The future of Agriculture: useful teaching resource/briefing on current debates

August 20, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

If you’re looking for a teaching resource on current debates on agriculture and development, take a look at ‘The Future of Agriculture’, a rather goodFuture of Agsynthesis of a two week online debate hosted by Oxfam last December. The paper, written by Maya Manzi and Gine Zwart, has a 10 page summary of the 23 posts and comments from some 300 participants, followed by 60 pages of the posts themselves, with authors from a good spread of disciplines and countries.

The essayists were asked to discuss one of the following:

What if all farmers had adequate risk management systems to deal with climate trends and shocks, as well as with price volatility in input and product markets?

What if fossil fuels were no longer required in any form of input to global agricultural production?

What if all farmers, male and female, had full and equal control over the necessary resources for farming, and over the outputs of their labor?

What if the ideas and innovations of resource-poor farmers leading to improvements of their natural resource base were supported by adequate access to public and private sector investments?

The summary has sections on:

Risk: lots of support for an enhanced role of the state, but also for exploring a wide range of insurance mechanisms

Fossil Fuel dependence: big spread of opinion about the extent to which we can wean ourselves off FFs while still feeding the planet. The section also touches on GM and Biofuels.

Power and control: As you would expect, a strong element of the debate was that this is not a technical issue, but intimately bound up with power and politics, both at national and household levels (eg via gender inequality). Big emphasis on land reform and producer organization as ways to correct power imbalances.

Investment for innovation: debates on private v public in sources of R&D investment, but also strong arguments for changing our thinking to put more value on local agricultural knowledge systems, rather than men in white coats.

Brazil combine harvester balletAnd the conclusion?

“The online debate showed how difficult it is to think out of the box, and to come up with radical or new thinking. Virtually all of the ideas and solutions put forward were seen to be within reach, lacking only [only?] the political will for implementation.

Only very few people said that a choice is inevitable between the two opposing models of agriculture: permaculture/organic, and oil/chemical dependent. At the same time many contributors suggested that current policies and politics favour the latter. And there was general agreement that multi-pronged approaches are needed, with much more attention paid to the potential of agro-ecological, bio-diverse systems to address problems related to climate change, resource scarcity and fossil fuel dependency.

The labour-intensive agriculture practiced by the estimated 1.5 to 2 billion people currently living in rural food-producing households was seen by many, not as a cause of hunger and poverty, but rather a vehicle for escaping those scourges – if invested in properly. Agriculture is the only sector that can usefully absorb a large labour force. Several referred to the fact that in many developing countries small-scale producers are the largest source of investment in agriculture, biodiversity, and related knowledge systems. Too often, however, government policies marginalize them, or create incentives geared to supporting commercial investments that compete with, or displace these small-scale producers. There is no denying that enormous capital flows and practices of both private and public institutions are geared towards industrial-scale production. This debate has shown that redressing this imbalance is a critical challenge for all stakeholders.”

August 20, 2013
Duncan Green