Food and Development



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Goal Two of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations is to end hunger, to achieve food security and improved nutrition by promoting sustainable agriculture. The challenge arises not only from the need to overcome current deficiencies but also from the fact that by 2030 the world’s population will have increased by 14 percent to 8.5 billion people, which amounts to a hike of 1.1 billion inhabitants.

Science magazine pointed out that one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of the last century was that food production rates since the end of the Second World War have always been kept higher than the rate of expansion of the population. Much of this achievement was due to increases in productivity per area cultivated and per worker employed. Until the Second World War, productivity had increased owing to mechanization and the expansion of farmed areas. Once the cycle of conventional technological innovations had matured and it was impossible for agricultural land to expand further, increased productivity now became a matter of biological innovation. The hybridization that began to be used in the mid 1930s became generalized between 1945 and 1960 with the green revolution, which spread hybrids of maize, wheat and rice developed at the CGIAR centers (CIMMYT and IRRI). The green revolution has also had negative effects, such as the concentration of agricultural property and the increasing concentration of culture in few varieties, with loss of diversity, greater vulnerability to plagues and diseases, and an increase in the use of agrochemicals.

Like every technological innovation, the green revolution reached maturity and the rates of increase in productivity thereafter gradually started to decline, falling from 3.2 percent in 1960 to 1.5 percent in 2000.

Since the late 1980s, increased agricultural production and productivity has been boosted by molecular biology and genetic engineering. These scientific advances have spawned controversy owing to the spread of transgenic varieties. New scientific and technological prospects for food production have been opened up by synthetic molecular biology since 2000, and by genomic editing, CRISPR-Cas9, from 2011–12.

More than fifty thousand edible plants are known, but only fifteen of them provide 90 percent of all food consumed. Three cereals—rice, wheat and maize—account for more than two thirds of that consumption, representing 42.5 percent of total calories and more than 94 percent of the total consumption of cereals. The world production of rice more than tripled between 1961 and 2010, with an average annual growth of 2.24 percent made up of a 1.74 percent increase in yield (51.1 kg/ha per annum in absolute terms) and a 0.49 percent expansion of cultivated area. By the mid 1990s, however, increases in productivity were lower than the rate of population growth, leading to imbalances between supply and demand and to rising prices, which increased between 2001 and 2007, for example, by 67 percent. There were various causes for this: the potential of high-yield varieties has been almost totally exploited, rice fields were moved to land of poorer quality to make room for more economically profitable crops, and agrochemical input became more costly while resistance to it grew.

High-yield cultivars with resistance to disease have allowed wheat production to grow. Average yields were 1 ton/ha in 1951 and 2.5 ton/ha in 1995. In the same period, the yield in India went from 1 ton/ha to 2.1 ton/ha, and in China from 1.4 ton/ha to 4.6 ton/ha. The average worldwide yield is currently 3.3 ton/ha, with the highest figure, 9.1 ton/ha, in New Zealand, which has maximum yields of up to 15 ton/ha.

In 2013, 1,016 million tons of maize were produced. Up to 68 percent of the area sown with this crop is in developing countries, yet these contribute only 46 percent of world production, a reflection of a considerable gap between the respective productivities of developed countries (8 ton/ha) and developing countries (less than 3 ton/ha). The particular agroecological and social characteristics of maize explain this divergence. More than 90 percent of the area sown with maize in developed countries lies in temperate zones, while this is true of only 25 percent of the area in developing countries (Argentina and China). Maize is very sensitive to the natural limiting factors typical of tropical zones. Moreover, less than 50 percent of the maize-growing area in developing countries is cultivated with high-yield varieties (HYV). In developing countries, those who grow maize are small landowners who are unable to access HYV, which partly explains their low productivity. Reducing this gap requires effective mechanisms for the diffusion of technological change and the integration of poor and subsistence-level rural communities in the market.

Various vegetables and fruits on display in grocery store

Average world productivity of wheat and rice is close to the technological frontier, and so tending to stabilize. This is not the case with maize. Maize is a crop with two major peculiarities. The first is that it is an open-pollinated plant, meaning that the genetic material for its reproduction comes from exchange with neighboring plants. Rice and wheat are self-pollinated, meaning they are fertilized by pollen from the plant itself. When maize is self-pollinated, the resulting progeny yields less and its fruits are of lower quality. Open pollinization allows a natural process of hybridization that gives the plant heterosis, or hybrid vigor, generating a more vigorous and uniform progeny with higher yield. The poor communities already know this. In Chiapas, therefore, as many as six different varieties of maize were grown in a single milpa, or agricultural plot. R&D is searching for more efficient cultivars of higher quality, resistance and tolerance through carefully controlled cross-fertilization.

Hybrids of greater productivity for tropical and subtropical regions, developed at CIMMYT, range from 5 ton/ha to 8–10 ton/ha respectively. Unfortunately, these varieties are beyond the reach of poor rural communities.

