Crossroads? Roundabout? Maze entrance? WTF are we?

by Jeremy Cherfas on April 17, 2008 The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) published its mammoth report earlier this week and hectares of newsprint and buckets of bits have already been expended on pontificating about the punditry. We’ve even linked to one or two of the early entrants. Rather than attempt anything comprehensive here, I’m instead going to point to a Policy Forum in the latest Science,1 by some of the IAASTD’s authors. They take the report as an opportunity to look at agricultural R&D and how it can best serve development. As the article is behind a paywall I’ll quote fairly liberally.2

Production increases have not consistently improved food access for the world’s poor. Where production has been intensified, it has generally been accompanied by costs such as extensive eutrophication from fertilizer runoff, pesticide contamination, and loss of local crop landraces. The assessment found that structural changes in governance, development, and delivery of S&T are required so that benefits are shared more equitably and environmental impacts are lessened.

So, what are the structural changes? First (and last) is the question of cash. The numbers are jaw-dropping.

A meager one-third (about U.S. $10 billion) of all global research expenditure on agriculture is spent on solving the problems of agriculture in developing countries, home to ~80% of the global population. This amount is less than 3% of the total value of agricultural subsidies that countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) pay to maintain their agricultural output. Consequently, regions with severe biophysical constraints and marginalized communities have historically benefited least from S&T development.

Did you get that? The OECD countries spend roughly 30 times more on subsidies for their agriculture than the entire global budget for research on agriculture for developing countries. I’m also currently avoiding, mostly, the high-food-price-crisis bandwagon as it rumbles majestically by, so I’ll say nothing about the effect of subsidies on prices. But one way to avoid rioting in the streets might be to help countries to grow more food, and the best way to do that is to invest in research on agriculture for developing countries.

And by a neat symmetry, or just a coincidence, private industry spends about 30 times more than the budget of the entire CGIAR system, which for all its faults is at least trying to address the needs of the poorest farmers, those who will be hardest hit by, for example, climate change. Is private industry doing anything about the crops on which subsistence farmers depend?

Except for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), few others have sought crop improvements in the small-grain cereals, tubers, and legumes cultivated by hundreds of millions of farmers. A redirection of S&T [science and technology] is needed to move away from processes that have profited primarily large-scale enterprises to processes that address the most basic needs of the world’s 900 million small farmers.

Kiers and her co-authors go on to detail some of the ways in which agricultural science and technology could be redirected to address some of the more pressing needs of smallholder farmers.

Evolving intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes to encourage farmers’ entrepreneurship and initiatives to develop small seed companies can improve delivery of locally appropriate seeds to poor farmers, not currently offered by the few companies dominating the global seed market. Reversing soil infertility through use of locally available resources (e.g., nitrogen-fixing trees, indigenous rock phosphate) has increased food security for tens of thousands of African farmers. Recent research from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) suggests that total milk spoilage, spillage, etc., in East Africa and the Near East costs small farmers $90 million/year. Dairy imports to the developing world, which increased 43% between 1998 and 2001, could have been significantly reduced with simple on-farm post-harvest technologies. Similar investments in affordable technologies (e.g., small metallic silos) could prevent rice post-harvest losses ranging between 8 and 26% in China.

There is a need to capitalize on human ingenuity, deployed for centuries to solve agricultural challenges. Scientists at the African Rice Center are adapting the use of golden weaver ants (a centuries-old technology developed by farmers in Asia) as a pest control method, so West African mango producers can access profitable European markets.

Innovation — think different, to coin a phrase — is an area where the paper comes closest to our own hearts, with new ways to involve farmers in breeding and selection along with the use of agricultural biodiversity directly to cope with changing circumstances and vaguely foreseen challenges.

In the end, though, it comes down to investment in agricultural research and development, which declined during the 1990s and has not really recovered …

despite research showing that investments in agricultural R&D are one of the most successful ways to alleviate hunger and poverty. Developed countries spend, on average, $5.16 on S&T for every $100 of agricultural output, whereas developing countries invest only $0.57.

Basic education investments are needed as well. A study of farmers in developing countries showed that those who completed 4 years of elementary education had, on average, 8.7% higher productivity.

