Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Dynamics of change

The dividends of food security

In most poor, food-insecure countries, the two greatest potential resources are the people and the productivity of the land and water. To defeat chronic hunger and poverty, investments will have to be made in both people and productivity.

Investing in people will need to come in the form of education, clean water and sanitation, health and social services and, in some cases, direct food and nutrition support. In rural areas, such expenditures are essential if the corresponding investments in agriculture and its productive subsectors are to pay off. Those who argue that people-oriented development is expensive should remember that leaving people hungry is also expensive in terms of economic growth foregone, as recent FAO-sponsored research shows.

The economic benefits of ending hunger

Reducing hunger has not only a humanitarian justification but also a strong economic rationale. The economic cost of hunger and malnutrition as reflected in lost productivity, illness and death, is extremely high. Undernourishment significantly lowers physical ability, cognitive development and learning achievement, resulting in lower productivity. It not only blights the lives of individuals and families but also reduces the return on investment in social and economic progress.

This insight is borne out by a recent study sponsored by FAO that examined 110 countries from 1960 to 1990. The study uses statistical techniques to investigate the links between economic growth and nutritional well-being.

The research found that if all countries with average dietary energy supply (DES) below the minimum requirement in 1960 had eliminated hunger by raising average per capita DES to 2 770 kilocalories per day, their GDP growth rates would have been significantly higher.

This growth can be quite large. As the graph below illustrates, per-capita GDP in sub-Saharan Africa could have reached levels of US$1 000 to US$3500 by 1990 if undernourishment had been eliminated. (The difference between the two estimates depends on the method used for statistical analysis.) Instead, the region's average GDP per capita in 1990 was just US$800 per year.

Mean per capita GDP in sub-Saharan Africa and estimates assuming no undernourishment

Source: Arcand, Jean-Louis, Malnutrition and growth: The efficiency cost of hunger. FAO, July 2000

FAO's projections for the next 15 years indicate that, if agricultural innovation continues at a reasonable rate, food production can increase by 2 percent per year in the developing world. Without this growth, the World Food Summit goals cannot be met. But overall growth is not enough - it must be directed to the hungriest.

Reducing hunger through basic crop research

A recent study has emphasized the benefits of international agricultural research in reducing undernourishment among children by improving crop variety and productivity. The study was performed by the Impact Assessment and Evaluation Group of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Between1970 and 1995, international agricultural research centres released a large number of new crop varieties resulting from their breeding programmes on staple food crops - wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, pearl millet, cassava, potatoes, barley and lentils. According to the study, this represented 70 to 100 new varieties per year and led to additional productivity gains of 0.5 percent per year.

The resulting additional food production brought a reduction in grain prices of 27-41 percent. As a direct consequence, 1-3 percent fewer children were undernourished than would have been without this research.

If the natural resource base offers good potential for agricultural development, supporting agriculture research can bring big benefits in reducing food insecurity and malnutrition. One case in point is the story of the multiple payoffs obtained from cassava research in West Africa.

For countries that are still largely rural, investment in small-scale agriculture is one way to target growth that benefits the poor. The importance of putting resources into the production and post-production processes is now well recognized. But funding for agricultural research is also vital, particularly for commodities and farming systems that can provide growth opportunities for the poor.

Even if the anticipated growth in food production is achieved, nearly 600 million people will remain undernourished in 2015 - unless the growth takes place in areas where food insecurity is worst and unless public policies are implemented that make elimination of food insecurity their primary objective.

The benefit of people's participation

In 1980, FAO launched its People's Participation Programme (PPP) to support community action groups. The benefits of such programmes include:

Higher agricultural productivity. In Ghana, PPP groups produced 20 percent more maize per hectare than non-participating farmers. Similar results occured in Kenya, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka.

Higher net family incomes. High loan repayment rates and rising levels of group savings indicate growing incomes.

Increased employment. Participants had higher output per hectare, which generated demand for more farm labour.

Higher rates of saving. The savings registered in PPP projects - US$38.78 per group in Zambia in 2000 and US$35.14 per group in Pakistan in 1997 - are large sums for people who previously had no savings at all.

Community improvement activities. All PPP groups have participated in activities ranging from construction of primary schools to village electrification.

Acquisition of new skills. Technical, organizational and leadership skills have given people control over schools and other public and semi-public institutions.

