Throughout this past summer, in the long-suffering hills of western Rwanda, legions of farmers toiled at their sloped plots. With hoes and axes, they crafted flat, wide terraces and a simple water-management system that would keep valuable topsoil in place. Their efforts were part of a $800 million investment program supported by the United States and other international donors that is meant to boost Rwanda's agricultural production and reduce its dependence on food aid. The farmers were reshaping their land in the hope that a new watershed, along with better-quality seeds and fertilizer, would double or triple their harvests of corn, potatoes, beans, and rice by the next season.

As he patrolled the hillsides one day last June, Innocent Musabyimana, the project's manager in the Ministry of Agriculture, expressed a kind of desperate optimism. "To make our agriculture sustainable, we have to do this," he said. "Ninety percent of the country is like this, all hills. If we don't do anything, in 40 years, with the erosion, the farms will be gone." Musabyimana opened his arms wide. "This," he said, taking in the sweeping panorama, "is our future."

He meant the future of Rwanda and the future of Africa. But he might as well have been talking about the future of the world, too. For what is happening on the hills near Lake Kivu is at the vanguard of an effort to reverse years of neglect in agricultural development, tackle widespread chronic hunger, and satisfy the world's ever-expanding appetite.

Malthusian predictions that relentless population growth will outstrip food production and trigger starvation worldwide have recurred over the centuries. They have come and then gone as farmers have deployed new technologies to increase food output. Even now, enough food is being produced to adequately feed every person on the planet; the fact that nearly one billion people are nonetheless going hungry is a damning indictment of the world's food-distribution system. But since demand is growing, production will also have to increase in the years ahead. With the world's population expected to expand to more than nine billion by 2050 and much of that growth occurring in China, India, and other countries where living standards are rising fast, global food production will need to increase by 70-100 percent in order to keep pace and feed the already chronically hungry. This is a mighty challenge: all the more so because given current soil technology and environmental concerns, more food will have to be produced on roughly the same amount of arable land -- and with less water than is used now and at a time when both growing demand for biofuels and changing climate patterns are also putting pressure on production. Where will the needed rise in food supplies come from, and how quickly can the distribution problems be solved?

The countries that managed quantum leaps in agricultural production in the past cannot be counted on for repeat performances, unless great leaps in technology introduce new strains of seeds or suddenly turn unproductive lands into fertile soil. The United States, long the breadbasket of the world, led the way in agricultural innovation and productivity after World War II. Advances in seed breeding -- first with hybrids, then with genetically modified crops -- spurred huge jumps in the yields of several staples: from 1950 to 1990, corn and rice yields in the United States grew by an average of more than two percent annually, with gains in wheat yields close behind. But in recent years, yields for these crops have grown by less than 1.5 percent. Crop yields throughout the rest of the developed world have followed the same trend.

Likewise, future productivity gains in the grain-belt fields of the former Soviet states and in Brazil, China, and India -- once hungry countries that turned into agricultural powerhouses thanks to advances made in the 1960s and 1970s, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty -- depend on continued investment in infrastructure and research. Under some scenarios, water scarcity in China and India could cut wheat and rice production in these countries by 30-50 percent by 2050, even as demand for these grains there is expected to rise by as much over the same period.

Thus, more and more eyes are turning to Africa, agriculture's final frontier. Africa was largely left out of the green revolution, the postwar movement to push up crop yields in the hungriest parts of the world by promoting the use of new seeds and new farming technology. And so agricultural production on the continent could jump quickly if farmers there simply used existing seed, fertilizer, and irrigation technology. And if more efficient networks were developed to distribute and sell the harvests, boosting agricultural yields in Africa could be a major step toward feeding not just the continent but also the rest of the world.


How did Africa get so far behind? How can hunger be spreading this century when the green revolution was one of the great technological and scientific achievements of the last?

"The Green Revolution has not yet been won," warned Norman Borlaug, the American plant breeder credited with starting it, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. "Tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts." Some 40 years later, more than one in seven people are going hungry, and as Borlaug feared, that failure was largely born of success. The green revolution beat back famine in Asia and Latin America, disproving the dire Malthusian predictions. Between 1975 and 1985, the world's production of corn, wheat, and rice grew more than twice as fast as the world's population. Surpluses replaced shortages. The gluts depressed prices in the United States and Europe, creating a false sense of accomplishment and security there. The rich world's awareness of the wretchedly poor and hungry receded. Yet the green revolution had not come to Africa.

