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Are roads good for farmers or is research best? FAO’s annual measures both apples and oranges

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The FAO’s annual State of Food Agriculture in 2012 is called ‘investing in agriculture for a better future’. As the FAO’s premier ‘flagship’ report for the year, it is dense, is heavy with agri-oriented macro-economics, and is equally heavy with data and unabridged explanations of the roles of public investment and measures of agricultural productivity.

This is only a very fleeting sampling of the content of this year’s SOFA (as it is rather irreverently abbreviated into, both within FAO and outside it) and here I have picked out some thought-provoking material from the chapter on ‘channelling public investment towards higher returns’. [The State of Food and Agriculture main page is here. For those in a hurry there is an executive summary. The full report [pdf] can be found here.]

The magnitudes in the left panel are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of the value of agricultural production or productivity expressed in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Uganda. The magnitudes in the right panel are the reductions in the population size of the poor per monetary unit spent in each area of spending. The respective monetary units are: one million rupees in India; 10,000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes in the left panel are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of the value of agricultural production or productivity expressed in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Uganda. The magnitudes in the right panel are the reductions in the population size of the poor per monetary unit spent in each area of spending. The respective monetary units are: one million rupees in India; 10,000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

Country studies in several regions have found – said SOFA 2012 – positive relationships between government expenditure on agriculture and growth in agricultural and total GDP, while confirming that the type of expenditure matters. “In Rwanda,” said SOFA, “1 dollar of additional government expenditures on agricultural research increases agricultural GDP by 3 dollars, but the effects were larger for staples such as maize, cassava, pulses and poultry than for export crops. In India, expenditures aimed at improving productivity in livestock had greater returns and were more effective in mitigating poverty than general public investment in agriculture.”

The magnitudes are the reductions in the number of poor people per monetary unit spent in each area of expenditure. The respective monetary units are: one million baht in Thailand (i.e. reduction of number of poor people per one million baht spent in different sectors); one million rupees in India; 10 000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes are the reductions in the number of poor people per monetary unit spent in each area of expenditure. The respective monetary units are: one million baht in Thailand (i.e. reduction of number of poor people per one million baht spent in different sectors); one million rupees in India; 10 000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The FAO report quotes from and refers to substantial literature on public investment in agricultural research and development, which SOFA 2012 shows has been one of the most effective forms of public investment over the past 40 years. The FAO’s prescription (or should it be direction?) is that because R&D drives technical change and productivity growth in agriculture, it raises farm incomes and reduces prices for consumers. I do think bits like this (which do tend to litter recent SOFAs) ought to be balanced by other views from FAO’s abundant research on ‘technical change’ and ‘productivity growth’, concepts that for the majority of small cultivators and for the majority of poor consumers of food mean more varieties of processed food from a shrinking variety of cereals being made available at higher prices.

Regrettably, the FAO burbles on about how “the benefits multiply throughout the economy as the extra income is used to purchase other goods and services, which in turn create incomes for their providers”, and about how “the welfare effects are large and diffuse, benefiting many people who are far removed from agriculture, so they are not always recognised as stemming directly from agricultural research”.

Surely, a tome as magisterial as the SOFA is meant to be needn’t grasp at such emblematic straws? For most smallholder cultivating households, the portion of agricultural income in total household income varies widely, and varies within a year between seasons. It is in my view therefore quite impossible to speak of benefits multiplying throughout the economy and of immeasurable but present welfare effects. How and for who, a SOFA should tell us, but this one does not.

The SOFA 2012 has added that “after agricultural R&D, the ranking of returns to other investment areas differs by country, suggesting that public investment priorities depend on local conditions, but rural infrastructure and road development are often ranked among the top sources of overall economic growth in rural areas”. Yes indeed they are, and I can say from experience in India that a better road (not a ‘good’ road, which is hard to find especially once a couple of monsoon months have had their way with roads) does local ‘mandis’ (farmers’ markets) much good.

The magnitudes are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of increased agricultural production or productivity measured in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Thailand and Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of increased agricultural production or productivity measured in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Thailand and Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

“In Ethiopia, said the SOFA, access to all-weather roads reduced poverty by 6.9 percent and increased consumption growth by 16.3 percent. Returns to public investment in road infrastructure in Ethiopia were by far the highest of all categories. In Uganda, the marginal returns to public spending on feeder roads on agriculture output and poverty reduction was three to four times larger than the returns to public spending on larger roads.”