Participation in community action programmes by the poor is a powerful mechanism for ensuring that policies of this kind are implemented. Traditional rural development policies focused on infrastructure and services. The poor were not consulted because it was assumed that the benefits of growth would "trickle down".

FAO's experience indicates that small, self-reliant groups of people engaged in similar activities can contribute effectively to their own development.

Safety nets: a foundation for development

Safety nets protect livelihoods and ensure the survival of vulnerable people. Safety nets that protect food security include community support systems, direct public transfers and indirect public transfers.

Community support systems. In traditional communities, strong kinship networks and religious groups protect people facing hard times. Associations that link urban dwellers with families in rural areas are creating new forms of support, as are charities.

Direct transfers. Public transfers that provide food or cash directly to needy people are commonly referred to as food assistance schemes. These include emergency food relief, supplementary feeding programmes, food-for-work and food ration schemes.

Indirect transfers. Many kinds of welfare transfers provide their benefits indirectly. Examples of indirect transfers that protect food security include:

regulatory measures, such as minimum wage laws, price controls and financial and labour market regulations, backed up by food security reserves;

subsidies and credit programmes, including targeted food subsidies, consumer credit programmes and community savings and loan schemes;

job creation, through skills-training programmes, placement services and publicly backed employment guarantee schemes;

publicly backed insurance schemes, such as crop insurance, unemployment benefits, pension funds and social welfare programmes.

The story of Thailand's successful experience with community-based action to reduce poverty and malnutrition throughout the country provides a model that could be applied widely.

However, it takes time for programmes that improve agricultural productivity and increase the purchasing power of the poor to become effective. And it takes even longer if the day-to-day food needs of the poor are not met, because hungry people tend to be less productive. In addition, short-term crises are certain to arise during the transition period and those who are already food insecure are likely to suffer the worst.

Benefits of international agricultural research

Source: Evenson, R. et al, Crop genetic improvement and agricultural development TAC Secretariat, CGIAR, May 2000

Cassava research: boosting food security in Ghana and Nigeria

Ghana and Nigeria are among the few countries in the world that managed to reduce the prevalence of undernourishment by more than 30 percentage points between 1979-81 and 1996-98. In Ghana, the number dropped from 62 percent to 10 percent and in Nigeria from 44 percent to 8 percent .

An important underlying factor was the rapid increase in the supply of cassava products during the period, which especially benefited the poor and undernourished. Cassava roots are an excellent source of energy, while the leaves are rich in vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, as well as being a source of protein.

Harvested cassava production area, in hectares

Farmers were able to exploit new market opportunities for cassava thanks to an aggressive cassava research and market promotion programme carried out by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at Ibadan, Nigeria. In 1984, following more than ten years of research, IITA introduced improved varieties with many advantages. These new varieties:

  • yielded up to 55 tonnes per hectare, compared with about 10 tonnes per hectare from traditional varieties;
  • matured early;
  • were highly resistant to disease; particularly cassava bacterial blight and the African cassava mosaic ;
  • were suitable for processing into flour and starch;
  • developed a broad leaf canopy, thus optimizing both weed control and yield potential;
  • had compact root shapes, facilitating harvest and allowing the mature root to retain quality while remaining in the soil for long periods;
  • contained low levels of cyanide, a naturally occuring toxin that is poisonous if consumed in large quantities.
  • Area suitable for cassava production in Africa

    The suitability of a zone for growing cassava depends on climate, terrain and soil conditions. Areas that are particularly good for cassava production in Africa include humid tropical zones, moist savannah zones and drier mid-altitude zones where soils have medium to coarse texture and are sufficiently deep and well drained and not too acidic. Additions of lime are generally needed to overcome the acidity of soil in humid tropical and moist savannah zones, where the majority of cassava in Africa is grown.

    Source: Land suitability maps for rainfed cropping, FAO, 2000

    The availability of the new varieties was very timely. Widespread crop failure following a major drought over much of Africa in 1982-83 had caused many farmers to turn to cassava because it tolerates drought and grows in relatively poor soils. It can also remain in the ground for up to three years prior to harvest, thus providing an easily maintained food reserve.

    Farmers initially introduced cassava as a food security crop in places where it had not previously been grown, especially in dry areas and marginal lands. However, with the growing acceptance of cassava as a staple food for urban dwellers, more farmers also began to grow it as a commercial crop.

