Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Voices From the Foundation: Prabhu Pingali on Food for 7 Billion and Beyond

October 20, 2011

In a new series for Impatient Optimists we bring you different voices at the foundation, in a Q&A format, about our work in Africa and our focus on agricultural development. Today, Prabhu Pingali explains how we can make food prices more stable. Stay tuned for more questions, and answers, in the weeks ahead. And read more about "the world at 7 billion" here.

Prabhu Pingali is the deputy director of the Agricultural Development’s Policy and Statistics team at the foundation's Global Development Program.

Sometime this month the world’s population will reach 7 billion people. That’s many more mouths to feed. What does continued population growth mean for the fight against hunger?  


Analysts worry about the ability of the world to feed itself today, let alone a world of 9 billion people in 2050 as predicted by the UN.  Unabated population growth, rising incomes, diversion of food towards fuel production and the negative consequences of climate change are said to cause “a perfect storm” with severe consequences for the availability and access to food at the global and local levels. 

But we’ve been here before.

In the post-war world, the same pessimism pervaded that the newly independent countries of Asia – India, China, Indonesia, etc – would face massive food deficits and were at risk of large scale famines. 

Remember the global think-tank, Club of Rome, and its infamous “The Limits to Growth” book from 1972? The world survived, and even prospered, despite these dire predictions.  Innovation and human ingenuity played a big role in helping the world manage growing resource scarcity, especially scarcity of agricultural land with rising population densities.  Rapid technical change lead to dramatic rises in land productivity and the consequent doubling of global food production. 

It was not serendipity that got us there. The dramatic improvements in food supplies and food access that we have known for the past few decades were brought to us by a national and international commitment to promoting technological innovation – Green Revolution – through global investment in R&D, investment in infrastructure, institutional reform, as well as policy reform that enabled improved incentives at the farm level for improving productivity.

There are significant opportunities for meeting current and future food demand by enhancing productivity in developing country agriculture.  Modernizing agricultural systems and reducing the productivity gaps that currently exist is the best avenue for increasing food supplies and reducing poverty. 

In the case of India for instance, we are beginning to see rising cereal crop productivity growth in the lagging regions of Eastern India.  Irrigated hybrid maize production, targeted towards the animal feed market, is sweeping across the region and replacing low productive traditional rice systems.  In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, average crop yields are only about one-fifth of those in the developed world.  Concerted efforts towards improving access to better seeds, irrigation, fertilizer and other inputs, and investments in market infrastructure will go a long way towards bridging the productivity gap.

In the words of Robert Paarlberg, “Africa is failing to keep up with population growth not because it has exhausted its potential but instead because too little has been invested in developing that potential”.

The FAO’s new report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World focuses on the continued volatility of food prices. What are the consequences of spiking food prices, and how can we make them more stable?

After peaking in early 2008, prices for wheat, rice and maize fell sharply, only to have wheat and maize prices rebound to new heights in 2011. Although both the price spikes and the volatility have historical precedents, the recent ups and downs have the most tragic consequences for people in developing countries.

The heaviest impacts are felt by poor consumers and low-income food-importing countries. But rapid increases in food prices can also add to inflationary pressures, reducing purchasing power and bringing into prospect monetary tightening and slower economic growth.

How do we manage high and volatile food prices? In the short run, food safety nets that feed the poor when prices spike are an important way to keep them from sliding irreversibly into poverty.

But in the long term, we must invest in agricultural research and rural infrastructure so that food production rises as at least as fast as demand. Sustained food productivity growth is the only sure way of ensuring that poor societies can buffer themselves against wild swings in food prices induced by climatic and other shocks.

But getting us there will require our collective and concerted efforts to smallholder productivity in developing countries.

Here are five things the global community and national governments can should do right now to ensure small holder productivity growth:

  1. Deliver on the pledges made at L’Aquila: At the upcoming summit in Cannes, France, the G20 countries should immediately meet their L’Aquila commitments made in 2009 for enhancing developing-country food security. Right now, we estimate that only about a quarter of those commitments have been delivered. The promised funds are urgently needed for investing in agriculture development in the least developed countries.
  2. Focus on the long term in setting agriculture and trade policy: Erratic swings in policy, such as rice export bans imposed by several Asian countries during the last crisis, create uncertainty for farmer investment in productivity improvement. Stable price and trade policies promote long-term market participation by smallholders.
  3. Give farmers the freedom to choose their own technology: Developing-country farmers are frequently talked down to in terms of which technologies are appropriate for them. Farmers are quite capable of making the choice on their own; what they want is a wide set of options they can choose from.
  4. Accelerate public investment in rural infrastructure: Improved road and transport infrastructure allows for improved flow of inputs and outputs, and it also leads to better transmission of prices and market signals to the hinterlands. Investments in improving the reach and access to mobile phones can also transform the way farmers connect to markets and access information about improved farming practices and weather conditions.
  5. Explore options for international governance of food markets: While domestic productivity improvement will definitely contribute to enhancing food supplies, food price volatility ought to also be dealt with at an international level. Significant work needs to be done to identify appropriate mechanisms for increasing transparency in the operation of commodity futures markets. A debate is also needed, and eventually policies on establishing reliable international or regional grain reserves.

Why are small farmers the focus of the foundation’s efforts in terms of agricultural development? What makes them so productive?

It is often argued that small farms are less productive than large farms. Over the decades there have been several hundred studies across continents, crops, and farming systems that have provided overwhelming evidence that smallholders are just as productive, just as innovative, just as competitive, and just as risk-taking as large farms.

The best evidence of the power of smallholder farmers is the Green Revolution. Smallholders in the Indian Punjab, with average farm sizes of one hectare, went from producing a single crop of rice or wheat with average yields of little over a ton to producing two crops per year, a rice crop followed by a wheat crop, each with average yields of 4-5 tons. Many even managed a third crop of vegetables or fodder in between. In China, farm sizes were even smaller. Chinese farm households were allocated one sixth of an acre - an area a little larger than the end zone in American football field. Yet this area was large enough to fuel China’s agricultural transformation.

The smallness of the farm is not the problem. The problem is that smallholder farmers aren’t receiving the support they need—from good governance to improved seeds to access to markets—to help them increase their productivity.  

At the Foundation, we believe that smallholder-based productivity growth is the most leveraged pathway by which we can address poverty reduction. Of the 1.4 billion people who live in extreme poverty and almost 1 billion are estimated to be chronically undernourished, approximately three quarters live in rural areas; and an overwhelming majority of these poor participate in agriculture. By focusing on smallholders’ productivity we address not only poverty but also undernutrition.


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