Well, yes and no is my view. Roads are used for non-agricultural purposes too, and tend more often than not to ‘open up’ (for better or worse) land use options along their length. If the incomes of agriculturally-dependent households became more varied because of family members being able to use new roads to find new wage opportunities (not necessarily agriculture-related) then how is one to apportion the additional benefit between being able to cart crop produce with less trouble than earlier, and between making use of a new informal labour transportation option that brings in extra wage earnings?

“Public goods in rural areas also tend to be complementary,” said SOFA 2012. In general yes, I agree. But then the SOFA cues the industrial-speak. “For example, in Bangladesh, villages with better infrastructure benefited more from agricultural research than villages with poorer infrastructure; they used more irrigation, improved seed and fertiliser, paid lower fertiliser prices, earned higher wages and had significantly higher production increases”.

This is an over-optimistic way of putting matters, and analogously, urban households that have access to a faster broadband service ‘benefit’ more from e-governance than households still using dial-up modems – but is there a demonstrable link to better or lower income? Moreover, ‘more’ and ‘better’ and ‘improved’ really is the language of industrial agriculture (and I can’t see lower fertiliser prices having been any more than a blip, certainly not a lasting condition).

The FAO’s SOFAs are always exceedingly valuable volumes, and provide much that sharpens our knowledge about food and agriculture, and they certainly widen our views about factors that can convincingly be linked with others which were hitherto ignored (or not attempted because of a lack of data). There is however to FAO first and to its many hundreds of thousands of ‘dependents’ (self included) next, the danger of following too enthusiastically (and uncritically) the ‘growth is good’ and hence more ‘growth is better’ train of advice. No doubt SOFA 2012 has passages that are likely more judicious, and we will examine these over the next few months.

Hot potatoes from Farmer Obama

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Pair of bullock carts on the Allahabad-Delhi highway

Pair of bullock carts on the Allahabad-Delhi highway

The government of the USA has planned for India to become an important consumer of US agricultural exports and of US crop science. India is also planned as a host country for an agricultural research agenda directed by American crop-seed-biotech corporations. This is to be achieved through a variety of programmes in India, some of which began their preparation two years ago.

This agenda, labelled US-India cooperation by India’s current UPA-2 government and by the USA’s current Barack Obama administration, has the support of the American farm sector as its aim, not the support of India’s farmers and cultivators. The clear and blunt objective is to increase US agricultural exports and to widen as quickly as possible the trade surplus of the US agricultural sector.

This agenda has become clear following the three business and industry meetings held during the visit of US President Barack Obama — the ‘US-India Business and Entrepreneurship Summit’ in Mumbai on November 6, the ‘India-US: An Agenda for Co-Creation’ with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in New Delhi on  November 8, and the ‘US-India Conclave: Partnership for Innovation, Imperative for Growth and Employment in both Economies’ with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in New Delhi on November 9.

The US agri-business view has been projected in India by the US-India Business Council, a business advocacy group representing American companies investing in India together with Indian companies, with the shared aim of deepening trade and strengthening commercial ties.

A vendor of sweet lime juice and his cart, Mumbai

A vendor of sweet lime juice and his cart, Mumbai

In a document titled ‘Partners in Prosperity, Business Leading the Way, Advancing the US-India commercial agenda as the foundation for strategic partnership’ (November 2010) the business council stated: “India requires an ‘Ever-Green Revolution’ — a new programme which would engage the country’s rural sector, providing water utilisation and crop management ‘best practices’ to promote greater food security — this time based on technology to increase efficiency and productivity. The effort to vitalise India’s agriculture sector should be driven by business, and the first step is improving India’s farm-to-market global supply chain.”

This business-driven trade in agricultural goods and services was given formal shape two months ago during the inaugural meeting of what is called the India-US Agriculture Dialogue, on September 13-14, 2010 in New Delhi. India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and USA’s Under Secretary (Energy, Economic and Agricultural Affairs) in the US State Department, Robert Hormats, co-chaired the ‘Dialogue’. Under this agreement India and the USA have set up three working groups for: ‘strategic cooperation in agriculture and food security’, ‘food processing, agriculture extension, farm-to-market linkages’, and ‘weather and crop forecasting’.

A hamlet off the Grand Trunk Road, Uttar Pradesh

A hamlet off the Grand Trunk Road, Uttar Pradesh

The ‘Agriculture Dialogue’ is designed to be the implementing process for the India-US Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation in Agriculture and Food Security, signed almost a year ago by Obama and Singh. On November 24, 2009 they had agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding on Agricultural Cooperation and Food Security that will, according to the US State department, “set a pathway to robust cooperation between the governments in crop forecasting, management and market information; regional and global food security; science, technology, and education; nutrition; and expanding private sector investment in agriculture”.