    In West Africa cassava is eaten most commonly as gari, toasted coarse cassava flour granules that are cooked and used like rice. Gari is eaten with various sauces, both at home and as a street food. Growing demand for gari in the rapidly expanding cities of the region has been an important factor in encouraging farmers to produce more cassava.

    In Nigeria, the big jump in production occurred between 1983 and 1992, when per capita consumption doubled - from 63 kg to 129 kg annually. Estimates suggest that improved varieties made possible the production of an additional 1.4 million tonnes of gari in 1991 compared with the amount that could have been produced using traditional varieties. By 1998, production from new varieties had more than doubled to 3.4million tonnes of gari equivalent. As a result, new varieties as a share of total production increased from 8 percent to around 30percent of a much larger total.

    The global cassava strategy

    Since 1998, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has led a collaborative effort aimed at developing a global strategy to promote cassava as an important staple food and income source for its producers. One important goal of the effort is to spur rural industrial development that will increase work opportunities and raise incomes of producers, processors and traders.
    The strategy aims to promote products with good market potential, including cassava flour as an ingredient for home cooking and industrial use; prepared foods such as fufu, cooked leaves and boiled fresh roots; animal feed; alcohol for chemical industries; glue; starches for sizing textiles and paper; and industrial sweeteners. The strategy also calls for broadening the recognition of cassava's important role in food security.
    At a forum in April 2000 hosted by FAO and IFAD, the strategy was endorsed by participants from 20 countries representing private companies, farmers' groups, NGOs, researchers and donor agencies. Various research and market promotion activities were devised, and plans for their implementation were outlined.

    Cassava's success in Nigeria was made possible by deliberate policy measures, growing urban demand, government investment in distribution of planting material and the availability of mechanized equipment, which overcame the problem of labour shortages during post-harvest processing. Production has now begun to slow, perhaps representing a new equilibrium between supply and demand.

    In Ghana, the cassava boom came later, although the pattern of growth was similar. New high-yielding varieties from IITA had to be adapted to local climatic and soil conditions before they could be released for widespread adoption. But production grew rapidly beginning in the early 1990s, following the inception of a government programme to promote roots and tubers as well as a shift in economic policy that encouraged the spread of cassava production. Between 1990 and 1998, annual consumption of cassava increased from 126kg to 232 kg per capita.

    Increase in production in cassava growing zones of sub-Saharan Africa, 1961-1991

    Source: Dunstan Spencer and Associates,Cassava in Africa: past, present and future, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, 1997

    Cassava is now the major source of carbohydrates and an inexpensive source of food energy for the majority of Ghanaians. People of all social classes eat it, mainly as gari and fufu (boiled and pounded cassava). The consumption of these foods reaches a peak during the "hunger season" just before the harvest, when crops such as maize are in short supply or too expensive to purchase. Cassava is now the largest agricultural commodity produced in Ghana and, in 1998, represented 22 percent of agricultural GDP.

    Large areas of central and southern Africa are suitable for growing cassava. Most of the expansion in production between 1961 and 1991 occurred in humid areas, where most of the large cities offering the best market prospects are located. These zones are likely to dominate the future expansion of cassava production.

    Meanwhile, cassava is expanding into drier mid-altitude zones, reflecting its growing importance as a food security crop in drought-prone areas. In response, new varieties particularly suited to semi-arid areas are being developed by IITA using parent varieties from South America.

    Cassava: trends in yield and supply, 1968-98

    Source: FAOSTAT

    Thailand: Steady reduction in poverty and malnutrition

    The incidence of poverty and malnutrition fell dramatically in Thailand during the 1980s, thanks to a poverty alleviation strategy focused on reducing malnutrition and supporting sustainable rural development. As a result of the countrywide effort, the prevalence of poverty fell from 32.6 percent of the population in 1988 to 11.4 percent in 1996.

    The poverty alleviation plan resulted from a series of surveys in the early 1980s, which revealed that protein-energy malnutrition was a major problem in poor rural areas. The surveys were supplemented with other data on living standards to create a poverty index. It pinpointed 286 especially needy districts, home to about 40 percent of the population.

