Solutions to global hunger are within our reach - report

by Katherine Baldwin | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 November 2009 10:15 GMT

(Updates with comments from report's editors, downsides of success stories)

LONDON (AlertNet) - Technological advances in rice production have enabled China to feed an additional 60 million people per year since 1978, while investments in agriculture by farmers in Niger have revitalised an estimated 5 million hectares of land and improved access to food for at least 1 million people.

On the Indian-Gangetic plains, named after the Indus and Ganges rivers, crop management techniques that remove the need for irrigation have slashed wheat production costs, benefiting some 620,000 farmers.

These and other agricultural success stories from around the globe prove that the solutions to food scarcity are within our reach, according to a report called 'Millions Fed', released on Thursday by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

"Successes in agricultural development need to be recognised ... so that others can learn lessons from them, adapt them to their context and scale them up," said Rajul Pandya-Lorch of the IFPRI and one of the book's editors, in a conference call with journalists. "The need to invest in agriculture is more important and urgent than ever before."

The report, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, comes as food shortages continue to ravage parts of the globe and as natural resources and farmland grow more scarce and climate change increases the frequency and intensity of droughts and floods.

Those behind the report said they hoped it would influence policy makers at next week's world food summit in Rome, although they refused to be drawn on the possible outcomes of the gathering.

"Once you have such a powerful compendium of success stories that becomes a major advocacy tool that will help us promote the cause of agricultural development as a means of hunger and poverty reduction," said Prabhu Pingali, deputy director for agricultural development at the Gates Foundation.

There are now more than a billion undernourished people - the highest number in four decades. But the world's population has ballooned over the past half century and the proportion of the population that is hungry has declined dramatically, the report said.

The report contains 20 case studies from around the world that show how technology, shifts in government policy, land reform or changes in farming methods driven by local populations have helped save countries from famine and spread of poverty. The case studies had been rigorously documented and they represented "proven successes", said Pandya-Lorch.

Virtually every success story, however, comes with a negative trade-off, researchers added. While some sectors of a population may be helped, others may be left behind by agricultural development, and debates rage about whether valuable resources should be allocated elsewhere.

FISH IN THE PHILIPPINES

One of the case studies comes from the Philippines, where the genetic improvement of tilapia succeeded in producing fish that grew faster and had a higher survival rate. The project began in 1988 in the Philippines and became a launching pad for the genetic improvement of tropical finfish around the world, the report said.

Thanks to genetic improvements, tilapia production in the Philippines almost tripled between 1990 and 2007, while production costs dropped by a third. Referred to in the report as the "aquatic chicken", genetically-improved tilapia has become a hugely popular source of protein for 23 million poor consumers and comprises 68 percent of all tilapia produced in the country, the report said.

In China, whose population is burgeoning, the production of higher-yielding hybrid rice not only allowed the country to feed an additional 60 million people per year since its introduction in 1978 but it also reduced the land allocated to rice production by 14 percent.

Hybrid rice, developed by teams of scientists, seed producers and farmers, now accounts for 63 percent of all land under rice cultivation and has been vital to China's self-sufficiency in rice production. Nevertheless, the increase in grain yields in China initially was at the expense of grain quality, said David Spelman, who co-edited the report.

Some of the successes come from scientific innovation, others from land reform or other shifts in government policy. In Bangladesh, for example, market liberalisation in the mid-1980s eased restrictions on imports of irrigation equipment, which helped stimulate growth of irrigated rice farming during the dry season. As a result, Bangladesh rice production boomed between 1988 and 2007, benefiting about 1.8 million people a year.

In some cases, local farmers have come up with the answers, often where outside influences have failed.

The Sahel, the belt of land that stretches across Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara, is one of the poorest regions of the world and one of the toughest to farm. But in Burkina Faso and Niger, the rediscovery of traditional agroforestry, water and soil management practices since 1980 have helped turn huge areas of arid land into valuable agricultural property.

In Burkina Faso, the report said, farmers learned to sow crops in planting pits and piled up stones in narrow rows to capture rainwater runoff and soil, thereby increasing fertility. Some 200,000 to 300,000 hectares of land have been transformed, leading to an additional 80,000 tons of food per year - enough to feed about half a million people in the region.

Similar advances have been seen in southern Niger, improving access to food for at least 1 million people. Trees, crops and livestock can now be seen on what was once a barren landscape.

Inevitably, some communities in Africa and in other countries included in the report will have been left behind by agricultural advances. Other cons of agricultural advances have been seen in China and Vietnam, where land reform has had a negative impact on women's access to land rights, said Spelman. Another well-aired debate is around the environmental consequences of pesticides and fertilisers.

But the report's editors argued that doing nothing was not an option.

"Many successes are a mix of pros and cons," said Pandya-Lorch. "This means that successes in agricultural development require careful consideration of difficult trade-offs but the repercussions of failing to invest in agricultural development are clear: persistent hunger."

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