Minimized in the past, issues tied to food safety and global agriculture have been mobilizing the international community since the 2007-2008 food riots, and are now at the heart of new development policies. But the task ahead is huge. The fact that the number of people suffering from hunger has just passed the billion threshold, in a context of global economic and financial tension, renders the implementation of development strategies based on agriculture a lot more complex and crucial than in the past.
We recommend reading the analysis by Pierre Claquin and Mohamed Chabane for the CEP, (excerpts included below1
), which emphasizes the recent rehabilitation of the strategic and specific role of agriculture in new development strategies. As they point out, the financial disinvestment in agriculture in the past was such, that support dedicated to agriculture fell from 17% in 1980 to less than 4% in 2006, before rising again to 6.5% in 2011, as mentioned in the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System.
This analysis shows that no country in the world has achieved stable long-term economic growth without prior development of its agricultural sector. To this day, agriculture remains a main source of revenue for over 40% of the world population. And in fact, 70% of undernourished populations living in poverty live in rural areas, and are mainly farmers. Agriculture is undeniably the answer to the global food crisis, and is also one of the pillars of economic development.
momagri Editorial Board
The 2008 edition of the World Bank report on ‘agriculture for development’, was undeniably relevant in the sense that it was published in October 2007, shortly before the ‘food riots’ which emphasized the importance and urgency of food issues. The report also underlined the changing way in which this institution, as well as a large number of economic players and economists, viewed the importance of agriculture in terms of political and development strategies. A somewhat surprising situation considering the fact that the International Fund for Agricultural Development (FIDA, 2011) shows that 70% of populations living in poverty live in rural areas, with agriculture representing over a quarter of national added value in over thirty developing countries. The latest report by the World Bank on this issue was published in 1982, regardless of the fact that an annual report on development is published every year, proving the lack of interest in agriculture over the last decades.
This lack of interest stems from negative theoretical assumptions, often caricatured by forced industrialization strategies. Widely ignored by subsequent structural adjustment policies, which sanctioned the failure of some of these pro-industrial choices, the specific potential of agriculture at the heart of development strategies has long been underestimated, even though one should not blank out the efforts of many researchers and development practitioners, who contributed to rehabilitating agriculture in a context that was marked by a growing financial disinvestment in this field: support dedicated to global agriculture (including fishing and forestry) fell from 17 % in 1980 to under 4% in 2006, according to the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System, before rising again to 6.5% in 2011.
While global farming issues were focused up until now on opening up international markets to trade, the 2007-2008 food riots remind us that issues tied to food security and poverty remain the major and most urgent challenges for agriculture. The tensions that have persisted on this subject, since then, prove that this episode was not just a conjectural event. Moreover, achieving global development, as defined by the eight UN Millennium Development Goals during the New York Millennium Summit in 2000, remains a crucial objective. And in this respect, agriculture could act as a very efficient lever.
The difficulty of drawing conclusions in terms of structural transition
The divergence in approaches and conclusions, as to the role of agriculture in terms of structural transition, mainly stems from the fact that no firm evidence will ever help arbitrate this complex debate. Douglas Gollin (2011) provides a relatively comprehensive review: impossible counterfactual research, selection bias and temporal bias, problem of causality, etc.
For instance, the difficulty in measuring the role of agriculture in the general development of a country stems from the difficulty in addressing endogeneity issues: the dynamics of agriculture and growth are the result of the different choices and arbitrations that are made, as well as market and economic shocks, which may or may not be considered as exogenous values on the scale of a country, such as the introduction of external technologies or changes in the consumption habits of commercial partners, or even prices in an integrated sector. Accepted theories as to what is endogenous depends on the conclusions drawn in terms of agriculture as the 'prime motor' of development.
Further difficulties lie in the ‘timing’ of this transition. Certain economists such as Timmer (2005) and Losch (2008) warn against excess optimism in placing agriculture at the heart of development strategies, since this relies on the illusion that it is possible to reproduce past 'miracles'.
Bruno Losch has in fact criticized the fact that a number of development theorists share an ‘evolutionist’ vision, which ignores changes tied to a different era and a different context, and which is focused on past successes that lack in-depth analysis, such as the English example (cf. above). For Bruno Losch, development solely based on agriculture is more difficult to achieve than it was in the past. For instance, Sub-Saharan Africa lacks the advantage of the highly favourable conditions which made the ‘green revolution’ possible in Asia, mainly the population density found in rural areas of Asia, which helped minimize the cost of infrastructures necessary for developing productive agriculture. Byerlee, de Janvry and Sadoulet (2009) also warn against this, but conclude on a more positive note: although the context is different, the conditions are still met for agriculture to act as the 'prime motor' of development.
The debate on the role of agriculture may not be over yet, but history shows that the countries which have managed to achieve substantial economic development, or which have managed to overcome hunger, are generally those which have achieved gains in farming productivity. Investing in agriculture and rural economy, and taking care of farmers by giving them the necessary means to develop their activity, are among the essential conditions required for fighting poverty and breaking the vicious circle of under-development. This is the message of the 2012 report issued by the FAO.
The 2007-2008 global food crisis has helped re-focus development strategies (implemented by institutions, states, research bodies, etc.) on agricultural issues, beyond those solely tied to trade policies, as the crucial importance of these issues has emerged in terms of possible strategies aimed at meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals. The time when agriculture was considered an irrelevant and even contentious issue in determining development strategies, is something of the past.
The actual notion of ‘development’ in itself is something that has changed in the last fifty years. Over time, this notion has grown to involve a number of multifaceted and systemic issues. Nevertheless, these different perceptions all point to the determining role of agriculture.
It may not be the miracle solution, but there is a general consensus that agriculture can play a crucial role in fighting poverty and reducing the unequal distribution of resources. In many under-developed countries, agriculture has the real potential to promote growth, and is essential in accompanying structural transitions. It also has a key role to play in meeting two major global challenges: food security and the preservation of natural resources, mainly water, and fighting global warming and its effects.
This regain of interest for agriculture has emerged at a time when the dominant paradigm is in crisis, a paradigm which culminated with the ‘Washington Consensus’ and the implementation of its structural adjustment policies. Past failures, the abundance of economic approaches and pluridisciplinary strategies have lead to increased caution in formulating recommendations which must be adapted to the context: for instance local orientations, constraints and opportunities.
The strong mobilization of international players, which was prompted by the work carried out by the G-20, will not be weakening in the years to come: the rehabilitation of the specific role of agriculture must be integrated as part of all long-term development strategies. The fight against poverty and privation in rural areas must not be confused with emergency aid. And as such, it must involve implementing agricultural and food policies that are adapted to the context, and are part of an integrated development strategy.
1 The complete report is available by following this link (in french) : http://agriculture.gouv.fr/Document-de-travail-no-8-L