Leverage Points: Opportunities for Increasing Food Production in Developing Countries

Leverage Points: Opportunities for Increasing Food Production in Developing Countries
Dennis McLaughlin, Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Erica James, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Urban Studies and Director, MIT Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative

Period of performance: 

September 2015 to August 2017
food, water, environment, sustainability, field studies, anthropology, case studies, targeted investments, agricultural development, food security, crop production, yield gaps


This project will support donors, government agencies, NGOs, and aid organizations in their efforts to maximize their impact on food security. It addresses the possibility of increasing food production by closing yield gaps (differences between observed and maximum attainable crop yields). These gaps are particularly large in developing countries with scarce or unreliable water resources, poor soils, low incomes, and inadequate transportation infrastructure. Options for increasing yield in such regions include expansions in irrigated agriculture and fertilizer use, improved pest prevention techniques, use of improved cultivars, and adoption of sustainable cultivation practices that enhance soil quality.

Our project will use global data sets and advanced technology to screen for sites where conditions appear to be favorable for yield improvements. Screening criteria will include water availability, soil properties, terrain, and proximity to markets. Focused field studies at the selected sites will determine the likelihood that yield improvement interventions will be effective in practice. Our effort will rely on a unique and powerful combination of quantitative resource assessment techniques and qualitative anthropological methods. The field studies will assess feasibility by examining the preferences, capabilities, and experiences of farmers and other stakeholders; the effectiveness of past agricultural development projects; local infrastructure, and possible sociopolitical and economic barriers to successful interventions. These activities will be coordinated through an alternating schedule of screening analyses conducted at MIT and field visits carried out during winter and summer breaks. The project will produce a set of implementation guidelines that describe how to achieve practical long-term improvements in agricultural productivity. These guidelines will reflect both engineering and anthropological insights gained from the project and will be communicated through a series of workshops.