2011 Global Food Policy Report

Ephraim Nkonya, Jawoo Koo, and Paswel Marenya, IFPRI; Rachel Licker, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In October 2011, the global population reached 7 billion people, a milestone that highlights the enormous pressure on the planet’s ecosystems. In the face of this population growth, the farmland on which global food production depends is degrading rapidly. About 24 percent of global land area has been affected by land degradation. This area is equivalent to the annual loss of about 1 percent of global land area, which could produce 20 million tons of grain each year, or 1 percent of global annual grain production. Globally, 1.5 billion people and 42 percent of the very poor live on degraded lands.1

Population is growing fastest in the developing countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, annual population growth of 2.3 percent has led to ever smaller areas of arable land per capita. Between 1961 and 2009, per capita arable land in Sub-Saharan Africa fell by about 76 square meters a year, the steepest drop in the world (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Annual loss of per capita arable land in developing countries, 1961–2009

Source: Preliminary analysis based on linear regression model from data from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAOSTAT database.

How can this crowded world feed growing numbers of people? The most feasible solution is to sustainably raise agricultural productivity on existing land. This means halting land degradation to avoid losing even more valuable farmland. It also means raising soil fertility on existing farmland to boost yields and addressing other challenges, on and off farms, that have contributed to low agricultural productivity.

Achieving Zero Land Degradation

In September 2011 the United Nations General Assembly called for building a world with no land degradation. And, in October 2011, parliamentarians of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification reaffirmed this goal by issuing a declaration calling for zero land degradation and for adopting sustainable land management as the way to achieve sustainable development.

New Evidence

In pursuing these goals, we can draw on new evidence about causes of land degradation and solutions to it. Although the conventional wisdom holds that increasing population density is a major driver of land degradation, recent studies suggest that land improvement is possible even in countries with high population density. For example, there was a positive association between an increase in population density and land improvement between 1981 and 2006 globally and in East Asia, but a negative association in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.2 The land improvement in East Asia was attributed largely to policies promoting tree planting and forest plantation programs in China and Korea. China, for example, has the largest number of certified emission reduction credits in the world. These credits, issued to developing countries that implement carbon-reducing projects, are certified according to standards set by the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.

More is also being learned about how effective governance—especially local governance—can reduce land degradation. Strong local institutions and regulation, linked with national institutions and policies, can give local communities the tools they need to manage natural resources such as land, water, and forests. For example, a 2011 study of four African countries showed that the number of land and water management by-laws enacted by communities was strongly correlated with the level of decentralization in each country.3 The findings suggested that the more decentralized a country is, the more likely local communities will take collective action to address natural resource challenges. Of course, strong local governments and other local organizations alone are not sufficient for sustainable natural resource management. Households and communities also need access to markets, remunerative prices, and other incentives.

In the past 20 years, international cooperation on natural resource management has risen rapidly because of increasing awareness of how the benefits of better resource management and the costs of resource degradation cross boundaries. Carbon markets—valued at US$142 billion in 20104—and other international environmental programs have contributed to global efforts to reduce deforestation and other sustainable natural resource management programs in developing countries.

The Example of Brazil

Brazil has dramatically reduced deforestation, thanks to actions taken by local and central governments in cooperation with the international community. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Brazil enacted laws and regulations to protect forests, but deforestation was rampant, reaching a peak of 72,000 square kilometers in 2003–04.5 Then state and municipal governments, as well as the federal government, set laws and by-laws enforcing the deforestation moratorium. And Brazilians started participating in Clean Development Mechanism projects. With more than 180 such projects in operation, Brazil has the third-largest number of certified emission reduction credits, after China and India.6 Land users who signed a binding contract promising not to clear forests were compensated. By 2008–09, just five years later, deforestation had plummeted to 7,000 square kilometers—a reduction of 74 percent.7 Moreover, while Brazil’s agricultural area has remained relatively unchanged, at 68.5 million hectares, since 2005, food production in Brazil appears to have increased by 11–17 percentage points between 2007 and 2009.8 This is a good example of how government policies and strategies can help agriculture-based economies achieve sustainable land management in collaboration with the international community.

India: Common Lands and Food Security

Jagdeesh Rao Puppala and Rahul Chaturvedi, Foundation for Ecological Security

In a landmark judgment issued in January 2011, India’s Supreme Court ruled that arrangements for effective self-governance of community property at the local level be made and that those encroaching on “commons” be evicted. “Commons” refers not only to common pool resources like forests, pastures, riverbeds, bodies of water, and farmland owned jointly by the community and enjoyed by all but also to genetic material such as seeds and livestock breeds adapted by local communities. These shared resource systems and village governments are crucial to sustaining the farming systems—and, thereby, the livelihoods and food security—of the more than 300 million people living and working in rural communities in India, where common lands are estimated to constitute roughly 15 to 25 percent of the geographical area.

