Knowledge for Development

Science and Technology in improving food and nutrition security

Author: Dr Huub Löffler , Ir Niels Louwaars

Date: 10/09/2007


In the last century, the rapid global population growth gave rise to serious concern about the ability of agriculture to feed humanity. The application of new technologies, however, showed that both the labour and land productivity could be increased dramatically. Figure 1 shows that the rapid increase in grain production in the Netherlands goes hand in hand with a dramatic decrease in the labour force. This exemplifies the potential of science and technology (S&T) for increasing food production and improving food security.


The foundation of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 1971, marked a fast and successful implementation of new technologies in several countries. The rapid adaptation of new technologies is referred to as the Green Revolution, of which the developments took their own pace in the Asiatic and Central and South American countries. Both regions succeeded very well in increasing their food production and enhancing the food and nutrition security. Figure 2 shows that the food availability per caput increased considerably over the last four decades. Yet the figure also shows that Africa was not touched by the Green Revolution. Due to an increase in population that is not matched by an increase in food production, the food availability per caput decreased over the last decades in sub-Sahara Africa. The food situation now is worse than it was 40 years ago. Yet the success in other parts of the world made it very clear: Science and Technology (S&T) can and should play a decisive role in increasing food production and enhancing food and nutrition security.

In endeavouring to understand why the Green Revolution did not translate readily to Africa, we should keep in mind that Africa has a number of distinctive features. First, the global green revolution is mainly based on the cultivation of three staple crops: maize, rice and wheat. In Africa, there is no dominating food crop. Instead, Africa is characterized by many different farming systems. These farming systems are heterogeneous and live-stock play a key role in them and in food security. Next, there is a predominance of degraded soils often of poor inherent fertility and rainfall is erratic. These are two decisive limiting factors for agricultural productivity. Production is further decreased by endemic plant and animal diseases. A further typical African aspect is a relatively low population density compared to other global regions like Asia. Underinvestment in agricultural R&D and rural institutions and infrastructure is a common feature. Many parts of Africa lack an effective knowledge infrastructure and efficient academic institutions. Brain drain prevails over brain gain. Customary land tenure is the predominant relationship between people and the land.

Evidently, agricultural productivity is not the only issue for improving food security. Hunger is not only about lack of access to food, and therefore adequate policies, resources, markets and functional distribution systems are needed as well. Often, however, the economic and political enabling environments are poor, resulting in a lack of functional local and regional markets and a lack of access to resources and services. It is often difficult for African countries to impact global policies.

The success of the Green Revolution in Asia and Central America stimulates some to call for an African Green Revolution. However, due to the complexity of the African situation, and the diversity of African regions, The InterAcademy Panel in their study ‘Realizing the promise and potential of African agriculture (1)’ calls for a ‘Rainbow Evolution’ instead. The Rainbow-element designates the necessity of a number of concerted actions that may differ in various regions: the Evolution-element refers to the fact that no change can be implemented without using the current agricultural practice in the different farming systems as a starting point.

What can be done

Driven by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agriculture is back on the development agenda. Many studies are, or will be, published focusing on the potential of agriculture in reaching the MDGs. The WDR2008 (World Bank's World Development Report) report will be dedicated to this issue. Draft versions of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD have been disseminated for review, and the final report is expected to be published later this year. The leading studies are summarized in the report ‘The Role of Agriculture in Achieving MDG1: Summaries of and comments on leading reports’ (2). Most studies agree that agricultural S&T have a major role to play in improving food security, but that actions are needed to fully tap the potential of S&T. Issues concerning access to functional markets, access to resources and services, capacity building and institutional rearrangements need to be addressed as well. Only in a balanced combination, the full power of technology will be revealed.

The role of Science and Technology
An effective implementation of S&T demands a number of rearrangements. The linear knowledge model, where knowledge flows from research via extension and education to end-users, is outdated. Instead, a new approach is needed, where interdisciplinary teams from the quadrangle of national agricultural research systems, universities, extension services and farmers' organizations are constituted to prepare business plans for both fundamental and applied research. This asks for empowerment of farmer organizations. It is not necessarily the best strategy to organize this on a governmental level. NGOs may be better suited to empower farmers.

The draft WDR2008 report has the vision that the ‘new agriculture’ will show the way for agricultural based countries out of poverty and hunger. The new agriculture uses advanced S&T to produce high value crops, enabling agricultural based countries to access the world market. This strategy is fed by the current global attention for the biobased economy, where agricultural produce gains rapidly in economic value. For example, the real world price (adjusted for inflation) for wheat decreased dramatically from 300 USD per tonne in 1962 to just over 100 USD per tonne in 2002 (3), while the recent OECD/FAO agriculture outlook (4) predicts a rise to 185 USD within 5 years. Likewise, the price of rice is expected to rise from 160 USD in 2002 to 300 USD in 2012. To fully tap the potential of this new agriculture, countries need access to front-end research. This requires concerted efforts at a regional scale and a strengthening of the national or regional agricultural research systems.

Although the new agriculture may be a way out of poverty, this option is only open for those with access to resources, services and markets. The poor farmers producing mainly for home consumption will not be effected on a short term. This dualism is observed in the WDR2008 and calls for different research and development for farmers with access than for those without access. S&T is to provide options for optimizing productivity in various agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions through analyzing and overcoming limitations in the food chain from input provision through production and processing to consumption (Figure 3).

S&T is expensive. An intensified investment is needed to achieve growth in agricultural productivity. The least-developed countries lag behind considerably in their investments in agricultural R&D. Although private investment should be stimulated, public investment is needed to bridge the gap between subsistence and commercial farming. The donor community should play an important role, but African countries specifically need to intensify their own efforts. When it is agreed that agriculture is the motor of economic development, and science and technology is the motor to kick-start this development, an investment of African countries in agricultural S&T is an investment in its own future. The developing countries need to act themselves and create a conducive environment. When assisted by the international community, and when a level playing field is in place, there is no reason why developing countries cannot profit from agricultural S&T like most parts of the world already did and use agricultural S&T to improve food and nutrition security.


  1. InterAcademy Council (2004): Realizing the promise and potential of African agriculture. Science and Technology strategies for improving agricultural productivity and food security in Africa.
  2. Wageningen International (in press): The Role of Agriculture in Achieving MDG1: Summaries of and comments on leading reports.
  3. FAO (2004): The state of agricultural commodity markets.
  4. OECD/FAO (2007): Agricultural outlook 2007-2014.