Time for a Second Green Revolution
One of humanity’s biggest achievements in the last century was making a huge increase in food production. From 1900 to 2000, there was a six-fold increase in crop harvests while the global population increased less than four-fold, meaning that on average people today have around 50% more food available than their great, great grandparents.
Most of the increase in production came from farmers growing more food from each hectare of land. The extraordinary progress is due to the Green Revolution that turbo-charged modern inputs for farming.
It has been estimated that Nobel Peace Prize winning agronomist Norman Borlaug, who spearheaded the intensification of modern farming methods, saved more than one billion lives from hunger − more, perhaps than anyone else in history. As well as feeding people, the Green Revolution made societies much richer. A 10-percentage point increase in the share of area under high-yielding varieties in 2000 has been shown to align with a 10-15 percentage point increase in per capita GDP. And, as agriculture becomes more efficient, people are freed from backbreaking labor and able to engage in a much broader range of productive activities.
The Green Revolution was an extraordinary achievement. However, the world needs a second Green Revolution to extend the benefits to the world’s poorest and reduce global hunger.
It is especially needed today as we fall behind on feeding the planet. Since 2016, world leaders have made grand development promises for every country by 2030, called the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the most crucial goals focuses on ways to boost agriculture − from ending hunger to ensuring better nutrition and more sustainable farming.
Unfortunately, we are failing our pledges, and not just because Covid derailed progress. A tracker shows that even based on progress before the pandemic’s disruption, politician’s food promises will not be met by 2030 but more than 80 years later, in the early 2100s.
Indeed, the entire world will be late on all its major commitments. In 2023, we are now at the halftime mark for our grand promises, but we’re nowhere near halfway. That’s why my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, has been working with some of the world’s best economists to identify the most effective policies for the remaining time. If we can’t do everything, we should focus on the smartest solutions in every area—including agriculture and hunger.
Our researchers looked at many agricultural policies, like subsidizing fertilizer and increasing irrigation. These all deliver moderate benefits to society, but per dollar invested, the effects are not amazing. However, there is one clear opportunity for humanity with results that would be comparable to the original Green Revolution: a big increase in investment in agricultural research and development (R&D).
There is still significant underspending on agricultural R&D for poorer countries. Big corporations understandably spend most in rich countries where large-scale farmers have deep pockets. That is why in 2015, 80% of global agricultural R&D funding went to rich and upper-middle income countries, while lower-middle income countries, like Bangladesh, got only 20%, and the world’s poorest countries got almost nothing.
This unequal investment has been persistent for more than half a century. It is a primary reason why the Green Revolution didn’t help the poorest as much as wealthier countries. Cereal yields in high-income countries almost tripled from 1961 to 2018, whereas low-income countries saw a much smaller increase of 50%.
There is huge untapped potential. Investment in agriculture R&D for the world’s poor could generate dramatic benefits.
Research published for Copenhagen Consensus demonstrates that the world will only need to spend a small amount more each year to generate vast benefits. It estimates the additional cost of R&D this decade is about $5.5 billion annually—a relatively small sum, less even than Americans spend on ice cream every year.
This investment will generate better seeds and high-yield crops that can also better handle weather changes like those we will see from climate change. Creating bigger and more resilient harvests will benefit farmers and producing more food will help consumers with lower prices.
Using a highly cited, long-established economic model, the researchers add up the total benefits for both farmers and consumers. They find a total net benefit over the next 35 years of more than $2 trillion. Every dollar spent delivers an astounding $33 of social benefits, making this a spectacular investment.
By 2050, this additional funding will boost agricultural output by 10%, reduce food prices by 16%, and increase per capita incomes by 4%. The investment will increase GDP in developing countries by $2.2 trillion by 2030 and $11.9 trillion by 2050, a 2% and 6% increase in per capita incomes respectively. And more efficient agricultural R&D will reduce global climate emissions by more than 1%.
This investment is phenomenal because not only do we make agricultural workers more productive, but we enable more people to be productive and innovative in other sectors, too. This investment leads to less people being hungry, and to lower costs of food for everyone.
We can’t deliver on all our promises for 2030. But we should deliver on agricultural R&D for the poorest half of the planet, because is one of the best investments humanity can make.