In response to the Supreme Court judgment, some state governments have already taken measures to improve tenure security, strengthen institutional arrangements for local governance, and restore common lands. At the national level, preliminary policy planning also calls for a commons policy and increased public investments to help build common property regimes.1

In addition to contributing to food and nutritional security, commons help maintain critical ecological functions for the sustenance of farming systems. Forest commons play a crucial role in maintaining stream flows, groundwater recharge, and nutrient transfers. They serve as habitats for pollinators and pest predators, thereby building the resilience of agro-ecosystems, and provide an institutional setting that energizes collective action while minimizing undesirable individual action that can lead to the exploitation of resources.

A 2010 study in rainfed areas of India underscores the continuing dependence of rural households on commons: across the 3,000 households surveyed, 53 percent accessed commons for agricultural inputs, 69 percent for livestock grazing, 62 percent for domestic and livestock water requirements, 74 percent for fuelwood collection, and 37 percent for food items for household consumption.2 Roughly 45 percent of the total fodder requirement is met by common resources, and commons are estimated to contribute 20 to 40 percent to household annual incomes. Despite all of this, commons have long been neglected in policies and programs that aim to restore natural resources. However, recent developments, including the 2011 Supreme Court ruling, indicate that this is beginning to change, and the role of local communities in effectively governing natural resources is receiving recognition and leading to more decentralized governance.

1 - R. Kaur, “Return of Village Land,” Down to Earth, Feb. 28, 2011, www.downtoearth.org.in/node/33020. [Back]
2 - Foundation for Ecological Security, “A Commons Story: In the Rain Shadow of the Green Revolution,” Draft report presentation at the 13th International Association for the Study of the Commons Conference, Hyderabad, India, January 10–14, 2010. [Back]

Sustainably Increasing Agricultural Productivity

Besides halting land degradation, it is crucial to produce more food on current farmland. Researchers have shown that land productivity will have to meet more than three-quarters of the growth in global food demand between now and 2050.9 Meeting the increase in food demand will mean raising crop productivity in regions where there is a wide gap between actual yields and potential yields. In the developed regions and East Asia, growth in crop yields is slowing as the gap between potential and actual yields narrows. For the three major cereals—rice, wheat, and maize—the largest yield gaps occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and South Asia.10

In Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the widest gaps between actual and potential yields, these gaps can be closed by investing in, for example, agricultural research, improvements in market conditions, and better rural services, which will provide technical support and incentives for increasing productivity. But among the most important steps to increase agricultural productivity and address land degradation is managing soil fertility.

Organic inputs such as manure and crop residues have been shown to raise crop yields and improve soil ecology.11 By increasing soil’s water-holding capacity and carbon content, organic inputs can help both adapt to and mitigate climate change. Organic soil fertility management can also reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer required. One study found that when leguminous trees were planted on maize plots in East and Southern Africa, the maize required up to 75 percent less synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.12 Reduced use of nitrogen fertilizer could, in turn, reduce the water pollution that results when farmers apply too much fertilizer.

In fact, research conducted in Sub-Saharan Africa has shown that integrated soil fertility management—the use of organic inputs, improved crop varieties, and judicious amounts of synthetic fertilizers—is more profitable than the use of organic inputs or synthetic fertilizers alone. A recent study conducted in Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, and Uganda showed that as farmers applied more organic inputs and fertiliz-ers, both maize yields and soil carbon increased. Over a 30-year period, farmers who combined synthetic fertilizer and organic inputs experienced increasing or flat maize yields, whereas farmers who used organic inputs or synthetic fertilizer alone experienced falling yields. Further analysis showed that by using integrated soil fertility management, farmers could increase the financial return to applying one kilogram of nitrogen by an average of about 60 percent, compared with use of fertilizer alone.13 Countries that allocate large shares of their agricultural budgets to fertilizer subsidies may be able to increase the returns to public spending by giving subsidies on the condition that the beneficiary adopts an easily verifiable organic input practice such as agroforestry.14

Despite its win-win-win advantage of greater yield, profit, and environmental services, adoption of integrated soil fertility management is low—often lower than the use of synthetic fertilizer or organic inputs alone (Table 1). There may be several reasons for this low adoption rate. Farmers are less likely to adopt this practice when they have little household capital, are far from roads and markets, and have no livestock to produce manure and help transport bulky inputs. According to preliminary research results, women farmers are more likely to use organic inputs and less likely to use synthetic fertilizer than men, but greater endowments of financial and physical assets increase their propensity to adopt integrated soil fertility management practices.
The capacity of agricultural extension services in Sub-Saharan Africa to provide integrated soil fertility management technologies is low. Only a small share of agricultural extension agents in Nigeria and Uganda, for example, were shown to provide advisory services on organic inputs. Most of their agricultural advisory services focused on improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides.15