    Undernutrition was especially severe among infants and young children, a result of the poor nutritional status of their mothers. Already undernourished when they entered their reproductive years, women suffered declining nutritional levels during pregnancy because of inadequate food intake and traditional customs. These customs inhibited them from eating such nutritious foods as eggs and other animal protein as well as fruits and vegetables.

    As a result, pregnant women in rural areas gained only 5-7 kg on average, instead of the normal 12.5 kg Their babies were born 350-450 g lighter and 2 cm shorter than babies born in an urban hospital associated with a Bangkok medical school.

    Children born underweight tend to remain so throughout their early years, leaving them extremely vulnerable to malnutrition, illness and death. In Thailand, more than 50 percent of children under five years of age were underweight in 1982, and the figure was up to 70 percent in the most disadvantaged areas.

    Fostering interaction between the levels

    Source: FAO

    Equipped with this information, the Government launched its strategy to combat poverty and malnutrition through community action in 1982. The 286 districts identified as the poorest in the country were particularly remote and lacked infrastructure, as the map reveals. The poverty alleviation programme was implemented first in these districts. However, poverty and malnutrition were not limited to these areas; they were widespread throughout the country. Therefore, the poverty alleviation programme was extended nationwide in 1984. It was based on five principles that still form its core today: give priority to specific areas where poverty is concentrated; ensure that minimum subsistence-level living standards are met and basic services are available to everyone; encourage people to assume responsibility for their own care; emphasize use of low-cost technology; and support people's participation in decision-making and problem solving.

    Actions initially concentrated on alleviating the most serious nutrition problems found among the rural poor: protein-energy malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency and iodine deficiency.

    Progress in reducing underweight in children under five, 1982-98

    Source: Bureau of Health Promotion, Ministry of Public Health, Government of Thailand, 1998

    The programme - combining nutrition surveillance, supplementary feeding of young children, nutrition education, better primary health care and production of nutritious foods - was directed at entire communities. It included a public information campaign, and training and mobilization of volunteers - one for every ten households. Actions were aimed at increasing production of fish, chicken, vegetables and fruits, promoting appropriate eating patterns and correcting detrimental food beliefs. Efforts were also made to improve primary health care in rural communities.

    In addition, villages produced nutritious food mixtures (rice, legumes and sesame or peanuts) to supplement the diets of young children who were found to be malnourished. Vegetable gardens, fish ponds and chicken raising were also encouraged to supplement school lunch programmes.

    The approach has led to a steady reduction in poverty over time (see table) and has brought about significant progress in reducing the percentage of underweight pre-school children. In fact, within ten years, the more severe forms of malnutrition were virtually eliminated among these children. Between 1982 and 1998, cases of mild malnutrition were reduced from 35 to 8 percent of this age group, moderate malnutriton from 13 to less than 1 percent and severe malnutrition from 2 percent to an insignificant level.

    Beginning in 1990, the government adjusted the programme to ensure maintenance of the gains already achieved and to address a wider array of issues. Institutional arrangements were reorganized to strengthen collaboration among relevant government ministries from the national level down to the communities. While the community remained at the heart of the programme, a stronger partnership role was built in for public service managers at district and national levels.

    The scope of actions was also broadened. Having brought protein-energy malnutrition under control, the government was able to give attention to a wider range of food and nutrition issues and to make other improvements to the quality of life.

    Thailand: Concentration of poverty and malnutrition, 1982 Districts with high concentration of poverty and malnutrition

    Source: FAO

    The expanded programme has seven elements:

  • production of diversified foods for home consumption;
  • skills development and credit schemes for commercially viable food processing and marketing activities;
  • fortification of Thai instant noodle seasoning with vitamin A, iron and iodine;
  • mandatory nutrition labelling of food products;
  • dissemination and promotion of nine healthy diets, with special advice for age-specific vulnerable groups such as infants and young children, adolescent girls and pregnant women;
  • free or highly subsidized health services;
  • a monitoring, surveillance and special feeding programme for children under five years, and children in primary school.
  • The Thai experience is unique in its systematic implementation in every community in the country. It provides a model for a food safety net programme that not only meets the immediate needs of the food-insecure but also lays the foundation for their permanent escape from the hunger trap.

    Reduction in percent of people living in poverty, 1988-96











































    Bangkok metropolitan
























    Source: The Poor Thai, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, 1998

    Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page