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Rice Wheat Maize

Figure 12.4 Average annual increase in developing-country cereal yields by periods (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006).

invest more in higher-value cash crops. But more importantly there has been little or no increase in yield ceilings of rice and maize in recent years. A third factor is the cumulative effect of environmental degradation, partly caused by agriculture itself (Conway and Pretty, 1991). Virtually all long-term cereal experiments in the developing countries exhibit marked downward trends in yields.

The initial higher production helped reduce food prices in real terms by over 70% and this benefited the poor, who spend the highest proportion of their income on food. Yet today there are still some 800 million people who live a life of permanent or intermittent hunger and chronic undernourishment (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2001). A high percentage of the hungry are women and children; more than 150 million children under 5 years of age are severely underweight. Hunger and health intersect here—children who are malnourished are more vulnerable to infections and disease. In the developing countries, 11 million children under 5 years die each year, and malnourishment contributes to at least half of these deaths (UNICEF, 2001).

The Green Revolution helped Asia and many of the Asian poor but it by-passed sub-Saharan Africa. There the situation is especially dire. Food production per capita in most African countries has declined over the past decade, reflecting rapid population growth (averaging 3% per year) and low yields resulting from depletion rates for soil nutrients that far exceed replenishment (average losses in many countries exceed 60 kg NPK/ha per year) and crop losses caused by pests, diseases, and abiotic stresses, such as drought (Henno and Baanante, 1999). Unlike in Asia, where average crop yields have increased substantially, average cereal yields in Africa have remained stagnant at only about 1 t/ha for the last three decades (Figure 12.5).

Some argue that hunger is simply a matter of poverty. If the poor had higher incomes, they could purchase the food they need, and it would be produced to satisfy their demand. There is truth in this. But there are no signs of large-scale manufacturing investments in Africa that would dramatically increase incomes. The reality is that most African families are farm families. It is only through greater agricultural production (and the development of renewable natural resources generally) that poor Africans can produce enough food and other farm products to stimulate rural economies and so achieve higher incomes. In theory the industrialized countries could feed the world. However, this would require several hundred million tonnes of food aid, many times what is supplied now. It would place heavy burdens on both the donors and the recipients. The environmental costs for the developed countries would be high, and for the developing countries the availability of free or subsidized aid in such large quantities would depress local prices and add to existing disincentives for local food production. More importantly this scenario implies that a large proportion of the population in the developing world would fail to participate in global economic growth.

Figure 12.5 Cereal yield trends; developing countries of Asia compared with sub-Saharan Africa, 1960-2005 (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006).

As numerous studies have shown, agricultural development is a necessary precursor to larger economic and social development (Delgado et al., 1998; Department for International Development, 2005). The question is, what kind of agricultural development? I argue that, like the Green Revolution, it has to be based on science and technology. Yet it has to be different in the technologies that are used, because science has advanced and because the circumstances in Africa demand a different set of technologies.

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