Table 1: Adoption of integrated soil fertility management in six Sub-Saharan African countries

Soil inputs Farmers' rate of adoption (%)
Kenya Malawi Mali Niger Nigeria Uganda
Organic inputs and synthetic fertilizer 19.6 14.7 17.7 0.0  7.5  2.0
Organic inputs alone 29.4 18.6 38.7 1.0 12.1 11.9
Synthetic fertilizer alone 10.5 70.8 16.3 0.1 45.3  6.1
Sources: Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, and Uganda: Compiled from E. Nkonya, F. Place, J. Pender, M. Mwanjololo, A. Okhimamhe, E. Kato, S. Crespo, J. Ndjeunga, and S. Traore, [Climate Risk Management through Sustainable Land Management in Sub-Saharan Africa](http://www.ifpri.org/publication/climate-risk-management-through-sustainable-land-management-sub-saharan-africa), IFPRI Discussion Paper 01126 (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2011); Mali: Government of Mali, Recensement general de l’agriculture, Campagne agricole 2004–2005; Malawi: Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security household survey 2008. Note: In this case, organic inputs consist of animal manure. Farmers are considered to be using integrated soil fertility management when they adopt both organic inputs and synthetic fertilizer (all farmers had already adopted improved crop varieties).


In 2011 two United Nations bodies adopted ambitious goals for halting land degradation and achieving sustainable development. These goals will be difficult, but not impossible, to meet. The evidence presented here suggests several avenues for achieving a world with no land degradation.

First, efforts to promote sustainable land management need to improve local and national governance while also enhancing international cooperation.

Second, instead of focusing solely on fertilizer subsidies, countries should use broader and more cost-effective incentives to encourage farmers to adopt integrated soil fertility management.

Women’s Land Tenure Matters

Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Amber Peterman, and Agnes Quisumbing, IFPRI

Secure land tenure is widely recognized as crucial for investments, productivity, sustainability, and status. Without secure rights over their land, people do not have the incentive to invest in long-term sustainability or productivity enhancements on their land and may not even have the authority to make investments as straightforward as planting trees. Secure tenure reduces vulnerability to eviction and strengthens bargaining power, both outside and within the household. Although most analysis of land tenure has focused on the household, there is increasing acknowledgment that the gender distribution of land rights both across and within households also matters. The 2010–11 State of Food and Agriculture Report highlights how the gender gap in access to productive resources constrains agricultural productivity.1 Other reports and organizations have also shown that control of land is important for women’s security, status, and bargaining power.2 The 2012 World Development Report recommends strengthening women’s land rights as an important action for improving gender equality, a development objective in its own right that will also enhance productivity and development outcomes for the next generation.3

Currently, women are less likely to be landholders than men. When women do have access to land, they usually cultivate smaller and less fertile holdings. According to the Gender and Land Rights database maintained by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, on average women account for less than 5 percent of agricultural landholders in West Asia and North Africa, 15 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 25 percent in Latin America.4 But even this is an incomplete picture of legal status because landholding may not confer many rights to the female landholder. A recent study in Uganda suggests that, even when men and women reported holding land jointly, women were much less likely to have any documentation in their name.5 This would make them susceptible to losing land rights if their husband decided to sell the land or if they were divorced or widowed.

What can be done to strengthen women’s land rights? In many developing countries, legal reforms are often ignored if they run counter to customary law and practice. Therefore, reforming the legal system is important but unlikely to have much effect on its own. The implementation of reforms such as removing restrictions on women's land ownership, making provisions for joint titling, and reforming family law so that women can inherit land and retain rights in case of divorce or widowhood requires attention and resources. This may involve offering legal literacy programs to inform administrators and judges, as well as the general public, about the reforms and working with customary authorities to discuss the importance of women’s land rights. Including women on local land administration committees can encourage them to register their land. An analysis in its early stages suggests that in Ethiopia’s land registration process, having more women on the local land committees increased attendance at meetings relating to land registration and raised awareness of the new family code that aims to strengthen women’s property rights.6 This and other studies show that improving women’s land rights should be done through multiple channels, rather than through simple, one-step solutions.

