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Lessons from past agricultural development successes can inform policymaking and influence the choice of strategies to follow in a changing world, argue David J. Spielman and Rajul Pandya-Lorch.

Asia has seen the most dramatic success stories in agricultural development over the past 50 years, say the authors. In South Asia, new policies and investments known as the Green Revolution doubled cereal output and improved food security. And China's reintroduction of household farming in the late 1970s increased grain production and reduced rural poverty.

But innovations in producing, distributing and consuming food are just as important as gains in output, say Spielman and Pandya-Lorch. Farmers in South Asia have adopted tillage techniques that help replenish the soil's moisture and nutrients, for example, and in Burkina Faso farmers using traditional practices such as collecting manure and rainwater have increased their capacity to cultivate staple crops.

These successes were large-scale, long-term projects based on robust evidence — and this is what sets them apart, note the authors. They prove that agriculture is crucial for development.

But lessons need to be learned to build on these successes in a world changing with advances in biotechnology and information, the threat of climate change and new demographic trends.

Countries need strategies to sustain successful projects by creating policies and encouraging investment. They must also learn from experience, adapting to changing priorities. And because success is often difficult to recognise, countries must support their strategies with strong evidence, documenting and sharing successes as well as failures so others can learn from them.

The mix of positive and negative impacts that often result from agricultural development projects must not become excuses for reducing investments, but a motivation to carefully consider the trade-offs involved in any policy decision, the authors conclude.

Link to full article in China Dialogue