By the late 1970s, Borlaug's simple idea of helping the world's small farmers -- also the world's hungriest people -- feed themselves had become more complicated to implement. Environmentalists criticized the green revolution for introducing fertilizers and pesticides to hundreds of millions of acres of land; their overuse was creating a new kind of pollution. Social scientists worried that bringing the notion of surpluses and profits to smallholder farmers would upset the harmony of rural villages by creating debt and prompting land grabs. Research for new breeds of seeds and better soil nourishment to improve the yields of the world's poorest farmers dwindled; priorities shifted to producing safer food in environmentally friendly ways for the world's well-fed.

Overall funding from rich nations for agricultural projects in the developing world also collapsed. According to the World Bank, official development assistance for agriculture from rich countries to poor ones plummeted from its peak of $8 billion in 1984 to $3.4 billion in 2004 (measured in 2004 dollars). Over the same period, the share of aid devoted to agriculture relative to total assistance crashed from about 18 percent to less than four percent. Agricultural assistance to sub-Saharan Africa briefly exceeded $3 billion in the mid-1980s, but it soon sank back to $1.2 billion, its 1975 level. The U.S. government's retreat was particularly dramatic: annual U.S. aid to agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa declined from more than $400 million in 1984 to just $60 million in 2006.


This precipitous drop in research and aid came just as international development theory began to doubt whether helping farmers in poor nations was the most effective way to fight hunger and poverty. In the 1980s, the World Bank and other international development institutions promoted "structural adjustment," a policy that required central governments to exercise fiscal discipline and reduce their debt. Governments in Africa were instructed to get out of the agricultural sector, among other areas, and let the private sector take over.

But in most African countries, the private sector was too small, too weak, and too undercapitalized to lead agricultural development; supply enough seeds and fertilizers; buy, transport, and store harvests; or build domestic and export markets. Starved of assistance, the continent's agricultural infrastructure -- research institutions, the roads connecting farms to markets, the network of so-called extension agents who carry new information and technology to farmers, post-harvest storage and distribution capability -- fell into a woeful state (refuting, it seems, the arguments of those who insisted that Africa would be better off without foreign aid).

Meanwhile, the international development community was asking African governments to stop subsidizing African farmers to encourage them to plant as much as possible. Many African governments were happy to follow this lead: even though small farmers made up a majority of the population in much of Africa, it was the urban voters who kept governments in power. But that left the continent's farmers bearing 100 percent of the risk of a very risky business. They were being asked to perform a high-wire act without a safety net, and they were the only farmers in the world who had to do so. The countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development continued to lavish subsidies on their own farmers -- more than $250 billion annually -- making it impossible for unsubsidized farmers to compete in world food markets. On top of all this, conflict in several African countries turned farmers' fields into battlefields: once productive lands such as Sudan and Zimbabwe became big recipients of food aid.

Still, at the time, the prevailing idea was that Africa's smallholder farmers could not, and therefore should not, compete. Since food produced on large-scale farms in the rich, developed countries was cheaper, the poor countries would benefit from developing their industrial sectors so that, rather than grow their own food, they could earn money to import some. This, ostensibly, was their comparative advantage: where local labor was cheap, better to invest in manufacturing than in agriculture -- better to produce underwear than maize. If Africa's peasants went hungry, they could be fed with food aid from the rich world's overflowing warehouses.

What happened was that imported crops displaced locally grown food throughout the developing world, crushing both the incentives of poor peasants to farm and Africa's hopes of food self-sufficiency, the best long-term barrier against famine. All these development missteps were made cruelly manifest during the famine that struck Ethiopia in 2003. In the two previous years, Ethiopian farmers had had the best harvests of their lives thanks to Borlaug's attempts to ignite a green revolution there and provide better access to seeds and fertilizers. But these efforts' single-minded goal had been to produce, produce, produce; developing the infrastructure to store any resulting surpluses and bring them to the market was considered a problem to be addressed later. By the end of 2002, Ethiopia's underdeveloped markets could not absorb the excess production. As a result, prices collapsed by 80 percent, to levels far below production costs. Farmers and grain traders filled whatever warehouses existed, hoping to hold on to their crops until prices improved. Storage capacity was insufficient, however, which meant massive spoilage on the farms (a total of 300,000 tons were wasted, by some estimates). As Ethiopian farmers entered the planting season of 2002-3, their incentive to produce choked by the low prices, they cut back on expenses, used cheaper seeds, shunned fertilizers, shut off irrigation systems, and took some land out of production. They knew they were likely limiting their harvests, but they hoped to keep them large enough to feed their families. They looked heavenward for rain. But that season the rains failed, causing a drought and then a famine. Farmers who one year before had carried surplus grain to village markets were now carrying starving children to emergency feeding centers. Economics had failed them even before the weather did.

