The challenge of food production



Between 1950 and 1980 food production in developing countries grew at an average of 3 percent a year, a rate that exceeded that of population growth. This unparalleled increase, largely due to the adoption of new high-yielding varieties, bought time for the development of further solutions to world food problems.

Future food security depends on high-yielding varieties of staple foods.



New high-yielding varieties of staple crops can help to provide food security for increasing populations.

Until the second half of this century, agricultural research focused largely on the needs of industrialized countries; where it reached the developing countries, it was directed for the most part towards crops that were important to the developed world. After the Second World War - and particularly after the food crisis of the 1960s - the focus began to change. International research centres were founded and local scientists trained. Sub-Saharan Africa now has four times more scientists than it did in 1961, although expenditure on research has fallen.

Research in Mexico and the Philippines in the 1950s and 1960s led to the development of the high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice that launched the Green Revolution. Between 1950 and 1980, production of food in the developing world rose by an average of 3 percent a year, outstripping population growth. India's wheat production trebled between 1967 and 1982; rice production in the Philippines doubled between 1960 and 1980. Today, high-yielding varieties cover half the world's wheatlands and most of its rice paddies. The extra rice produced, alone, feeds 700 million people.

The success of the first high-yielding varieties depended on the availability of water, chemical fertilizers and pesticides and on the use of machinery - favouring prosperous farmers and those with access to water and transport. The revolution was mostly confined to Asia and parts of Latin America, but Africa was hardly touched.

As each new variety usually lasted for only three to four years before adaptation of pests and diseases caused its resistance to break down, scientists had to keep breeding new strains. Over 1 000 new varieties of rice have been launched since 1966.

There is now a new concentration on development of crops to suit less favourable soils and climates: new varieties of wheat which will grow in drought-prone climates are being developed as are strains of rice suited to the acid soils of Latin America's savannahs and the poor lowland soils of South and Southeast Asia. A hybrid rice developed in China has raised hopes of a new miracle rice which will help to boost harvests by the 74 percent that will be needed by 2020. Such breakthroughs are urgently needed: rice yields in Asia seem to have levelled out even though the population continues to increase.

Meanwhile other international research centres, set up in the 1960s and 1970s, have focused on other crops. Recent successes include new strains of faba bean the "poor man's food" - which have transformed Egypt from an importer to an exporter of the crop; a sweet sorghum, developed in China, which is used as animal feed and for the production of alcohol for fuel; high-yielding varieties of cassava - Africa's most widely grown staple food - which doubled yields in the 1980s and are set to do so again; and a hybrid pigeon pea which offers the hope of a "green revolution" in pulses. Research has also improved methods of growing crops, such as the discovery of ways of applying fertilizer more efficiently to Chinese cabbage crops.

In all this, scientists are increasingly aware that progress depends on listening to the farmers and drawing on their own knowledge and experience.


Agricultural research personnel expenditures: developing and developed countries

Agricultural research personnel


Agricultural research expenditures


Changing focus of agricultural research and development

Past focus Recent additional emphasis
Non-food and cash crops Upgrading subsistence food crops
Large-scale producers Small-scale producers
Prime land Marginal land
Increased productivity Sustainable production
Higher-yielding cultivars Stress-tolerant cultivars
Mechanization Animal traction
Monocultures Intercropping
Irrigation Rain-fed agriculture
Mineral fertilizers Nutrient recycling
Chemical pesticides Integrated pest management
Limited number of crops Crop diversification
Cattle Small ruminants and other small livestock/poultry species
Large-scale producers Small-scale producers
Traditional pastures Improved dryland pastures
Capital-intensive production Extensive production
Improved feed quantity and quality
Commercial off-shore fisheries In-shore, inland artisanal fisheries, aquaculture
Replenishment of stock
Increased production Increased fishing efficiency
Reduced post-harvest losses
Improved monitoring of stocks
Enhancement of marine environment
Development of boats and gear Alternative energy propulsion
Small-scale fishing technologies
Single species plantations Multipurpose tree crops
Industrial forestry Community forestry/agroforestry
Women in forestry
Non-timber forest products
Trees for watershed management
Trees for environmental improvement
Management of protected areas


Areas of genetic diversity

Areas of genetic diversity of cultivated plant and CGIAR research centres

CIAT International Centre of Tropical Agriculture, Cali, Colombia

CIFOR Centre for International Forestry Research, Jakarta, Indonesia

CIMMYT International Centre for Improvement of Wheat and Maize, Lisboa, Mexico

CIP International Potato Centre, Lima, Peru

ICARDA International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, Aleppo, Syria

ICLARM International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management, Manila, Philippines

ICRAF International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, Nairobi, Kenya

ICRISAT International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Andhra Pradesh, India

IFPRI International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., United States

IIMI International Irrigation Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka

IITA International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan, Nigeria

ILRI International Livestock Research Institute, Nairobi, Kenya

IPGRI International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (successor to the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, IBPGR), Rome, Italy

IRRI International Rice Research Institute, Manila, Philippines

ISNAR International Service for National Agricultural Research, The Hague, Netherlands

WARDA West Africa Rice Development Association, Bouaké, Côte d'lvoire

Improved varieties of cereals

Research and development has produced hardier plants with shorter growing times:





The agricultural research network

Farmers in Rwanda normally keep seed from one harvest to plant in the following season. Civil war disrupted this routine and by autumn 1994 some 850 000 families needed seed. FAO coordinated a US$ 18.4 million programme that distributed bean, maize and other seed to help restore Rwandan agriculture.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was set up in 1971. It coordinates a global network of 16 international centres - 13 of them in the developing world - and national centres. It promotes research on food production and natural resources management and mobilizes donor support.

The CGIAR centres both develop new crop varieties and conserve the genetic resources which provide the raw material for research. They are situated in, or near, most of the richest regions of biological diversity where crops originated in the wild. They house the world's largest ex situ collections of plant genetic resources: the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, for instance, conserves over 86 000 rice varieties and wild species.

Such collections play an important part in protecting food supplies: a Turkish variety of wheat, collected in 1948 and ignored for many years, has recently been found to carry genes resistant to a whole array of diseases which threaten modern crops.

When war disrupts agriculture and farmers must eat their seeds to survive, indigenous varieties can disappear. In 1986 the IRRI reintroduced rice strains to Cambodia which had been lost during the civil war, while the CGIAR Seeds of Hope programme is replicating seeds in a bid to restore Rwanda's agriculture and genetic diversity.

CGIAR's best known work remains the development of new varieties of crops. It is breeding strains suited to poor farmers, who cannot afford heavy chemical inputs, and which will tolerate harsh conditions. Some centres concentrate on particular crop species, while the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, focuses on farm animals. Other centres are devoted to fisheries, forestry, food policy, irrigation and dryland management.