Farmers can work wonders, but with help they can do even better.

Small farmers in Zimbabwe grew over 90% of the commercial maize crop when markets and services were well organized, and Ghanaian cocoa farmers more than doubled their market sales in response to marketing reforms that left them a higher profit share. In contrast, an overreliance on free market forces has led to suboptimal investment patterns. For instance, trade arrangements that open national agricultural markets to international competition before basic national institutions and infrastructure are in place can undermine local agricultural sectors. The most successful investments will increase the resilience of local and global food systems to environmental and economic shocks.

I know this post has been long on quotation and short on interpretation, but frankly there’s not all that much interpretation needed. The title of the paper (which may not be the authors’) intrigues me: Agriculture at a crossroads. That suggests that you can keep going straight on, turn right or turn left. (Who goes back the way they’ve just come.) But just like the history of modern agriculture, the very history that has failed so many poor farmers, that too may be a simplification too far. I’ve tried and tried to think of a better metaphor, but I can’t.

There are a thousand paths leading from where we are now to where we want to be, and no one path will be best for everybody. The crucial thing, I think, is to stop thinking in terms of a single destination — unless it is something high-minded like “sustainable food security” — and a best route to get there, and to put much more effort into multiple solutions for multiple problems.

It may cost more to solve lots of relatively small problems than a few big ones, but the rewards will be much greater.

  1. Kiers, E.T., Leakey, R.R., Izac, A., Heinemann, J.A., Rosenthal, E., Nathan, D., Jiggins, J. (2008). ECOLOGY: Agriculture at a Crossroads. Science, 320(5874), 320-321. DOI: 10.1126/science.1158390 []
  2. I’ve removed the references; you’ll need access to the original article to see those, but if you want to see them, you can probably get access to Science. Or ask me. []

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ola April 21, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. With no Science subscription your quoting was a good primer for paying a visit to the IAASTD webpage.

In the executive summary of the synthesis report it is interesting to see where the US has made reservations. Here is one:

“There is growing concern that opening national agricultural markets to international competition before basic institutions and infrastructure are in place can undermine the agricultural sector, with long term negative effects for poverty, food security and the environment.”

Bummer. This does not sound like free-trade. Red alert!

I did not note much about subsidies when I skimmed through the summary report, but I wanted to comment your side-kick to subsidies, Jeremy. Why do you hate them so much? I think subsidies is an essential part of any sustainable agriculture policy. Export subsidies sucks –of course, but subsidies designed to take into account multifunctionality and compensate for, and reduce, “external” costs are vital for sound agricultural development. I don’t buy that urban “the economist” and “oxfam” subsidy bashing –its way too simplistic. I think the IAASTD authors is onto something very important about the shortcomings of market forces when they say:

“Incentives are needed to influence the choices individuals make. Issues such as poverty and climate change also require collective agreements on concerted action and governance across scales that go beyond an appeal to individual benefit.”


Jeremy April 22, 2008 at 6:23 am

Thanks Ola.

I’ll try and work up something on subsidies, and why I think there are better ways of achieving policy objectives. It would help me if maybe you had the time to indicate in a little more detail what you mean when you write that “subsidies designed to take into account multifunctionality and compensate for, and reduce, ‘external’ costs are vital for sound agricultural development.”


Ola April 22, 2008 at 4:30 pm

Sorry for the gibberish. I am a novice in economics and a fool with words. What I meant to say is that there are many aspects of agriculture that is not valued by the market price of its products alone: E.g. the role of agriculture for environmental protection, one such aspect being promotion of agricultural diversity. I dare the statement that european agriculture would be less diverse and with much more detrimental environment effects if it were not for subsidies. And I think the agriculture sector in many developing countries would benefit a great deal by strengthening subsidy schemes. Subsidies can both boost local production and reward more sustainable land use. It would be interesting to know if subsidies have been tried in e.g. in situ conservation projects? There is interesting stuff about the pros and cons of agricultural subsidies on wikipedia.


Luigi April 23, 2008 at 1:27 pm

We have blogged about this subject before, but we could probably do with a longer and more considered meditation.


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