U.S. policy failed them next. During the 2003 famine, the U.S. government spent more than $500 million on food aid to help the 14 million Ethiopians who were starving, but it spent less than $5 million on agricultural development aid to prevent Ethiopian farmers from starving the next time around. U.S. policy also mandated -- and it still does -- that U.S. food aid take the form of crops grown in the United States rather than cash with which recipients could buy local crops. The result was perverse: U.S.-grown food streamed in, rolling past warehouses still filled with Ethiopian-grown grain. Although Ethiopian farmers had no market in Ethiopia, U.S. farmers had a very big one. The U.S. food-aid industry had morphed from Band-Aid into big business.

Soon, the drought that had struck Ethiopia spread from the Horn of Africa down the continent's east coast and into its southern savannas, where the HIV/AIDS epidemic was already wreaking havoc on agriculture by killing millions of farmers. A few years into the twenty-first century, Africa was hungrier than ever before.


On the tail of the 2003 famine, African governments got fed up with the prevailing doctrine. At a meeting in Maputo, Mozambique, during the summer of 2003, the continent's leaders embraced the goal of increasing their spending on agricultural development to ten percent of their national budgets. In 2004, Kofi Annan, a son of Africa and then secretary-general of the United Nations, called for an African green revolution. New generals enlisted in the fight against hunger. The freshly elected president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, subsequently announced that his government would start providing subsidies to farmers to help them obtain seeds and fertilizers. Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, said that he would do the same, to boost agricultural production in his country. The World Bank also eventually reversed course, retreating from the dogma of structural adjustment. In its World Development Report 2008, it hailed the role of small farmers in leading the way out of hunger and poverty and recognized the importance of state investment in agriculture and of some subsidies.

To those who did not heed the African famine of 2003, the global food crisis of 2008 should have been a wake-up call. By then, it was clear that if Borlaug had managed for a time to give the world a lead in the race to keep food production ahead of population growth, the global food supply was now far less secure. With the world's population getting bigger and wealthier, the demand for grain-fed meat and dairy products was escalating. At the same time, the continued volatility of oil prices was driving a major rise in the production of alternative sources of fuel, many made from foodstuffs. (By 2009, about 30 percent of the United States' corn crop went to producing ethanol, roughly twice as much as in 2006.) This caused food supplies to dwindle and made harvests more vulnerable to disruptions caused by natural disasters. Global grain reserves plummeted in 2007 and 2008 to their lowest levels in three decades, and the prices of many staples doubled. Countries shut off food exports; trade was interrupted. The food that poor countries were supposed to buy for cheap rather than grow themselves suddenly no longer was so cheap or even so available. As shortages spread and prices skyrocketed, rioting erupted, escalating global security concerns. The global financial meltdown that soon followed did bring crop prices down but only to levels that were still historically high. Meanwhile, the conditions that had pushed up food demand remained in place -- they still remain today and are likely to intensify as the world economy recovers. In fact, scenes from the 2008 food crisis replayed at the end of this past summer: a drought choked the wheat crop in Russia, triggering higher wheat prices on the world market, and rioting broke out in Mozambique over bread shortages. As the twenty-first century advances, so, too, must the work on doubling the world's food production.


Africa is so far behind the rest of the world agriculturally that it would make great gains simply by applying existing technology and developing the infrastructure that is common in the rest of the world, such as farm-to-market roads, basic irrigation systems, crop-storage facilities, and commodities exchanges. The hybrid seeds that revolutionized agriculture in the developed world several decades ago are still scarce in Africa. According to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the base of Borlaug's work, such seeds account for less than 30 percent of the corn grown in Africa, and in some countries, such as Ghana, for less than five percent. Farmers who adopt these higher-yielding seeds typically see their harvests increase two-, three-, or fourfold.

