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

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: [caption id="attachment_3799" align="alignleft" width="130" caption="problem or solution?"]problem or solution?[/caption] 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.]]>

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10 Responses to “Agriculture is key to development – why I (partly) disagree with Owen Barder”
  1. Catherine Dom

    Hi Duncan
    I agree with you on both counts. Just by the way, I can see a big risk in Ethiopia at the moment (as you’ve been there recently) as the Growth and Transformation Plan can be seen as sliding towards ‘dump agric and build factories’ and is not too clear about how to make a difference for farmers and labourers after trying for so long so there also seem to be dreams about clever technology being the remedy.

  2. Nicholas Colloff

    We obviously mix with a differemt peasants (mine are much jollier) but, more seriously, I agree it may be neither a question of bailing out of agriculture and moving to the factory or waiting for the next technological fix but actually investing in rural areas in both extent and with what Americans would call ‘smarts’.
    By way of example, knowledge based sustainable agricultural ‘inputs’ (like integrated pest management, integrating aqua-culture with agri-culture) can increase yields by up to 80% and double incomes (even before you improve market access) but this is public investment intensive and requires accompanying political will on such subjects as tenure but should be done both to improve the quality of farmers lives and give them dignified choices.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more.
    Even in a highly industrialised agricultural economy like Canada, technology and the corporate control of the food production system hasn’t guaranteed income levels or a future on the land for many rural family farmers.
    A recent field day here in Manitoba presented (yet again) the advantages of an organic, biodiverse rotational crop system in terms of yields and biological pest and weed control capacity. But it’s largely falling on deaf ears.
    And that’s because the system needs to change here as well as in countries where agriculture is a less-than subsistence occupation. And until it does there won’t be an end to hunger, poverty or any other of the socio-politically charged inequalities that pervade the world in the guise of essential elements to a globalised, free market.
    Some Canadian farmers would probably argue they’re not far from subsistence themselves.

  4. Nicholas Colloff

    This is why studies of the most economically successful farmers in the United States come up with the Amish (not a lifestyle choice for everyone) – but not indebted, not subsidised, quite environmentally sound, able to keep many family members in farming (though with relatively large families have diversified into a range of small businesses), live in thriving rural areas; and, whose knowledge of farming has been incremental, neither technologically fixated nor, contrary to popular opinion, frozen and all tuned up for the dawn of ‘peak oil’!

  5. Ken Smith

    I’m not an incomes expert,don’t know about Canada and clearly in any population there is going to be a spread of incomes but I can’t believe Canadian farmers are anywhere near the bottome of the income ladder in Canada. Presumably that it somewhere where there is concrete data of income v occupation ?

  6. I’m not sure Sen’s point about famines not happening in democracies applies any more. Niger was a democracy in 2007 and had a famine, from which Mali and Burkina Faso (also democracies) suffered too. Resource scarcity is making famine more likely in some parts of the world whatever your government.

  7. JPK

    Can anyone begin a balanced debate on the merits of labor-intensive and small-scale farming activities?
    You must admit that there is hardly any choices when it comes to various kinds of agricultural jobs, especially in such small-scale operations, without first admitting the truth about the romanticisation of old-school (somewhat medieval) farming methods, notably “organic” farming methods.
    Admit also that victimhood that is not only pervasive to rural people but also to those living in urban areas who need to understand the complex questions regarding the true merits of growth skepticism. Because of the biased views that favor back-breaking methods, especially in rural work such as farming, farmers and agricultural workers suffer from fatigue – and they need medical attention before it gets worse!
    To be honest, knowledge-based sustainable inputs for farming, such as integrated pest management, integrating agriculture with aquaculture, etc., would do much for rural people in increasing the quality of their lives, as well as improving farm yields, increasing their incomes, thus giving them dignified choices. That requires BOTH the political will and public investments to make such efforts happen – perhaps there is any chance to promote, educate the public, disseminate information, trial-and-error experiments, financing of (and support for) projects, etc. (How complex they are undertaking even when suited for small-scale, labor-intensive forms of agriculture!)
    They will have to do it right for the rural people to think big even in small-scale, labor-intensive farming that need improvments because they are desparately needed to make incremental increases not only in agricultural productivity, but also in daily incomes as well, including the use of, say, a power tiller, solar lighting for farms and homes nearby, new and improved methods of farming, setting up scall-scale enterprises that not only sell mainly daily items like food products, household goods, farm implements, medicines, etc., but also proving sevices like repairs of farming implements and others (including bicycles, motorcycles, power tillers, etc.), providing expert advice on farming, animal husbandry, health care, veterinary care, bills collection mainly for phone, electricity, and water utilities, etc.
    It is time to put forward any suggestions to reveal the merits of small-scale, and labor-intensive agriculture that must be explainable to the public, but be aware that the signs of growth skepticism affecting people in rural areas around the world.
    It is time to stop the excessive politics of ideological activism and think about the consequences of romanticising the burden of back-breaking, painfully insulting, dated and, of course, snobbishly medieval ways of rural work.
    Think carefully as it is – and never, ever see such an alternate situation again in rural areas.

  8. Thanks Duncan.
    We agree, as you say, on two key points. First, that hunger today is caused not by lack of food production but by the poverty and power imbalances. Second, that it is wrong to try to romanticise the life of a peasant farmer in a developing country.
    That puts us both in quite a different place from most of the pronouncements made by international organisations and NGOs on World Food Day.
    But I still don’t agree with you that investments in agriculture are necessary to drive development, nor that we can expect food shortages in future.
    I’ve explained at more length here:
    Kind regards

  9. Claudia Bjørgum

    I totally agree with you.
    I live surrounded by farms in the epicenter of the most important Norwegian farming region I have to remind Owen that: “it is wrong to try to romanticize the life of a peasant farmer in a Scandinavian country” as well.
    Developed, developing, least developed, whatever the rank, the problem with agriculture is that it is heavy, the heaviest and the more state of art the agricultural system the better the produces and the food one get from it. It is not only quantity but quality.
    State of art agriculture, like organic farming for example, can raise productivity in a more environmental friendly and financially viable way and it definitely must be on the center of the discussion!

  10. Guilherme Lambais

    Dear Duncan, I’m an economist and researcher in Brazil, and I completely agree with your post, however this is not true for Brazil: “every peasant I have ever talked to is to help their kids get out of farming”. By the contrary, every peasant I talked to in land reform settlements they were relieved that their kids could be in agriculture and not be submitted to poverty and violence in the cities.