Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development

Fifty Years of Progress

Source: © Giacomo Pirozzi/PANOS
Processing cassava, West Africa

In the late 1950s around a billion people—about one-third of the world’s
population—were estimated to go hungry every day. Famines were threatening millions in Asia and Africa in particular, and prospects for feeding the world’s booming population looked bleak. In response to this alarming picture, scientists, policymakers, farmers, and concerned individuals initiated a concerted push to boost agricultural production and productivity in developing countries. Developing and industrialized countries, together with development agencies and civil society organizations, pursued a range of interventions in agriculture: they applied modern science to crop and livestock production, constructed irrigation systems, developed new cultivation practices to conserve natural resources, introduced policies to encourage farmers to grow and sell more food, and launched many other programs in agricultural development. The result? About one billion people now go hungry every day.

This result may look like failure, and in one sense it is. The fact that 1 billion people remain hungry and malnourished is a tragedy on a grand scale. Looked at another way, however, the present situation reflects astounding success. While the absolute number of people who are hungry has remained the same, the relative figure—the proportion of the world’s population that has remained hungry—has declined dramatically. In the mid-1960s, when the global population was about 3.3 billion, only about 2 billion people were getting enough to eat. Today’s population has burgeoned to more than 6 billion—and some 5 billion people now have enough food to live a healthy and productive life.

Efforts to increase the global availability of food have led to enormous gains in agricultural productivity and food production, with yields of many staple crops multiplying severalfold. Great strides also have been made in improving the quality of food so that it contributes to good nutrition, and in improving the ability of the most vulnerable groups—women and children most significantly—to access food needed
for survival.

Importantly, these efforts have done more than just feed millions. The interventions of the past half century have also demonstrated that agriculture can be a key driver of growth and development for many of the world’s poorest countries.

While the causes of chronic hunger and persistent malnutrition are complex, the experiences of the past 50 years show that the solutions are by no means beyond our reach. But what do we really know about what works in agricultural development, and where, when, and why some interventions succeed? Which policies, programs, and investments in agricultural development can substantially reduce hunger and malnutrition? And which of these interventions can do so within a changing global landscape characterized by growing natural resource scarcities, climate change, global market volatility, and major health and demographic changes?