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What have we learned?

Humanity is forgetful. Today, many are unaware of the fact that, until recently, the risk of extensive famines was a stark reality. This was the case half a century ago, when the founders of FAO raised the Organization's flag - committing themselves to ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger.

"The nations accepting this Constitution ... promote the common welfare ... for the purpose of: raising levels of nutrition and standards of living...; securing improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products; bettering the condition of rural populations; and thus contributing towards an expanding world economy and ensuring humanity's freedom from hunger;"

Constitution of FAO, Preamble - as amended in 1965
In Basic Texts of the
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the late 1940s, parts of the world were recovering from devastating war damages and others struggling against colonialism. The majority of the world's population was poor and powerless and agricultural productivity was low. Famines threatened, particularly in the densely populated continent of Asia, and in some tragic cases became a reality.

Looking back 50 years later, however, we can see that humanity as a whole has achieved considerable progress in the battle against hunger. The average food intake and standard of living have improved substantially, despite the fact that there are 2.5 times more mouths to feed, and the undernourished population has declined in both absolute and percentage terms.

Yet this overall performance is gravely inadequate, as more than 800 million people are still chronically undernourished.
It also masks enormous regional disparities. Since 1970, the number of undernourished has doubled in Africa, while it has been halved in East and Southeast Asia. Country performances also vary greatly within regions and hunger also persists among the poorer and vulnerable groups in rich countries.

As noted at the beginning of this review, the past 50 years have been extraordinarily eventful and have brought about
wide-ranging and rapid changes to humanity. Progress has been spectacular in such areas as agricultural technology and productivity, but disappointing with regard to poverty alleviation, especially in rural areas. New issues such as sustainability and environmental impacts have gained prominence as agricultural production has expanded, with a greater use of inputs and resources.

This special chapter has investigated some of the major factors that explain these positive and negative changes. To conclude, the main findings have been summarized with a view to deriving some general conclusions.


Food and agriculture over the past 50 years. The past half-century has seen evolving perceptions regarding development, including its promises and constraints, ways to achieve it and the role that the public and private sectors should play in accelerating it. For a long time, the key contribution made by agriculture to economic and social development has not always been recognized. Moreover, world hunger has failed to attract the sustained attention it warrants. Against a rapidly accelerating process of international integration and interdependence, a flurry of national and international initiatives in the past decade have borne witness to greater public interest in problems and issues relating to poverty reduction, sustainable development and food security. Furthermore, it has been recognized that, because of the interdependence of such issues, concerted action is required to address them.

Social and economic impact of agricultural modernization. The process of agricultural modernization has enabled major gains in agricultural output overall but has had very asymmetrical effects on rural societies and on the income and productivity levels of small-scale traditional farmers vis-à-vis those involved in industrial agriculture. A continuation of this process could have detrimental economic and social effects on poor farmers and rural societies. It would also accelerate rural migration, thus accentuating the negative effects of rapid urbanization.

Figure 28

Food and nutrition security: why food production matters. Development strategies that emphasize staple food production have proved to be cost-effective in providing the poor with entitlement to food. For most of the undernourished who live in rural areas, extra employment and income derived from staple food production has been - and will continue to be - the key to enhanced food entitlements. While food availability must be secured, it is equally important for consumers to have access to a safe, varied and nutritionally balanced diet that ensures them an active and healthy life.

Agricultural production and productivity. Extraordinary but uneven gains in agricultural production and productivity have been achieved, largely as a result of different approaches to augmenting countries' "technological capital". Technological advancements, rendered possible by research and investment efforts and by support from national and international agricultural research centres, have played an irreplaceable role. Changes in the relationship between population and resources have also been important factors; the worker-population ratio, which had been declining in many countries, is now growing in most, thus allowing these countries to benefit from the "demographic gift" that has already helped some of the most populous countries to address the challenge of development and increasing food supplies. Prospects for a continuation of the productivity growth seen in the past are hindered in many countries by land degradation, strained water resources and reduced irrigation investment opportunities. However, there is now evidence that biotechnology can contribute substantially to overcoming these problems, provided adequate precautions are taken against properly assessed negative outcomes.