Also in contrast to much of the rest of the world, land and water resources in Africa have been largely underused. More than half of the earth's unused arable land that can still be exploited without endangering forests and other ecosystems is in Africa. And less than five percent of Africa's arable land is irrigated; abundant water sources, such as the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia, are largely untapped for farming. The continent's soil has been depleted over the decades, but it could readily be replenished: African farmers use less than one-tenth the amount of fertilizer deployed by farmers in Asia and Latin America. Of the harvests that are reaped in Africa, one-third to one-half are routinely wasted, spoiled by pests, moisture, or disease. Climate-controlled, vermin-secure storage facilities are rare; many smallholder farmers store their harvests in flimsy wooden shelters or pile them up in their mud-brick homes. And as the 2003 famine in Ethiopia showed, the continent's prime agricultural regions do not have modern markets capable of absorbing and distributing the harvests quickly.

Remedying these problems, and tapping Africa's farming potential, has become a central focus of many governments and research and development institutions, and of the world's most generous philanthropists. Countries such as China, India, and Saudi Arabia, which face limitations on food production at home because of land, water, and climate constraints, are looking to invest in and buy land in Africa to grow food for their own people. Partly as a result, African governments are beginning to recognize the importance of taking the reins in developing their own agricultural sectors (some fear a form of postcolonial colonization). As soon as Mutharika, the president of Malawi, became chair of the African Union earlier this year, he pledged to champion greater investment in agriculture: "Africa must feed Africa," he said.

But others can help. The scientific institutes that transformed Brazil's savanna from an idle bush land into verdant fields of soybeans, rice, and maize in the 1970s and 1980s are beginning to work on areas in Africa with familiar ecological and agricultural conditions. Support from the United States will also be crucial to improving African farming, just as it was in helping ignite the agricultural boom in Asia and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, when it convinced several governments in those regions to trust Borlaug's ideas and back the green revolution.


U.S. President Barack Obama, whose relatives still till the soil of Kenya, has recognized this challenge and set out to make agricultural development a pillar of American soft power. In his inaugural address last year, he proclaimed, "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds." Those 30 words have since grown into Feed the Future, a program involving most departments of the administration -- from the Department of State and the Department of Agriculture to the Treasury Department and the National Security Council. Its goal is to help the world's poorest farmers grow enough to feed themselves and to have surpluses to sell on the market rather than have to rely on emergency food aid to survive. Obama has asked for $3.5 billion over three years to support agricultural development programs that the governments of low-income countries would draw up themselves.

The U.S. government has rallied international support for Feed the Future by citing global security concerns, pointing, for example, to the rioting that struck dozens of countries during the 2008 food crisis. At Washington's prodding, in 2009, the leaders of the G-8 countries pledged $22 billion over three years for agricultural development in the world's poorest countries. Then the G-20 called for the creation of a multidonor trust fund to help finance those efforts. The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) was launched this April, with an initial commitment from Canada, Spain, South Korea, and the United States, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that totaled $880 million. As he announced this new fund, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner spoke of security. "A world where more than one billion people suffer from hunger is not a strong or stable world. A world where more than two billion people in rural areas struggle to secure a livelihood is not a balanced one," he said. He continued: "Promoting economic growth abroad increases prosperity and security at home."

Standing beside Geithner that spring day was Bill Gates, whose foundation contributed $30 million to starting up GAFSP -- and has invested well over $1.5 billion in agricultural development over the past five years. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has teamed up with the Rockefeller Foundation (a main backer of Borlaug's work) to form the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, partly because it has determined that ending malnutrition is key to the success of any poverty-reduction efforts in Africa. And Africa's smallholder farmers, who make up two-thirds to three-quarters of the population in many African countries, are the key to that. "Helping the poorest smallholder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty," Gates said at the World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, last year.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, if a green revolution ignites in Africa, the continent's agricultural output could increase from the current value of $280 billion per year to as much as $880 billion per year by 2030. Such growth is possible, the institute calculates, if Africa raises yields on key crops to 80 percent of the world average and brings more of its potential farmland into cultivation. Such measures would increase demand for fertilizers, seeds, and pesticides and spur a boom in postharvest processing, all of which could be worth another $275 billion in global revenue by 2030.