1 - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food and Agriculture 2010­–11 (Rome, 2011), www.fao.org/publications/sofa. [Back]
2 - S. Lastarria-Cornhiel, J. A. Behrman, R. Meinzen-Dick, and A. R. Quisumbing, “Gender Equity and Land: Toward Secure and Effective Access for Rural Women,” in Gender in Agriculture and Food Security: Closing the Knowledge Gap, eds. A. Quisumbing, R. Meinzen-Dick, T. Raney, A. Croppenstedt, J. A. Behrman, and A. Peterman (New York: Springer and FAO, forthcoming). [Back]
3 - World Bank, World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2011). [Back]
4 - Lastarria-Cornhiel et al., “Gender Equity and Land.”[Back]
5 - A. Bomuhangi, C. Doss, and R. Meinzen-Dick, Who Owns the Land? Perspectives from Rural Ugandans and Implications for Land Acquisitions, IFPRI Discussion Paper 1136 (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2011). [Back]
6 - N. Kumar and A. R. Quisumbing, “Policy Reform toward Gender Equality in Ethiopia: Little by Little the Egg Begins to Walk,” unpublished manuscript (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2010).[Back]

1 - United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, “Land and Soil in the Context of a Green Economy for Sustainable Development, Food Security, and Poverty Eradication,” The Submission of the UNCCD Secretariat to the Preparatory Process for the Rio+ 20 Conference, 2011, www.unccd.int/knowledge/menu.php. [Back]
2 - E. Nkonya, N. Gerber, P. Baumgartner, J. von Braun, A. De Pinto, V. Graw, E. Kato, J. Kloos, and T. Walter, The Economics of Land Degradation: Toward an Integrated Global Assessment, Development Economics and Policy Series, Vol. 66, edited by F. Heidhues, J. von Braun, and M. Zeller (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2011). [Back]
3 - E. Nkonya, F. Place, J. Pender, M. Mwanjololo, A. Okhimamhe, E. Kato, S. Crespo, J. Ndjeunga, and S. Traore, Climate Risk Management through Sustainable Land Management in Sub-Saharan Africa, IFPRI Discussion Paper 1126 (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2011). [Back]
4 - N. Linacre, A. Kossoy, and P. Ambrosi, State and Trends of the Carbon Market (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2011). [Back]
5 - D. Celentano, E. Sills, M. Sales, and A. Veríssimo, “Welfare Outcomes and the Advance of the Deforestation Frontier in the Brazilian Amazon,” World Development 40, no. 4 (2012): 850–64, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2011.09.002. [Back]
6 - J. C. Cole and D. M. Liverman, “Brazil’s Clean Development Mechanism Governance in the Context of Brazil’s Historical Environment–Development Discourses,” Carbon Management 2, no. 2 (2011): 145–60. [Back]
7 - Convention on Biological Diversity, Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (Montreal, 2010). [Back]
8 - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAOSTAT database, http://faostat.fao.org. [Back]
9 - J. Bruinsma, “The Resource Outlook to 2050,” in Proceedings of the Expert Meeting on How to Feed the World in 2050 (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009). [Back]
10 - R. Licker, M. Johnston, J. A. Foley, C. Barford, C. J. Kucharik, C. Monfreda, and N. Ramankutty, “Mind the Gap: How Do Climate and Agricultural Management Explain the ‘Yield Gap’ of Croplands around the World?” Global Ecology and Biogeography 119, no. 6 (2010): 769–782. [Back]
11 - D. S. Powlson, P. J. Gregory, W. R. Whalley, J. N. Quinton, D. W. Hopkins, A. P. Whitmore, P. R. Hirsch, and K. W. T. Goulding, “Soil Management in Relation to Sustainable Agriculture and Ecosystem Services,” Food Policy 36, no. 1 (2011): S72–S87. [Back]
12 - F. Akinnifesi, O. C. Ajayi, G. Sileshi, P. W. Chirwa, and J. Chianu, “Fertiliser Trees for Sustainable Food Security in the Maize-based Production Systems of East and Southern Africa: A Review,” Agronomy for Sustainable Development 30, no. 3 (2010): 615–29. [Back]
13 - Nkonya et al., Climate Risk Management. [Back]
14 - E. Nkonya, “N in Africa’s Country and Regional Policies: Lessons to Enhance Broader Stakeholder and Policy-maker engagement,” in M. Bekunda, N. Karanja, and A. Langyintuo, eds., Impact of Nitrogen on African Agriculture and the Environment, International Nitrogen Initiative (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer, forthcoming). [Back]
15 - B. Banful, E. Nkonya, and V. Oboh, Constraints to Fertilizer Use in Nigeria: Insights from Agricultural Extension Service, IFPRI Discussion Paper 1010 (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2010); E. Nkonya, A. Nana, B. Bashaasha, E. Kato, and M. Magheni, “Pluralist and Demand-driven and Traditional Supply-driven Agricultural Extension Services in Africa: Which Reaches More Farmers and Women? The case of Uganda,” paper presented at the Tropentag Conference “Development in the Margin,” Bonn, October 5–7, 2011. [Back]