Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development

Integrating people and the environment

By the 1970s, concerns emerged over the equity and environmental implications of rapid agricultural development. These new concerns encouraged a move away from a strictly yield-increasing outlook on food staple productivity to a more complex perspective on agriculture and rural development. Sustainable development issues came to the forefront of the development discourse, partly in response to issues accumulated during the Green Revolution, such as the overuse of agricultural chemicals, the depletion of scarce water resources, and the neglect of farmers’ input into policymaking. New policies, programs, and investments were specifically designed to integrate rural communities into decisionmaking processes about their own development as a way of addressing sustainability along with equity issues. The idea that agricultural development could work if driven by direct community participation, environmentally sustainable cultivation practices, and supportive public policies gained a global following.

Experiences in Nepal that began in the 1970s illustrate this change in perspective. During this period, a series of prescient legislative reforms and innovative forestry programs contributed to a transformation of the country’s strictly conservation-focused approach to its natural forests into a more broad-based strategy that encompassed forest use, enterprise development, and livelihoods improvement with direct benefits for the rural poor. Partly as a result of these reforms and programs, an estimated one-third of Nepal’s population is participating in community forestry activities and directly managing over one-fourth of Nepal’s forest area as a means of improving household food security and livelihoods.

In Burkina Faso and Niger during the 1980s, the rediscovery of community-based knowledge in the form of traditional agricultural management practices helped to transform the Sahelian region’s arid landscape into productive agricultural land. In the wake of repeated droughts, and with technical support from charismatic community leaders and nongovernmental organizations, farmers began innovating on simple practices: protecting and managing indigenous trees and shrubs among crops to provide fodder and firewood and to improve soil fertility; digging pits on barren, degraded land to concentrate organic manure and rainwater for planting; and constructing stone contour bunds to control rainfall and runoff and combat erosion. In Burkina Faso’s Central Plateau, the rehabilitation of between 200,000 and 300,000 hectares of land translated into roughly 80,000 tons of additional food per year, or enough to sustain about a half-million people in the region. In southern Niger, similar efforts are estimated to have transformed approximately 5 million hectares of land, improving food security for at least 2.5 million people.

In Argentina, large-scale farmers adopted a different set of resource-conserving cultivation techniques, resulting in a significant increase in the global production of soybean in particular. During the 1980s, farmers, researchers, exten-sion workers, and private companies worked together to promote zero-tillage cultivation—a crop management technique in which farmers essentially plant seeds in unplowed fields to maximize the gains from intensive double cropping and to lower production costs, with the added benefits of reducing land degradation, conserving soil fertility, and economizing on scarce water resources. By 2008, the area of land under zero tillage reached nearly 22 million hectares. The use of zero tillage, along with the introduction of herbicide-resistant soybean varieties and other factors, improved soil fertility by reversing decades of erosion, created an estimated 200,000 new agricultural jobs, and provided the international market with new supplies of soybeans that contributed to keeping global food prices low.

During roughly the same period of the 1980s, small-scale farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains—a vast region that encompasses parts of India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—began experimenting with similar zero-tillage cultivation techniques. An estimated 620,000 wheat farmers have adopted some form of zero-tillage cultivation since these experiments began, accounting for about 1.8 million hectares of land in the Indo-Gangetic Plains and generating average income gains of US$180-340 per household, particularly in the Indian states of Haryana and Punjab.