In tropical and subtropical zones, maize has to contend with abiotic and biotic obstacles such as drought, acidic and infertile soil, plagues, diseases and insects. R&D is aiming to reduce the vulnerability of maize to drought, which has historically caused losses of between 15 and 60 percent, by exploring such possibilities as the creation of early maturing germplasm, which would enable the maize to avoid drought. These varieties are available in Mexico, Kenya and Colombia. Regrettably, their yield is relatively low. Another alternative is to identify the genes responsible for tolerance to drought in sorghum, which is a C4 plant that shares many properties with maize, and activate them in maize germplasm.

The second peculiarity of maize is that it is a C4 plant, meaning it has four carbon molecules. This makes for very efficient photosynthesis, with a synthesization of carbon dioxide and water that stores solar energy in carbohydrate molecules. Rice and wheat are C3 plants, with only three carbon molecules and relatively inefficient photosynthesis, and they moreover expend up to 25 percent of their energy on phototranspiration. The peculiar anatomy of the leaves of C4 plants prevents phototranspiration, so the energy that would have been spent on it goes instead to the formation of carbohydrates, resulting in an efficient conversion of solar energy. If rice were a C4, its productivity would increase by more than 50 percent. This is the objective of the IRRI’s Rice C4 project, which receives a contribution of US$14 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Intercropping and integrated agricultural systems are sustainable, increase the range of food available and improve its quality. Intercropping of maize with beans, pumpkin (common in milpas), soya, peas and chickpeas all practiced since antiquity in poor and subsistence-level communities, increase the maize yield by 25 percent. Legumes fix nitrogen, and when sown with wheat satisfy from 20 to 40 percent of its nitrogen requirement, resulting in a higher yield and protein content.

Integrated systems of rice cultivation and fish breeding are sustainable and contribute to an improved diet owing to a greater supply of animal protein, and to an increase in family income in rural communities. They improve the fertility of the soil by contributing nitrogen and potassium, and they reduce plagues and diseases because the fish eat insects, larvae, snails, algae and weeds where mosquitoes and other insects nest. They also aid the aeration of the water and the control of aquatic weeds. This agricultural practice, first promoted as a component of integrated plague control systems, results in an 8 to 15 percent increase in the rice yield. In Bangladesh, 40 percent of the fish is consumed by the producer and the rest is sold, generating an additional source of income.

Losses after harvesting and during consumption are calculated at 1.3 thousand million tons per year, equivalent to between 30 and 50 percent of total food production. The greatest losses, 95 to 115 kg per person per annum, occur during consumption in the developed countries, and are inherent to a wasteful lifestyle. In sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, the figure ranges from 6 to 11 kg per person per annum. In developing countries, the losses occur during post-harvest operations, storage, transportation and distribution, and are the result of a lack of product management practices and technologies in the value chain. Food loss also brings external diseconomies. For example, it originates from 6 to 10 percent of anthropic emissions of greenhouse gases, basically methane.

Among the goals for development is that of improving nutritional quality. The undernourished population now numbers 868 million people, and 2,000 million suffer from some from of micronutrient deficiency. As much as 26 percent of children under five suffer from retarded growth, and 31 percent from vitamin A deficiency.

Improved food is generally a function of an increase in the population’s income and purchasing power. As the income per capita increases, the consumption of vegetable protein is replaced by that of animal protein. From 1960 to 2010, the consumption per capita of milk in developing countries doubled, that of meat more than tripled, and that of eggs quintupled. This was made possible by the expansion of livestock production in most countries, especially China and Brazil, and the growing use of cereals as forage, which absorbs 33 to 35 percent of the world cereal production.

The new varieties also help to improve nutritional quality. Those of the green revolution met greater nutritional demands as well as offering higher yields. The bio-fortification achieved through hybridization enriches nutritional plant contents with micronutrients. Among the varieties being disseminated by the CGIAR is a variety of sweet potato, the Orange Fleshed Sweet Potato (OFSP), which is rich in vitamin A thanks to the insertion of two genes obtained from daffodil and the bacteria Erwinia uredovora that synthesize beta-carotene in the edible part of the plant. It is resistant to disease and tolerant to drought and acidic soil. Similar varieties exist for cassava and maize, and varieties with high iron content have been made widely available for beans, rice, wheat and millet. The Opaque2 variety of the CIMMYT’s Quality Protein Maize (QPM) contains twice as much protein as normal maize, but it unfortunately suffers from relatively low productivity and it is vulnerable to disease and to losses during storage. The greatest expectations are focused on golden rice, a variety of rice rich in vitamin A thanks to the biosynthesis of beta-carotene in the edible part of the plant. This IRRI project is financially supported by the Helen Keller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations.

Food production can increase, diversify and improve with the incorporation of species that have fallen into disuse. Nearly 150 plants are used for food in India, and 200 in Ghana. The consumption of amaranth, which was extinguished by the Spanish, is now making a comeback, as is that of quinoa, oca and teff. These products are appreciated in developed countries because they are gluten free with high protein content. Amaranth is also being studied for its resistance to round-up and glyphosate.

