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WORLD FOOD AND AGRICULTURE:
LESSONS FROM THE PAST 50 YEARS

If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.

Baruch Spinoza

INTRODUCTION

This review covers changes in the world food, agricultural and food security situation over the past half-century, with a view to deriving policy messages for the years to come.

Fifty years of world food and agriculture make up a canvas that can only be painted with a broad brush. It is not only a long period but also an extraordinarily eventful one - indeed, no other 50-year period in history has seen such wide-ranging and rapid changes in humanity. These changes have not left agriculture untouched. Food and agricultural techniques and systems have undergone major transformations, as have agricultural and rural societies. Different food security situations have also evolved across regions, countries and groups of people. Progress has been spectacular in some areas, disappointing in others. The world today appears overall to be a rich and peaceful place compared with what it was 50 years ago. Yet, millions of people, even in rich societies, are still bowed down by the suffering imposed on them by hunger and related diseases. Such contrasts are certainly not specific to the contemporary world, but advances in technology and resources have made hunger more avoidable and, therefore, more intolerable today.

The past 50 years have seen a revolution in agricultural practices and production and a consequent transformation of rural societies.

From this wide field of research, five themes have been chosen for discussion in this year's special chapter. The first section presents a retrospective overview, largely drawn from the stock of historical and institutional memory contained in past issues of The State of Food and Agriculture; the second describes the process of agricultural modernization and its asymmetric effects on farmers and rural societies; the third focuses on the interrelated issues of staple food production and food and nutrition security; the fourth analyses agricultural productivity, its sources, scope and benefits; and the fifth discusses the role that political and institutional mechanisms can play in reducing or - as has often been the case - perpetuating poverty and food insecurity. A final section summarizes some of the main lessons of the past half-century, as they emerge from the various sections of this review. Overall, it is hoped that the review will contribute both to a greater understanding of the problems faced and to greater commitment towards, in Spinoza's words, "making the present different" - that is, making hunger a thing of the past.


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