Millions Fed: 20 case studies of agricultural success

November 24, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

‘In the late 1950s around a billion people—about one-third of the world’s population—were estimated to go hungry every day. Famines were threatening millions in Asia and Africa in particular, and prospects for feeding the world’s booming population looked bleak. In response to this alarming picture, scientists, policymakers, farmers, and concerned individuals initiated a concerted push to boost agricultural production and productivity in developing countries. Developing and industrialized countries, together with development agencies and civil society organizations, pursued a range of interventions in agriculture: they applied modern science to crop and livestock production, constructed irrigation systems, developed new cultivation practices to conserve natural resources, introduced policies to encourage farmers to grow and sell more food, and launched many other programs in agricultural development. The result? About one billion people now go hungry every day.’ifpri cover

So begins ‘Millions Fed‘, IFPRI’s collection of uplifting case studies of agricultural success, funded by the Gates Foundation. It offers an interesting science + private sector counterpoint to Ha-Joon Chang’s FAO book on role of the state (see previous blog).

The 20 case studies include successes in defeating plant diseases and bugs in wheat, cattle and cassava, the Green Revolution in Asia (of course), improved yields in African maize, Asian mungbeans or Indian millet and sorghum; zero tillage methods in Argentina, India and Pakistan, and farmer-led innovation in water and soil management in Burkina Faso and Niger. NGO types may be more skeptical over the generally anti-state stance on market and land tenure reforms, but there is an interesting ‘third way’ quality to the discussion on the successes of dairy cooperativization in India, or cotton farmers’ associations in Burkina Faso.

Main lessons from these 20 case studies?

‘Science and technology: The application of science and technology to agricultural development— whether by developing advanced techniques for crop breeding or updating farmers’ traditional soil and water management practices—is a common determinant of success.

Complementary investments. Science and technology are not enough: sustained public investment in the hardware and software of agricultural development is also critical. This includes public investment in irrigation schemes, rural road networks, rural education, market infrastructure, and regulatory systems.

Private incentives. But even with sustained public investment in science, technology, and complementary investment areas, little can be achieved without the right incentives,  putting policies in place that encourage farmers, entrepreneurs, and companies to invest in agriculture, and ensuring that markets provide accurate and timely price signals to these private sector actors.

Cooperation and collaboration. Partnerships among diverse actors in the agricultural sector—research institutes, community-based organizations, private companies, government agencies, and international bodies—are evident in almost all successes.

Timing and planning. Many successes result from good timing, whether by chance or design.

Experimentation and evolution. Often, successes emerge from localized experiments that allow participants to learn from their mistakes, adapt to changes in the landscape, evolve as the playing field becomes more complex, and pursue incremental, step-by-step approaches to scaling up.

Community involvement. Relatedly, by vesting communities with a stake in ownership of a development process, grassroots participation contributes much to the long-term sustainability of a success.

Leadership and dedication. Often, the solutions needed to address agricultural development challenges require dedicated individuals to make the difference—champions to push the issue to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, demonstrate what can be done in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, or mobilize the political and financial capital to overcome inertia.’

November 24, 2009
Duncan Green