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Science and Technology Hold Promise for Developing Countries in the 21st Century

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In the 1960s, there was growing concern about rapidly increasing populations and low agricultural production in developing countries. This concern prompted increased research investments by private and public institutions, including the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, to develop and implement new farming technologies and practices in many of these countries. By the late 1960s, the development and spread of high-yielding varieties of rice, wheat, and maize, combined with greater use of fertilizers and irrigation, led to the “Green Revolution,” a period marked by notable increases in crop yields for the major grains. While the Green Revolution brought increased production to many parts of the developing world, some countries did not benefit as greatly. For example, relatively little research focused on such crops as yams, cassava, sorghum, and cowpeas—staples in many parts of Africa. As a result, yield gains have been distributed unevenly among crops and regions, hindering the ability of many developing countries to achieve income growth and provide sufficient food for their populations.

New developments in science and technology hold promise for increasing agricultural productivity in developing countries in the 21st century. A host of technological advances, realized through public and (increasingly) private investments in research and development, are increasing agricultural production in developed countries. These include improved technologies for nutrient, soil, water, and pest management; precision agriculture (such as the use of global positioning satellites in farming); and agricultural biotechnology. Advances in livestock breeding and veterinary science will increase both the quantity and quality of animal protein available to consumers. Crops and animals that can tolerate a wider range of environmental conditions and offer consumers desired characteristics, such as nutritional value and extended shelf life, are being developed. Innovations in biological and information sciences have resulted in several emerging fields—such as nanotechnology, which refers to the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules—that may form the foundation for new technologies that will be used to improve sustainable agricultural production and protect ecosystem functions.

But, without the dissemination and adoption of new technologies, the full benefits of scientific breakthroughs will not be realized in developing countries. Successful research and technology transfer activities increasingly will depend on cooperative endeavors between developed and developing countries and between public and private institutions. Developing countries must determine which technologies and advancements will address their unique economic, social, and environmental needs. And then these countries will benefit from working with developed countries and institutions to develop, adapt, and transfer productivity-increasing technologies to farmers in their countries.

This article is drawn from...

Agricultural Science Policy, by Paul Heisey, USDA, Economic Research Service, July 2014

Agricultural Productivity, by Eldon Ball, Sun Ling Wang, and Keith Fuglie, USDA, Economic Research Service, December 2013