The achievement of Goal Two of the United Nations does not depend only on scientific and technological alternatives, on an enlarged range of utilizable resources, or on changes in consumption patterns. The materialization of these possibilities is subject also to sociopolitical and economic structures.

Scientific and technological advances have been associated with profound transformations in the underlying institutionality of the economic, scientific and technological structure. Until the molecular biology and genetic engineering revolution, agricultural R&D and its diffusion were the responsibility of public institutions, universities, or government R&D centers. The characteristics of biotechnological innovations permit their appropriation, which has a decisive influence on changes in intellectual property systems and their internationalization. At the same time, they have led to a revaluation of the genetic material or germplasm present in nature, giving rise to a process of commoditization and private appropriation of genetic resources through patents or plant breeders’ rights (PBR). The traffic in germplasm and its transformation into goods for private gain has historically been characterized by free and unlimited appropriation. Biopiracy perpetuates this perverse appropriation of the germplasm for centuries. The large number of current applications for biotechnological patents, together with the use of cross-licensing, has allowed intellectual property rights to accumulate in a small group of transnationals, while acquisitions and mergers lead to the concentration of chemical, pharmaceutical, food and agriculture, biotechnology and seed companies in a powerful genome-based oligopoly.

Success in achieving Goal Two of the United Nations is conditioned by the socioeconomic situation, economic growth, the defeat of poverty and a more equitable distribution of income.

The population in extreme poverty was reduced by 50 percent between 1999 and 2011, but despite this one in every five people in the developing world still lives beneath the poverty line of US$1.90 per day. The relations between economic growth, poverty and inequality are extremely complex. There is a negative correlation between growth of income per capita and poverty: growth of income per capita only reduces poverty if it does not increase inequality. The reduction of inequality is generally associated with the reduction of poverty. In its turn, the rate of reduction of poverty depends on the existing level of development and equality. Greater equality accelerates the reduction of poverty. Studies on income elasticity of poverty show that an average increase of 1 percent in GDP per capita ought to reduce poverty per capita by 1.5 percent. Economic growth, no matter how rapid, is not enough in itself to reduce poverty. Not only must it avoid creating inequality, but it must also be accompanied by policies that reduce inequality and redistribute income. The sectorial structure of production affects equality, the redistribution of income, and consequently poverty. The expansion of labor-intensive activities has been an important factor in the reduction of poverty in the countries of Southeast Asia, particularly when accompanied by absorption of technology, increased productivity, and wage rises in accordance with productivity increases. For example, Vietnam, with a Gini coefficient of 0.30 and 50 percent of its activity in labor-intensive sectors, and with heavy investment in education, health and infrastructure and a solid social safety net, displays impressive achievements in the reduction of poverty, malnutrition and hunger. On the other hand, countries rich in natural resources, with economic activities predominantly in the highly capital-intensive energy or mining sectors, tend to have a much weaker relationship between growth of GDP per capita and reduction of poverty, particularly if those sectors materialize as enclaves with scant technological spillover toward the rest of the economy.

Ultimately, the accomplishment of Goal Two of the United Nations is dependent upon the achievements of others. In the meantime, it will also be conditioned by the effects of climate change on food production. An analysis of this falls outside the scope of these brief reflections.



Italian economist, former senior officer of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as well as consultant with other UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the Interamerican Bank For Development (IDB), the OECD, the Commission of the European Union, and the International Labour Office (ILO). As a professor has been associated with universities in Spain (UAM), Mexico (Universidad de Guadalajara, UNAM) Switzerland (Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales et du Developpement), Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Cuba. He is the author of Medio ambiente y desarrollo and La globalizacio n: ¿otra caja de Pandora?, and has coauthored nine other books, including Technology, Trade Policy and The Uruguay Round; Global Land Uses and Changes; Biotechnology a Hope or a Threat?; Sociedad, Cultura y Desarrollo Sustentable; and Trade and Environment Review 2016: Fish Trade. He has also published more than eighty articles in specialized magazines.

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)


Alexandratos, Nikos, and Jelle Bruinsma. 2012. World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: the 2012 Revision. Rome: FAO.

Bifani, Paolo. 2015. Economic and Trade Implications of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from Their Utilization. Geneva: UNCTAD.

FAO. 2011. Global Food Losses and Food Waste. Extent, Causes and Prevention. Rome: FAO.

IRRI. 2015. The C4 Rice Project. Manila: IRRI.

Pingali, Prabhu L., ed. 2001. 1999/2000 World Maize Facts and Trends. Meeting World Maize Needs. Mexico City: CIMMYT.

The State of Food and Agriculture, issues from 2000 to 2015. Rome: FAO.

The State of Food Insecurity in the World, issues from 2000 to 2015. Rome, FAO.

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