Can We Feed the World?

Ed note. This op-ed, by Gordon Conway, originally appeared in Project Syndicate and is reprinted here with permission. 

LONDON – In the 1960’s, the Green Revolution – which included the development of high-yielding crop varieties, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, and the distribution of modern fertilizers and pesticides to developing-country farmers – bolstered agricultural production worldwide. But chronic hunger remains pervasive, particularly in developing countries, which are affected most by crop shortages and food-price volatility.

By 2050, the global human population is expected to exceed nine billion. Achieving food security means ensuring that all people have consistent, affordable access to the right nutrients, despite land and water limitations, climate change, and the growing prevalence of resource-intensive Western-style diets that accompany rising incomes.

Surmounting these challenges will not be easy. But, by taking concerted action to encourage innovation, strengthen market linkages, and support smallholder farmers and women, developing countries can build productive, stable, resilient, and equitable agricultural sectors, achieve sustainable economic growth, and guarantee food security for all.

First, the public and private sectors must ramp up investment in research and development, as well as in the extension and adoption of effective, accessible, and affordable technologies – whether conventional, intermediate, or new platform – according to each country or region’s individual needs. Given that little suitable land remains unused, and that much of what is being farmed is increasingly degraded and eroded, investment in sustainable intensification (systems for increasing crop yields, while using fewer resources and minimizing environmental damage) is crucial.

For example, conservation agriculture, which aims to reduce or eliminate the need for damaging and labor-intensive interventions like mechanical soil tillage, can increase yields while protecting vulnerable areas from erosion and improving soil fertility. In Zambia, research conducted by local governments, in collaboration with the anti-poverty charity Concern Worldwide, found that new hybrid seeds produced roughly four to five tons of maize per hectare, compared to Africa’s average of one ton per hectare.

Moreover, smallholder farmers – who are essential to productive, stable, resilient, and equitable agricultural development – should be given the needed tools and support to capture more benefits from value chains, while minimizing risk. This requires building and maintaining fair and efficient input and output markets that connect them – as well as larger-scale farmers – physically and virtually to opportunities to increase their incomes.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa has worked with governments, international organizations, charitable foundations, private industry, and farmers’ groups to train and support more than 5,000 agrodealers in eastern and western Africa as they open stores to sell key inputs in small, affordable quantities. As a result, farmers can travel shorter distances to acquire needed supplies. In one area of Kenya, farmers who had to travel 17 kilometers to reach an agrodealer in 2004 had to travel only four kilometers three years later.

At the same time, smallholder farmers need easier access to markets to sell their crops for a fair price, rather than relying on expensive middlemen or inefficient government bodies. An alternative would be to establish some form of cooperative or contract-based farm association that can negotiate fair prices.

Governments must also develop and implement policies aimed at ensuring that those who are typically marginalized from the formal food industry – women, young people, ethnic minorities, and non-landowners – have reliable access to adequate nutrition and opportunities to participate in agricultural production. As farmers, mothers, educators, and innovators, women provide a critical link between food production, consumption, and future progress on food security. Indeed, giving female farmers access to the same resources as their male counterparts could reduce the number of undernourished people worldwide by 100-150 million.

Finally, political leaders must consistently pursue this agenda at the international, regional, national, and local levels. To that end, they must honor their commitments – made through international institutions, such as the G-8, the G-20, and the African Union – to increasing investment in agricultural development and to combating global hunger. Likewise, they must offer sustained support to ongoing national initiatives, thus encouraging further investment and cooperation.

John Kufuor, Ghana’s president from 2001 to 2009, exemplified such leadership, boosting investment in agricultural research, farmer education, and infrastructure projects, such as roads, warehouses, and cold storage. As a result, the proportion of people living in poverty fell from 51% in 1991-92 to 28.5% in 2005-06. Over the last 25 years, Ghana’s agricultural sector has grown at an average annual rate of 5%.

Such experiences provide grounds for optimism. By investing in and spreading innovative technologies, strengthening market linkages, encouraging visionary leadership, and targeting those most in need – and thus with the most potential – we can feed the world.

Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development at Imperial College, London, is the author of One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?