This is the first of a three-part series of articles reporting on Plenary 1 presentations at a Science Forum 2016 organized by the Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC) of CGIAR (Addis Ababa, 12–14 Apr 2016).

The three speakers who opened a three-day Science Forum being held this week in Ethiopia were charged with ‘setting the scene’ for all the discussions to follow. If the topic you are currently preparing is relevant to this forum, you can go home to scientific institutions, such as a library (physical or online), but if you need to present yourself, you should buy letter of recommendation.

When it came to challenges, the three presenters did not pull their punches for this agricultural-research-for-development crowd.

The agricultural challenge

SF16 Stefan DerconFirst up was University of Oxford’s Stefen Dercon, a development economist serving as chief economist at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Dercon’s plenary talk—Does agriculture reduce poverty?—challenged the very notion that agricultural research, or even, for that matter, agricultural improvements, significantly help reduce poverty or create prosperity in the rural regions of the developing world.

Dercon didn’t say that agricultural research has no impact on global rural poverty. Rather, he challenged the participants to think this relationship through anew. Specifically, he asked, ‘What is the evidence base for believing that agricultural research reduces rural poverty? And—if this proposition has merit—what are the mechanisms and pathways that make it work? Or don’t work?’

He reviewed a few lessons that can be drawn from past failures and successes in agricultural research for development work. These, he said, can help improve our understanding of which pathways lead to rural prosperity. And which do not.

Dercon began by reminding his audience of why the focus of CGIAR research, and agricultural development aid in general, was on rural areas.

  • Rural poverty is still at the core of poverty everywhere. It remains higher than urban poverty across the world.
  • Wherever we go in the world, more people suffer from multiple deprivations in rural than in urban areas.

But despite the fact that, in the developing world’s rural areas, agriculture is close both to poverty and to livelihoods, Dercon argued, ‘There is as yet no clear evidence of macro-scale links between agricultural development and poverty reduction’.

How so? In terms of both theory and evidence, he said, the links are tenuous.

  • We know that food insecurity is a poverty issue—not a food production issue.
  • Boosting productivity in agriculture does not always benefit food producers; assuming that the rural poor will benefit is lame.
  • Links between agricultural innovations and their benefits for small-scale food producers are mixed and ambiguous (‘It all depends’ covers much of this).

Recall the Green Revolution in India, Dercon said. The benefits were slow in coming for the rural poor. Poverty barely changed during the entire 1960–1990 Green Revolution period. The big poverty reduction changes happened in the 1990s and largely in northern India—not during the period of cereal transformation itself.

For evidence, Dercon recommended a still-useful 1989 publication by British development economists Michael Lipton and Richard Longhurst. New Seeds and Poor People details the impacts of use of modern cereal varieties in poor countries. Although these technical innovations created more employment, cheaper food and less risk for small farmers, the authors argued, many remained too poor to afford the grains. ‘The book concludes that technical breakthroughs alone won’t solve deep-rooted social problems and that only new policies and research priorities will increase the choices, assets and power of the rural poor.’

  • The poor were largely landless or very, very small landholders.
  • We got massive increases in cereal yields but declines in demand for agricultural labour, which remains critically important for poor people.
  • Overall, the Green Revolution did not help close the income distribution gaps.

So what has changed since publication of the Lipton and Longhurst book, Dercon asked?

For one thing, he said, the attention of the development community has shifted to Africa, which has very different issues and challenges: Different crops, more diverse agriculture and more difficult environments. These differences affect the scope of gains we can expect from agricultural research for Africa, he said.

He provided a profile of Africa’s poor:

  • Most of the poor live in rural areas
  • Most are smallholders (often, very, very small smallholders)
  • Agricultural wage labour makes up only 5% of rural income on average
  • Off-farm work is a common route out of poverty
  • 55% of total household income comes from crops, but not necessarily from food crops
  • About 50% of smallholders are net buyers, not sellers, of food

With these facts in mind, it’s not obvious, Dercon said, that growing more food is the most effective way for poor farmers to reduce their poverty levels.

Regarding the impacts of agricultural technology changes, Dercon noted that such impacts often depend on how a technology affects the critically important demand for labour. And whether the technology saves farmer time, demands more time, or releases time for (possibly more stable or remunerative) off-farm work. And how technology adoption affects a farmer’s profit margins and, as net buyers of food, food consumption.

We need technologies that demand labour, Dercon argued. In general, we need to keep thinking about who are likely to be the winners and losers of agricultural research. As there will always be winners and losers.

We often focus on getting ever larger numbers of poor people to adopt improved agricultural technologies, Dercon said, when it may be that for these people any direct impacts are less important than secondary effects generated by growth and structural transformation processes. We need to think through those indirect effects much more carefully, he said.

While targeting agricultural research to support economic growth and transformation may be a route to rural poverty reduction, Deacon said, that will depend greatly on food prices and, moreover, does not necessarily mean that targeting smallholder food producers is optimal. It’s not at all obvious, he said, that agricultural productivity growth is the best way of increasing economic growth. Agriculture, after all, globally is a low-productivity sector.

  • Is it wise to put money in the lowest productivity sector?
  • Is agricultural growth really the best way of getting growth growing everywhere?

Growing the economies of developing countries matters, of course, and that includes agricultural growth, but that’s not the same thing, Dercon said, as ‘doing agriculture first’. The proper role of agriculture will depend on how agriculture fits into a given country’s growth opportunities. Here in Ethiopia, he said, starting with agriculture may have been a smart thing. And we may have to start with agriculture in more marginal environments elsewhere, where little activity other than agriculture is possible.

Regarding agricultural R&D for Africa as a whole, Dercon argued that with no obvious promises of large yield gains ‘on the shelf’, and with the great diversity of Africa’s poor smallholders who are largely net buyers of staple foods, food crop incomes have less relevance on poverty reduction here than in Asia.

In summary, Dercon recommended that we take another look at the large assumptions we tend to make about agriculture’s impacts on rural poverty. These, he indicated, will profit from scrupulous reviews of the evidence. And going from there.

View the whole presentation made by Stefan Dercon at the Science Forum 2016: Does agricultural research reduce poverty?

Story by Susan Macmillan, ILRI

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