Washington, DC—As heads of state gather in Rome next week for the World Summit on Food Security, a new book pulls together – for the first time – major successes in agricultural development that have brought millions of people out of hunger over the past 50 years. The book, Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development, was commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to determine what works in agriculture – what sorts of programs, policies, and investments have had a proven impact on hunger and food security.
Millions Fed, the culmination of a major research project led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), presents 20 case studies – not pilot projects or short-lived experiments – but large-scale initiatives that are documented to have substantial, long-term effects. These stories include achievements not just in increasing the yields and production of staple food crops, but also in expanding markets, developing better policies, conserving natural resources, and improving nutrition.
“I am enthused about this book, as it presents stories of proven successes in a tangible way, so that people can understand and learn from what actually happened,” said Bill Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation.
These successes have played an important role in the last 50 years, helping to reduce the proportion of people in the world suffering from malnutrition from about one third to one sixth. But progress has slowed, and the challenge of meeting future food needs is exacerbated by factors such as stagnating yields, climate change, and population growth.
“Learning from past achievements in agricultural development is now more urgent than ever,” stressed Rajul Pandya-Lorch, head of IFPRI’s 2020 Vision Initiative, and coeditor of the book. “These successes provide valuable lessons about how to put agriculture to work to solve hunger and malnutrition. Until now, however, relatively little evidence has been available on where, why, and how these interventions succeeded.”
The case studies were chosen through a rigorous process that included an open call for nominations, an extensive literature review, and expert interviews. Nominations were evaluated using criteria that prioritized initiatives that were long-lasting and sustainable, with well-documented evidence of real impact. Initiatives also had to be large-scale, reaching hundreds of thousands or millions.
Of the 20 case studies selected, more than half come from Asia, five are from Africa, one is from South America, and two are global in scope. Examples include:
- Breeding of rust-resistant wheat varieties in Mexico spawned a global effort to fight the deadly fungi that threatened global wheat production in the 1950s. As a result, 117 million hectares of land under cultivation were protected from wheat rust, ensuring the food security of 60-120 million rural households.
- Market liberalization in Bangladesh during the mid-1980s to ease restrictions on the importation and sale of irrigation equipment stimulated the growth of irrigated rice farming. Rice production nearly doubled, benefitting about 22 million people a year.
- Improved environmental practices in Burkina Faso and Niger led to the rehabilitation of millions of hectares of farmland, producing enough food to sustain about 3 million people in the region.
- Between 1978 and 1984, China returned more than 95 percent of the nation’s total farmland to some 160 million farm households. These reforms directly contributed to an increase in rural incomes by 137 percent, a reduction in rural poverty by 22 percent, and a 34 percent rise in grain production.
“Each of these cases tells a different story of what worked, how, and why,” explained David Spielman, IFPRI research fellow and book coeditor. “While no single story offers a complete solution to ending hunger, each one illustrates the importance of combined approaches to achieve success, including good science, collaboration, visionary leadership, community action, and progressive policies.”
The release of this book comes at a critical time. After about two decades of neglect, decision-makers are recognizing the central importance of agriculture for development. The G-20 recently committed an additional $22 billion for agriculture, and the U.S. government is currently leading an initiative to spur action, ‘Partnering for Food Security: Moving Forward.’
“Agricultural development is a powerful driver in reducing poverty, and the success stories in Millions Fed prove that sustained public investment can make a difference and help small farmers in the developing world lift themselves out of hunger and poverty,” commented Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of the Agricultural Development initiative at the Gates Foundation. “We believe that Millions Fed will invigorate a lively debate about agricultural successes, and provide a valuable guide to the donor community in determining where best to focus resources.”
Despite the progress that has been made over the past decades, there are still about one billion people worldwide who are undernourished.
“It is heartening to know – even in this time of great need – that proven, large-scale successes do exist. The lessons learned from these accomplishments can point the way to making major new strides in ending hunger worldwide,” said Joachim von Braun, director general of IFPRI.
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