Agriculture is key to development – why I (partly) disagree with Owen Barder

October 18, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

World Food DayIt was World Food Day on Saturday, in case you missed it, and Owen Barder had a typically thought-provoking reflection on the links between agriculture and development. He starts off by quoting Amartya Sen’s words from 30 years ago, “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat” and the subsequent much-quoted passage from Development as Freedom. “It is not surprising that no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”

Owen then laments that the current debate has forgotten these insights:

“We still talk about hunger as if it were, at heart, a problem of food production. (For example, see these remarks yesterday by the Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, calling for a 70% increase in food production). When we understand that hunger is a problem of poverty, the policy options look quite different.”

Owen acknowledges that three quarters of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but disagrees with the ‘story of the agricultural lobby’, which he summarizes as:

“The fact that the majority of the world’s poor work in agriculture means that the best way to improve the incomes of the poor, and so reduce hunger, is to increase agricultural productivity. More adventurously they claim that more effective agriculture can drive the whole process of development, by increasing farm incomes, leading to rising savings and investment and so kick-starting industrialisation.”

Owen believes “This is a plausible story, but it is not as persuasive as the alternative interpretation of the high correlation between poverty and agriculture: the fact that most poor people work in agriculture suggests that the best way to escape poverty is to get out of agriculture. If this second view is right, if you want to tackle hunger, reduce poverty, and improve food production you should focus your investment on more rapid industrialisation and job creation, not better farming. I am not against investing in agriculture. Better access to existing technologies, and the development of some new technologies, could make a big difference to the lives of farmers in developing countries.  But I am against promoting the romantic idea of happy peasant farmers. Farming in developing countries is an unremitting, unrewarding life and it is likely to stay that way for many generations until industrialisation pushes up farm incomes.  And we should not accept uncritically the claim that agricultural productivity is an especially important driver of poverty reduction and industrialisation.”

I think he’s half right – power and inequality explain why a billion people will go to bed hungry tonight; peasant romantics (especially urban ones) are very annoying and the goal of almos every peasant I have ever talked to is to help their kids get out of farming. But I think he’s wrong in at least two important respects:

problem or solution?

problem or solution?

Firstly, the ‘springboard argument’, namely that countries need to increase productivity in agriculture so that they can then transfer the surplus into industrialization, has a lot more historical foundation than Owen’s ‘just dump agriculture and start building factories’ version. As the FAO notes, “Growth originating in agriculture, in particular the smallholder sector, is at least twice as effective in benefiting the poorest as growth from non-agriculture sectors.” See also Ha-Joon Chang’s excellent paper on the history of farm policy in take-off countries such as Vietnam and Chile.

Secondly, Owen assumes that nothing has changed since the 1970s to qualify Amartya Sen’s argument. Yet resource constraints resulting from climate change, population Beddington slidegrowth, water stress, declining soil fertility and the slowing down of the yield improvements that characterized those earlier times means that while access and distribution will remain crucial, the ability even to produce enough food for the 9 billion people that the world will hold by mid Century is far from certain (see John Beddington slide on the challenges ahead).

The point here (and I imagine Owen would agree on this one), is that the way the world tries to feed the nine billion is crucial. A technological magic bullet route that ignores small farmers and farm labourers in favour of large high tech solutions wil drive up poverty and inequality, whereas a focus on labour intensive and small scale agriculture will boost incomes for the poor, help ensure their families are educated and well nourished, and (should they so wish) enable them in due course to leave for the cities as a matter of dignified choice, rather than as an act of desperation. So development advocates face a ‘polar bear moment’. Just as we have spent the past few years making the case that climate change is about people, not just polar bears, so we now have to argue that meeting the food production challenge is about poor people, especially farmers and labourers, not just clever technology.

October 18, 2010
Duncan Green