According to the United Nations, after decades of steady decline, the number of people who suffer from hunger – as measured by the prevalence of undernourishment – began to slowly increase again in 2015. Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people or almost nine percent of the world’s population are undernourished. This figure is up by 10 million people per year and by nearly 60 million over the last five years. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger would surpass 840 million by 2030.
According to the UN’s World Food Program, 135 million suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change and economic downturns. The COVID-19 pandemic could now double that number, putting an additional 130 million people at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of this year. Increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable food production are crucial to help alleviate the perils of hunger.
But there is hope. In the first global-scale study of its kind, researchers used data on 600,000 children throughout the developing world to show that the diffusion of improved seed varieties of staple crops developed by international research and development – known as the Green Revolution – has dramatically reduced infant mortality. Places where the improved varieties diffused more rapidly experienced a more rapid decrease in mortality rates. The impact was particularly strong among the poorest households.
A new study led by researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) provides some of the first evidence of a direct connection between the Green Revolution in agriculture and the dramatic reduction in child mortality in the developing world achieved during the second half of the 20th century.
The Green Revolution consisted of the development of high yielding varieties of staple crops like rice, wheat and maize by international scientists from the CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, a global partnership that unites international organizations engaged in research about food security) and their diffusion among smallholder farmers across the developing world. It was by far one of the most far-reaching economic transformations of the 20th century, but its impacts on human welfare have remained poorly quantified until now.
The study was conducted by an international team of researchers, including Dr. Ram Fishman of TAU’s department of public policy and the Boris Mints Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions to Global Challenges and researchers from the Indian School of Business in India, the World Bank, the University of California in San Diego, Michigan State University and Colorado State University. The paper was just published in the Journal of Health Economics.
The researchers collected detailed data about the mortality rates of 600,000 infants born in about 20,000 villages in 37 developing countries in Africa, Central and South America, India and Southeast Asia between 1961 and 2000 and cross-referenced them with information about the diffusion of the improved Green Revolution seeds in the place and year of birth of each of these infants. Using sophisticated statistical methods, they estimated the association between these two variables.
The analysis, which is the first of its kind on a global scale, found a statistically significant link between the two data, which the researchers also show to be causal. In places where improved varieties diffused earlier – in part because of the types of crops grown – there was also a more rapid decrease in death rates.
“During the second half of the 20th century, substantial resources were invested in international public agricultural research and development, with a focus on the development of higher-yielding strains of common staple crops, such as wheat, rice, and corn that are responsible for the majority of calories in the human diet,” said Fishman. By the end of the 20th century, 60% of the developing world’s agricultural lands were cropped with these varieties.
During the same period of time, there was a dramatic improvement in the health of the population of the developing world, as reflected in a decrease of more than 50% in infant mortality, from around 20% of children in 1960 to less than 10% four decades later. The leading causes of this remarkable decline have long been contested among demographers, public health scientists and economists. Some attribute it mainly to improvements in public health such as vaccinations and the use of antibiotics, while others emphasized improvements in income and nutrition. While both factors have likely contributed to a large extent, the specific contribution of each one remained speculative and poorly quantified.
In the new study, the team sought out to quantify the extent of the Green Revolution’s contribution to the decrease in infant mortality. They hypothesized that the larger yields that it brought about could improve the level of nutrition of pregnant women and young children and also increase household income, thus contributing indirectly to improved health, and we searched for ways to examine that hypothesis empirically.
They found a strong and clear association, suggesting that the Green Revolution – the diffusion of improved varieties, likely accompanied by the use of irrigation and fertilizer – was responsible to a decline of some 2.5% to 5% in the rate of infant mortality. This represents between 25% to 50% of the overall reduction during that time period.
“Our study proves the historical importance of public agricultural R&D for the health of the rural population of the developing world. We showed that improved crop varieties, which improved nutrition and income and reduced hunger, saved the lives of tens of millions of children in the second half of the 20th century and have most likely also brought about improved health for tens of millions of other individuals not directly visible in the data,” Fishman concluded.
But more challenges remain, as billions of people suffer from food insecurity, and extreme weather brought about by climate change is already reducing crop yields. There must be continued investment in public agricultural R&D and to increase both the quantity, diversity and nutritional quality of agricultural production to reduce the immense environmental harm that agricultural activity causes worldwide.