Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development

Intensifying staple food production

A loose timeline of recent successes in agricultural development begins somewhere in the mid-twentieth century, when the menace of war, hunger, and disease loomed large for many developing countries that had just gained independence from colonial control or influence. A key driver in these early successes in agriculture was crisis—whether the result of human actions such as conflict, oppression, or complacency, or the result of natural causes such as drought or pests.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, astute political leaders keenly recognized that hunger was a threat to long-term security, development, and prosperity. The real and perceived threat of famine ushered in an era in which policymakers’ key priority was to increase the output (greater production) and yields (greater production from a given area of land) of staple foods.

One of the first major successes came from a global effort to fight wheat rusts—a plague that has been known to humanity for thousands of years but had never been effectively contained. Wheat rusts are actually fungi that can rapidly decimate wheat as it matures in the field, and are thus a threat to food security in industrialized and developing countries alike. The late Nobel Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug, with the eventual backing of policymakers, scientists, and philanthropists, catalyzed a global effort to combat the scourge by bringing modern science to bear on the problem—by breeding rust-resistant wheat varieties in Mexico with the help of innovative research methods. This global effort helped protect about 117 million hectares of land under wheat cultivation from wheat rusts, directly ensuring the food security of 60 to 120 million rural households and many more millions of consumers. Importantly, this global effort also secured a place for science and technology in developing-country agriculture and gave rise to a global agricultural research system, including the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, dedicated to finding scientific solutions to ending hunger and food insecurity.

The wheat rust success evolved into a much larger and more multidimensional series of successes that began in the 1960s and came to be known as the Green Revolution. In Asia, this revolution began with the introduction of improved rice and wheat varieties for irrigated land that could be cultivated twice a year instead of once. The process continued into the 1990s as successes expanded to lesser-known staple crops such as millet and sorghum and more marginal areas dependent on rain rather than irrigation. The investments in science and technology—along with complementary investments in irrigation systems, road networks, fertilizer production, and food price stabilization policies—that underwrote the Green Revolution paid off handsomely. Farmers rapidly adopted the new farming practices and technologies to such a massive extent that between 1965 and 1990, cereal output and yields doubled, pulling India and other Asian countries back from the brink of famine. Between 1970 and 1990, an estimated 1 billion people benefited from the Green Revolution in terms of improved access to food, increased earnings from agriculture, or both.

Successes in Sub-Saharan Africa were smaller in magnitude but no less important in addressing the persistent threat of hunger in the region. In East and Southern Africa, applications of modern science to improve maize led to growth in both maize output and yields among the region’s primarily small-scale, resource-poor farmers. Between 1965 and 1990, maize yields in Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe increased annually between 1 and 5 percent—rates that compare respectably with yield and production growth rates in countries such as the United States—while annual maize production increases ranged from 1.8 to 3.3 percent in these same countries.

In West Africa between 1971 and 1989, the application of modern science similarly helped contain the spread of a cassava mosaic virus (a disease) and mealybug (an insect). Both threats can generate major losses for cassava, a crop that is central to the sustenance and incomes of the region’s poorest farmers, particularly in times of drought or crisis. By breeding cassava varieties that were resistant to the mosaic disease and by introducing a parasitic wasp to destroy mealybug in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, the potential damage posed by these two threats was effectively contained. The introduction of disease-resistant cassava varieties is estimated to have contributed to making an additional 1.4 million tons of cassava flour or gari available per year, enough to feed 29 million people in the region. Similarly, the mealybug control program is estimated to have reduced losses from infestations by an estimated 2.5 tons per hectare.