Political economy issues, poverty and food security. "Poverty traps" continue to plague large segments of populations in all societies, and they are perpetuated or even accentuated by failures in various political, institutional and coordinating mechanisms - at the level of the market, the government or the local community. Imperfections in the credit and insurance markets severely restrict the ability of the poor to invest in and expand production. Where success has been achieved in poverty alleviation, governments have played a fundamental role in helping the poor to escape the poverty trap, by enabling them to have access to basic education, health, research and extension services, roads and marketing infrastructures. On the other hand, the removal of costly and distortive government regulations and market interventions has boosted economic and agricultural development.


Common to the findings listed here is the fact that progress achieved in the reduction of hunger over the past 50 years has been insufficient, and much is still to be accomplished before hunger, a scourge as ancient as humanity, is finally eradicated.

Improving access to food

It has become progressively clear that hunger results not so much from insufficient food supplies, as from people's lack of access to those supplies. In fact, the world already had a problem of food "surpluses" owing to insufficient purchasing power 50 years ago.

Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen1 has analysed the causes of famines and observed cases in which people starved to death in spite of food availability - because they had no "entitlement".

"What we can eat depends on what food we are able to acquire. The mere presence of food in the economy, or in the market, does not entitle a person to consume it. In each social structure, given the prevailing legal, political and economic arrangements, a person can establish command over some alternative commodity bundles ... [i.e.] this person's entitlements. A person's entitlements depend on what she owns initially and what she can acquire through exchange. For example, a wage labourer owns her labour power, and by exchanging that for a wage ... she acquires some money, which she can exchange for some commodity bundle or other...."

Hunger and public action

Promoting growth with equity

In improving access to food by the poor, two factors are of prime importance: economic growth and equity. For a poor household whose major endowment is its labour force, economic growth with equity can offer a favourable market for its products, more employment opportunities, a greater capacity on the part of society to support the needy and, thus, increased entitlements.

While economic growth obviously matters in reducing hunger, optimism regarding how widely and rapidly its benefits are spread is often challenged. Indeed, poverty and hunger do not always retreat as a national economy grows. Growth often bypasses, and can even harm, some groups, and recent economic growth at the international and national levels has frequently been accompanied by growing inequalities.

There is a strong case for resource-poor farmers who are unable to keep up with the competition of modern agriculture, especially in the face of declining output prices. All reviews of rural poverty, particularly women's poverty, point to a common factor - unequal access to land, compounded by unequal access to water, credit, knowledge and markets. This underlines the importance of agrarian reform. Although politically difficult, successful agrarian reforms have not only rectified income distribution but also resulted in sharp increases in productivity.

Improving the distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities is a key factor in the fight against hunger. Extreme inequity and poverty result in desperate people and destabilizing tensions in rural and urban societies. This also points to the need for targeted measures that not only address the immediate food and health care requirements of disadvantaged groups, but also provide them with developmental means, i.e. access to inputs, infrastructure, services and, most important, education.

The importance of food and agricultural production

In pursuance of economic growth, many countries, particularly during the first part of the past 50 years, endeavoured to accelerate industrialization in the hope that earnings from industrial exports would enable them to import food to complement domestic production. This hope was fuelled both by the fact that food supplies in world markets were adequate to meet import needs and by an observed declining trend in real food and agricultural prices in world markets. However, such a strategy, based on industry-led growth and often accomplished through an urban bias in fiscal and social policies, largely failed, leaving behind vast rural poverty and food insecurity while accentuating problems linked to rapid urbanization.

Policies based on this strategy failed mainly because they overlooked the importance of agricultural production, particularly of staple foods, as a critical source of entitlements for the many food producers, who were also consumers. In predominantly agrarian economies, there is no mechanism for distributing entitlements to peasant farming populations other than that of enabling them to develop their food and agricultural production.

Building technological capital

The unprecedented increase in crop yields over the past 50 years has been the main source of growth in the world's food supplies, as the global expansion of arable land has been limited. Nevertheless, there have been dramatic shifts in land use. Deforestation has fed a good part of the increase in arable land - with well-documented negative consequences on the environment - while, on the other hand, previously productive farmland has been taken up by urban and infrastructure development as well as by desertification and other forms of land degradation and conversion.