‘Agriculture Dialogue’ is the new name given to a US-India plan for trade and investment in agriculture which saw its genesis on July 18, 2005, when Singh and then US President George W Bush announced the ‘US–India Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education, Teaching, Research, Service, and Commercial Linkages (AKI)’. At the time, apart from officials from government on both sides representing agriculture and crop bureaucracies, Indian and American universities and the private sector were on the AKI board.

The Indian agri universities were the Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Pantnagar, Uttaranchal), the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh). India’s private sector was represented by Venkateshwara Hatcheries Ltd, Masani Farms (its owner was a National Horticultural Board director), ITC Ltd’s Agribusiness chief executive and Wal-Mart India. The American private sector was represented by Archer Daniels Midland Company and Monsanto.

Infochange India, which provides news and analysis on development news and social justice in India, has carried the rest of my article on the Obama visit to India here.

Poverty, low carbon, Transition and history

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UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

Energy Bulletin, which is a project of the Post Carbon Institute, has just published my article on the Transition movement and poverty (in the South, Asian and African). I have raised some questions and perspectives about this aspect of the Transition movement which has intrigued me for some time.

It also has to do with knowing the perspective from Europe – which sadly has too often been coloured by a “we know best how to help you” approach. That’s led to all sorts of inter-cultural problems and the last thing I want to see is for Transition ideas to be looked at with suspicion in the South because of historic blunders on aid and ‘dev-econ’.

The full article is available on Energy Bulletin. Here is the intro:

Serious traders see the trends before anyone else. They do so because their business depends on seeing the minute deviation that signals the beginning of a trend. Early in June 2010 commodities traders charted the new signals they were getting from the world’s agricultural exporters and major consumers. What they saw then became the picture that in late July began to alarm governments and international development agencies. World foodgrain supplies were entering a new phase of tightening, as the impacts of drought and extreme weather in grain producing countries around the world became clear.

For the trading community – whose strong and deep links with the world’s financial markets and banks have become more visible since 2008 – the opportunity is large, perhaps even bigger than the one that slowly unfolded in 2007, when the last global food price crisis swept through cities and villages alike. For inter-governmental agencies such as the United Nations system, the news is a body blow to the idea and effort that has sustained work on social justice and equality.

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

The effects of the 2007-08 food price crisis were still being unravelled when the 2009 financial crisis took hold. That prompted many UN agencies, major aid organisations and hundreds of large NGOs to quickly study the impact of both on their work, and on those whom they work for, which is the poor and marginalised on all continents. Much less visible and quite unrecognised is the impact of the same two crises on the small but philosophically very sound transition movement. Guided by tenets that became clear in the 1960s and 1970s, this constellation of movements (low carbon, sustainable communities, local resilience being some variations readily recognisable in the ‘west’) has adapted practices central to all ur-rural settlements, and continues to internalise the collected wisdom and practice of the world’s indigenous peoples. In so doing, the transition movement in the ‘west’ (and therefore North) has for the most part been unable to conceptualise a response to the human development and social justice needs of the South.

Much of this lack, as I see it, has to do with the very formidable inertness which western societies inherited from the transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the apparently incontrovertible ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, which by the time the Bretton Woods institutions came into being were well suited to form the core of a ‘development economics’ that has wrought havoc on both North and South, although in different periods of the 20th century. Transition ideas and praxis have had to therefore first wage an intellectual battle against ‘development economics’ and then launch a physical struggle against the socio-ecological degradation that followed such economics on the ground.

What we do know is that rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little. Here are a few points that help explain why the MDGs assessment is crippled by its reluctance to face facts:

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished – their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements – not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. The US$1.25 a day line (which can be replaced by any currency unit at any ruling amount) does not describe a poverty threshold. At best it provides a measure of one marker out of many for poverty, and even that marker needs to be localised for it to have community meaning. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa – correlated with poverty – most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

2. The percentage of chronically hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for years even though the number of hungry worldwide has barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these years of slow gains, and now the gathering 2010-11 food crisis (a shortage of availability coupled with price rise) will further reverse the gains.

There is another linkage, that of population. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and could plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall production of food has meant that the fairly weighted global average of available calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water and energy, is not (which is exactly where transition concepts and praxis come in).

3. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares – mostly from South America and Africa – without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.