From Famine to Feast in Forty Years: Policy Matters

03/03/2015 01:23 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

In the mid-1970s, the outlook for food supplies around the world was grim. There were talks of "food triage"-- food-rich countries would decide which food-poor countries should get food, thereby dooming the rest to death. At that point, famines in Bangladesh and Ethiopia had killed hundreds of thousands of people, and countries such as India and Pakistan were teetering on the brink. Despite widespread agreement on food as a basic human right, there wasn't enough food--or solutions--to go around.

Fast forward to today: Hunger and malnutrition still exist, but not nearly on the same scale. Bangladesh and Ethiopia have halved the prevalence of hunger in their countries in the past 15 years. Indeed, the drastic progress humanity has made in ensuring food security and nutrition makes the thought of a food triage something out of a dystopian movie. How did this happen?

There are many actors who've played significant parts, including Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and Amartya Sen, who helped understand the structural and political drivers of famines. One of the key roles behind the scenes was that of evidence-based food policy research, which helped guide decision making in a way that changed the food security and nutrition landscape for many countries.

Food policy research generates the evidence behind decisions to help ensure that all people have access to safe, sufficient, nutritious, and sustainably grown food. It also provides policy options to distribute scarce resources, such as food, land, and water. Food policy research helped guide the rollout of the Green Revolution and created conditions for its success, particularly in Asia. It helped Vietnam reform its rice sector, turning it from an importer to one of the largest rice exporters in the world. It also helped to guide investments in agriculture in Asia and Africa, where the benefits to public investment in rural infrastructure, R&D, and irrigation are high--for example, advocating for such investments helped lift up nearly 750 million people in India out of poverty.

Food policy research also looks at sectors beyond agriculture to better pursue the goal of a hunger- and malnutrition-free world. For example, policy research on social protection in Bangladesh, Egypt, and Latin America has helped the poor access food and have more opportunities for economic prosperity. Through a rigorous evaluation, it informed the expansion of Mexico's Progresa (now Oportunidades) cash-transfer program, then the largest in the world and model for many other countries' social protection programs. Food policy research has also contributed to evidence on the physical, social, and economic consequences of child malnutrition, which has brought about greater attention, priority, and resources devoted to issues of nutrition.

When did this all begin? Forty years ago, three organizations--the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the International Development Research Centre of Canada--established the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Since then, we have provided policy research toward the elimination of hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, and have worked to ensure that food security and nutrition policy remain high up on global and national agendas.

But there is still more work to be done. Today, 805 million people suffer from chronic hunger worldwide and over two billion people are deficient in important micronutrients, such as iron and vitamin A. Further, many countries are trying to defuse a new ticking time bomb of malnutrition in the form of obesity, which is already among the world's greatest man-made social burdens. In pursuing increased agricultural productivity at nearly all costs, global agriculture has become a major contributor of greenhouse gasses and resource use. Today, we are challenged with degraded lands, scarce natural resources, and a rapidly warming planet.

When looking at all the challenges we face today in sustainably and nutritiously feeding a growing world population, it can be daunting. But we've confronted massive challenges 40 years ago, and made incredible progress in reducing hunger and malnutrition--in no small part due to learning from our mistakes, experimenting, and methodically pursuing the most efficient and effective course of action. In other words, we've gotten better at using evidence-based research to guide policymaking. That's one reason I believe we won't have to wait another 40 years before we end hunger and malnutrition.

IFPRI's ongoing work in areas such as climate smart and sustainable agriculture, agriculture for nutrition and health, transforming smallholders, governance and institutions, and gender equality help provide comprehensive evidence to face the challenges ahead. By building off the progress and commitment the world has shown, we can make hunger and malnutrition a thing of the past.