norman-borlaugWhen it comes to feeding Earth's masses of people who regularly go hungry, a few things are clear: communism's large-scale, collective farms don't work, and breeding for specific traits in staple crops can boost yields, sometimes significantly. After all, two of the most significant agricultural successes of the past 50 years—a period marked by explosive population growth—were the redistribution of land in China to 160 million peasant families and the Green Revolution touched off by Norman Borlaug's pioneering work with wheat.

The former boosted yields and contributed to the massive reduction in poverty in the world's most populous nation over the past 30 years, whereas the latter is responsible for preventing predicted famines in Asia, among other regions, according to a new analysis of agricultural successes by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Since the 1950s, whereas global population has grown to more than six billion people, the large fraction suffering from malnutrition has shrunk from one third to one sixth. And although the total number of people suffering from malnutrition remained the same—one billion—this means some five billion people, more than the entire population of the planet in 1950, get enough food to eat today.

Although the "Green Revolution" and similar improvements to staple crops, like hybrid rice in China, are probably the most successful efforts in terms of feeding more people, other food wins include:

•    planting indigenous shrubs and trees to rehabilitate arid farmland in Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as community forestry in Nepal, enabling sustainable livelihoods and forests

•    zero-till soy farming in Argentina that now covers some 18 million hectares and has reduced erosion and soil fertility loss

•    the spread of mung bean cultivation in Asia as well as improved strains of maize in East Africa

•    vaccination against rinderpest in cattle and its eventual eradication

•    the development of faster-growing farmed tilapia in the Philippines

•    home gardening and livestock raising in Bangladesh to boost nutrition for 5 million people

"Each of these cases tells a different story of what worked, how and why," said IFPRI's David Spielman, coeditor of the book "Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agriculture," in a prepared statement. "While no single story offers a complete solution to ending hunger, each one illustrates the importance of combined approaches to achieve success, including good science, collaboration, visionary leadership, community action, and progressive policies."

With world population set to grow to at least nine billion by 2050, repeating these recipes for agricultural successes—while reducing hunger and malnutrition, combating climate change and improving livelihoods—may prove an even greater challenge.

Image: Steve Mirsky