilitating Long-term Investments in Agricultural Technology

Drought tolerant maize in South Africa

After decades of declining food prices, recent food, fuel and financial crises have ushered in a new reality. As outlined in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) 2011 Global Food Policy Report, food prices rose dramatically in 2007-08 and then again in 2010-11. What’s more, prices of most cereals and meats are projected to keep increasing – fueled by increasing demand for food and energy from a growing population, and exacerbated by climate change-related weather patterns and destructive floods and droughts.

IFPRI’s estimates indicate that if we want to meet the rapidly growing food demand, cereal production will need to increase by 70 percent in the next four decades. Although the challenge is dire, there are reasons for optimism. The international community, governments, and the private sector are increasingly recognizing the centrality of agriculture, not only for human nutrition and health, but also as a basis of economic growth; and are providing much-needed investments in the sector.

A major question we face is how to target these investments. Which technologies have the potential to increase yields, ensure profits for farmers, and reduce environmental impacts, while also increasing resilience to climate change? Decisions over the development and adoption of specific agricultural technologies and practices will affect production, food security, trade and environmental quality in developing countries and across the world for decades to come.

The fact of the matter is that technology options are many, but what is missing is transparent evidence-based information to support decisions on technology adoption strategies. In 2011 IFPRI, in collaboration with Croplife International and other donors, launched a study to address these knowledge gaps and provide some clarity about benefits and risks associated with different options. By modeling technology-induced changes in crop yields for rice, maize, and wheat disaggregated to the pixel level, based on data collected across the globe, we hope to understand how different technologies affect not only productivity, but also food prices, trade flows, as well as calorie availability, especially for developing countries.

A month ago, our team completed some preliminary modeling, testing the effects and effectiveness of a range of agricultural practices, including conservation agriculture, irrigation technologies, integrated soil fertility management, and new crop varieties. Overall, a combination of using drought and heat tolerant crop varieties, as well as integrated soil fertility management (ISFM)—which involves reducing tillage and retaining crop residues, and using both fertilizers and manure—appears to provide the largest improvements in yields globally by 2050 and under climate change conditions. Some of the largest benefits of this approach were observed for Asia.

In our modeling, the adoption of ISFM also significantly reduces projected increases in international prices for maize, rice, and wheat, and lowers the population at risk of hunger, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

We are currently subjecting our results to a review and revision process that includes working with experts in crop modeling as well as in agronomy and agricultural economics. These much needed interactions will improve and strengthen our results, while also providing further expert insights at the regional level.

The debate over technological choices is often heated and polarized. With this study, we hope to provide policymakers with clear, evidence-based information on risks and benefits across a range of technologies, thereby facilitating long term investments and strategies.

This blog post originally appeared on
The Center for Strategic & International Studies Pathways to Productivity Blog on July 27.