#10 hunger
Gordon Conway

One Billion Hungry – Can We Feed the World?

Worldwide, hunger and malnutrition are on the rise. But there is a way to feed everybody.

Decades after the Green Revolution, food shortages, high prices, poverty and hunger continue. It is estimated that there are presently just under one billion chronically hungry people in the world. We also face the probability of repeated food price spikes and a continuing upward trend in food prices, and the challenge of feeding a growing global population in the face of a wide range of adverse factors, including climate change. Our global food security challenges are daunting.

Today food prices are rising again caused by an actual or perceived shortage of grains, and exacerbated by competition between food crops and biofuel crops, by countries rushing to impose export bans and by a degree of financial speculation.

"In order to achieve a food-secure world, we must feed a population expected to grow to over 9 billion by 2050."

We are thought to be in the middle of the world's third food price spike since 2007. Its effects have been predicted to be moderate, in part because the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) has given us greater transparency. But recent announcements that the world's grain reserves have fallen to a five-year low and that world grain production for the 2012–2013 season is unlikely to match the level of need, due to failing or reduced harvests, have meant the impacts could be worse than originally thought.

In order to achieve a food-secure world, we must feed a population expected to grow to over 9 billion by 2050. We must also feed this population in the face of rising incomes and an increase in resource-intensive western-style diets – in particular producing more grain to feed the growing livestock sector – declining land and water availability and climate change; all of which decrease our ability to produce food for all.

"Yes, we can feed the world."

Yet, as I set out in my latest book One billion hungry: can we feed the world?, I believe there is reason for optimism. Yes, we can feed the world, but only if we accept that agricultural development is the best route to achieving sustainable economic growth in developing countries, and if we achieve an agriculture that is highly productive, stable, resilient and equitable. I believe there are four interconnected routes to achieving a food secure world: innovation, markets, people and political leadership.


We need a global agriculture that includes a wide variety of technologies, where appropriate. These technologies could be conventional, traditional, intermediate or new platform; the key is that they must be effective, readily accessible, affordable, easy to use, environmentally friendly, and serve a real need. Beyond considering appropriateness, we must avoid claims that one form of intervention or technology is best whatever the circumstances.

We need greater public and private investment in agricultural research and extension. The goal should be higher yields produced on the same amount of land but with fewer adverse consequences on the environment, a task referred to as sustainable intensification.

Conservation agriculture, as an example of sustainable intensification, which includes various systems of reduced or no tillage, can protect vulnerable soils from erosion and improve soil fertility while increasing yields and decreasing labour. In experiments conducted by partnerships between local government and Concern Worldwide in Zambia, new hybrid maize seeds produced around four to five tons per hectare, compared with one ton per hectare on average across the continent.


Even though I am a natural scientist by training, I know that innovation is not enough. We also need to create and manage fair and efficient markets that link smallholders, as well as larger farms, to opportunities to increase their incomes. Environments that enable these links can be achieved through partnerships between public and private sectors.

My vision is for smallholder farmers to be linked to input and output markets both physically and virtually, and for benefits from value chains to be increasingly captured by smallholders, while at the same time minimising the risks they face.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has trained and supported over 5,000 agrodealers in eastern and western Africa. The stores sell key inputs to farmers in small, affordable quantities and reduce the distances farmers have to go to get them – in one area of Kenya from 17 km in 2004 to 4 km in 2007.

Similar linkages are also needed to produce markets where farmers can sell crops for a fair price. Middlemen can take all the profit and government marketing bodies have in many cases proved highly inefficient. The alternative is to establish some form of co-operative or contract-farming group that can bargain for fair prices.


It is people who will drive and deliver agricultural development critical to achieving global food security. Smallholder farmers, comprising about 80 per cent of farmers in many developing countries, are at the core of achieving a highly productive, stable, resilient and equitable agriculture. They hold a lot of the potential to raise crop yields and thus bring about greater production and access to food alongside advancing industries for biofuels and livestock grain in developed countries.

"If female farmers had access to the same resources as their male counterparts, the number of undernourished people in the world could be reduced by 100 to 150 million."

Governments need to ensure policies and strategies reach those who are typically marginalised from the formal food industry including smallholders but also women, youths, ethnic minorities and the landless. If female farmers had access to the same resources as their male counterparts, the number of undernourished people in the world could be reduced by 100 to 150 million. To achieve sustainable food security, we also need to support an agriculture that contributes to ensuring people – particularly mothers and children – receive adequate nutrition.

Political leadership

Last but not least, we need visionary and continuing political leadership to deliver on the above agenda at international, regional, national and local levels. This involves honouring commitments to increasing investments to agricultural development and end global hunger, for example through the G8, G20 or the African Union. But it also means supporting ongoing national initiatives in a consistent and sustained way to encourage further investment and partnership.

Strong and sustained political leadership could be seen in Ghana under John Kufuor's presidency from 2001 to 2009. Under his leadership, the government invested in agricultural research and farmer education as well as roads, warehouses and cold storage. Ghana's agricultural sector has grown by an average of 5 per cent per year in the past 25 years, while the percentage of the population living in poverty fell from 51 per cent in 1991/1992 to 28.5 per cent in 2005/2006.

In the near future, we'll need leaders that invest in, prioritise, and endorse agricultural development and food security, making key partnerships between the public and private sector possible and easier to secure.

Experience shows us that there are grounds for optimism. We can feed the world, but we need to focus urgently and specifically on food security, encourage the leadership to introduce the right policies, invest in research and development and ensure these actions reach the farmers who need them most. In doing so we will ensure that the world's most vulnerable are not victims of our failure to act.

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