The so-called green revolution of Asia, which began in the 1960s and continued through the 1980s, spurred the greatest expansion of food production in world history. The cost of cereal grains declined by 30%. The proportion of the people suffering from hunger was halved. Agriculture was at the centre of the development agenda. Research and development, political courage, effective policies and good governance were the driving forces.
The World Bank, in its new “World Development Report: Agriculture for Development”, takes stock of the sector and its potential for sustainable development. This report comes 25 years after the last issue that featured agriculture and rural development. The report card is not all good, particularly for Africa.
A comparison with the Asian green revolution is instructive.
Most foods in Africa are produced under rain-fed, often drought-prone conditions, while as much as two-thirds of Asia’s food supply comes from its irrigated lands. African farmlands are generally isolated from motorized transport systems, while Asia had relatively good rail and road systems. Africa has few price-support systems for farm inputs or output, while Asia had strong state intervention. Food cropping patterns and agro-ecologies are considerably more diverse in Africa. Its political commitment to agriculture and rural development has been far weaker, when measured in terms of the share of public spending for the sector.
Environmental degradation in African agriculture has also been much greater.
A broader and more integrated perspective is needed in African agriculture, one that focuses on the entire farming enterprise —food and cash crops, livestock and value-added processing. Even so, the World Development Report underscores the importance of transforming staple food production. Because such crops are the most widely grown, productivity improvements have huge pay-offs, both to producers and consumers. Much greater attention must also be given to post-production market linkages —especially to grain markets and agro-industrial food processing that offer off-farm employment opportunities. Substantially greater investments in infrastructure —roads, electrical power, water resources—underlie all other efforts in rural and agricultural development. Else, there is little hope for real progress in reversing the alarming food insecurity trends or in making agriculture an engine of economic growth.
One World Bank statistic is especially alarming. In Asia, agriculture research and development (R&D) investment has increased three fold over the past 20 years, but in Africa, only by 20% (it actually declined in about half the countries). R&D is especially needed to address Africa’s special production circumstances. At least half of the continent’s poor and hungry people are smallholder farmers in marginal lands, where agriculture is more costly and risky due to agro-climatic stresses and/or remoteness from markets. New science and technology, including the tools of biotechnology, will be needed to develop crops better to withstand climatic stresses such as drought, heat and flooding. Such research will also contribute to helping the world prepare for future production effects anticipated from global warming. The World Development Report is a milestone contribution to placing agriculture, once again, at the centre of the development agenda. Achieving this priority shift will be fundamental to poverty reduction and sustainable development.
©2007/The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Norman E.Borlaug is an agricultural scientist whose research helped revolutionize food production in Latin America and Asia, sparking the Green Revolution. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org