Behind the yield increases are major technological forces, including increased inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, genetically improved seeds, irrigation and drainage. Improved infrastructure, such as rural roads, has also contributed to the increase in agricultural productivity. Such advances were made possible by public and private investments. However, the drawback with increased inputs, i.e. physical investments, is that they bring diminishing returns. In this context, research leading to technological development and its dissemination has been crucial. National research capacities to adopt and disseminate technological developments have proved a crucial factor in the performance of yield increases.

The most remarkable agricultural achievement of the past 50 years has been the green revolution, combining coordinated agricultural research and policy effort. It was particularly successful in large parts of Asia, although initial enthusiasm later waned with the growing awareness of some of its negative social and environmental impacts. Given the absence of a comparable technological development suitable for the conditions and crop composition prevailing in most of Africa, the green revolution bypassed most of that region's farmers.

Investment in research, rural infrastructure and extension services, as well as human capital development, has proved indispensable to technological progress and the development of social and physical infrastructure.

Developing human capital

Human capital in the form of knowledge and skills has been vital for reducing poverty and improving food security. Many studies have demonstrated the effect of education, especially for women, on farm and off-farm output and productivity, as well as on health and nutrition. The provision of basic education constitutes the best long-term investment, favouring the most disadvantaged groups in particular. Training and the development of skills are also fundamental, as farmers with good knowledge and skills are better able to respond to new technology, market opportunities and risks. Training activities can be very costly, however, and so the suitability and rapid application of new skills taught must be a prime consideration in their design.

The importance of sound and stable institutions

The institutional framework that governs a people's collective behaviour and social relations is crucial in enabling the expression of individuals' capacities for their own betterment as well as for the collective welfare, encompassing food security and sustainable agriculture. Institutions can either help shape or prevent solidarity relations, sustainable management of common resources, risk pooling and responsible behaviour. Institutions are also crucial in giving a voice to the weak and in checking the damaging effects of excessive power differences within a society. Moreover, sound institutional frameworks and capacity are naturally conducive to good governance.

Sound institutions are also required to secure minimum conditions of political stability and social cohesion. In addition to their direct and dramatic impacts on the populations concerned, civil strife and conflicts have long-term negative effects on development and food security - clearly indicated by the high proportion of conflict-affected countries among those with the highest incidence of undernourishment. Even when conflicts have been resolved, they leave behind a terrible inheritance that can last many years, including land mines, loss of human capital and demolished infrastructure.

Making incentives work

Perceptions of the responsiveness of agriculture to economic incentives have evolved dramatically over the past 50 years. In contrast to the old view that farmers are traditional and, therefore, not economically minded or responsive to incentives, there is now a general understanding that agriculture is responsive to economic incentives and is best run under private operations. China's experience in shifting from a collective farm system to one of household responsibility is, among other things, a shining example of incentives having resulted in a historical upsurge in agricultural production.

Yet incentives fail where the risks cannot be afforded. This is one element of the poverty trap, referred to under Key findings, p. 306. Many poor farmers cannot adopt higher-return crops or new technology because the change entails risks, and failure would be fatal for their livelihood. They therefore continue low-risk, low-return farming activities.

Unless effective incentives and a minimum level of protection against risk are available to farmers, agricultural capacity cannot be fully exploited - adequate credit and insurance markets are crucial in this regard.

Keeping pace with globalization

Over time, impressive structural changes occur that affect all people. Positively, population growth is slowing down, bringing with it a "window of opportunity" as the active-dependent population ratio starts to increase after a long decline. Negatively, the depletion of resources, deforestation, the emission of wastes, climate change, etc. may become serioius threats to the livelihood of humankind.

Currently, the dominant phenomenon is accelerating globalization. Without a historical precedent, goods and services, money and information are crossing borders in increasing amounts and with greater speed. This extraordinary process is not without costs, however. Globalization, or borderlessness, does not automatically benefit the poor. The fact that labour, the chief resource in early stages of development, is among the least mobile (in terms of crossing borders) of all production factors means that globalization can lead to greater inequalities as well as to greater progress. The capability of humankind to accompany globalization with the required understanding of its impact, as well as the collective capacity to harness its strength for the common good, will be crucial in the years to come.


1 A. Sen. 1989. In J. Dreze and A. Sen, eds. Hunger and public action. Oxford, UK, Clarendon Press.

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