In addition to security concerns and business opportunities, there is, of course, the moral imperative to promote an African agricultural revolution. In its latest report on hunger trends, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned that without an improvement in local agriculture, the number of "food insecure" people -- those who consume less than 2,100 calories per day -- in sub-Saharan Africa will exceed 500 million by 2020, or half the region's population. According to the USDA's report, which studied 70 developing countries, sub-Saharan Africa would in that case account for just 27 percent of the total population of the countries studied but for 59 percent of the total number of food-insecure people in those states.


Nongovernmental organizations are also zeroing in on agriculture as the key way to reduce hunger and poverty in Africa. One day last July, in a small, dimly lit bungalow in Bungoma, in western Kenya, Andrew Youn, the founder and director of the nonprofit organization One Acre Fund, told me, "Agriculture is the fundamental humanitarian problem of our time." Africa's farmers, he added, "need to be producing way more, or we'll have a serious food crisis in the world."

A few years ago, fresh from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Youn noticed while traveling in Kenya that two neighboring farmers had very different crop yields on their respective plots. The one with the bigger harvest was using better-quality seeds and fertilizers and had access to training; the other one did not. And so, as the next planting season rolled around, Youn began working with about 40 Kenyan farmers who were struggling to feed their families. Rather than give farmers handouts, One Acre Fund provides seeds and fertilizers and draws up repayment plans. It provides training on planting techniques and, once the harvest is in, on drying and storage practices. When needed, the organization also links farmers to markets. And it offers innovative insurance coverage to protect them against failed harvests due to weather. In just four years, One Acre Fund has gone from helping 40 families in Kenya to working with close to 30,000 in both Kenya and Rwanda, doubling or tripling harvests on almost every field. The organization plans to roughly double the number of farmers it assists every year, aiming to work with one million within a decade.

Often, the efforts of social entrepreneurs naturally complement the official actions of governments, even when there are no direct ties between the two. In Rwanda, for instance, One Acre Fund's work coincides with the government's efforts to end hunger through agricultural development. The government in Kigali has increased its spending on agriculture from just three percent of the national budget a few years ago to seven percent today, and, according to both Rwandan officials and the World Food Program, the country has largely freed itself from any dependence on food aid. Thanks to the government's Crop Intensification Program, which seeks to raise farmers' yields by giving them access to better seeds and fertilizer, corn production has quadrupled in the last five years. Now, the agriculture minister, Agnes Kalibata, is counting on the U.S. government and other international donors to help keep up the momentum. Because of its own investment plans for agriculture, Rwanda has emerged as a model country in the Feed the Future program. It received $50 million in the first round of GAFSP funding, including for the terracing and water-management project on the hillsides near Lake Kivu.

Many obstacles will have to be overcome before an agricultural revolution can be sown in Africa. On a visit to cornfields in Rwanda's Eastern Province last June, Kalibata said, "We need to build warehouses; we need markets." She noticed the bumper harvest piling up in farmers' houses and heard their worries that the surplus would push prices below farming costs. "Unless we sell this, how we can we get them to grow more?" Kalibata asked, looking around at the surpluses. "That's the challenge of creating food security."

After several decades of neglect by the continent's own governments and the outside world, Africa's rural infrastructure all along the production chain has fallen into great disrepair. Sub-Saharan Africa is so diverse that it will need not one green revolution but dozens, one for each ecological zone and one for each of the myriad staple crops. The region will also need political and social stability. And holding the world's interest in its progress will be an immense challenge. The U.S. Congress has already been whittling away at the Feed the Future and GAFSP budgets, threatening to starve the programs of adequate funding before they have had a chance to really get going.

But the rich world neglects Africa's development at its own peril. It will be impossible to multiply global food production -- that is, to reduce hunger in poor countries while meeting growing demand in emerging ones -- in the coming decades if Africa's farmers are not given the means to grow as much food as they possibly can. As Borlaug liked to say, "You can't eat potential." The continent that has been fed by the world's food aid must now help feed the world.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ROGER THUROW is Senior Fellow on Global Agriculture and Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is a co-author, with Scott Kilman, of Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.
  • More By Roger Thurow