Economic Development

Today's announcement by President Obama and the other G-8 leaders of a $20 billion three-year investment in developing country agriculture marks a historic shift that merits widespread applause 

Chris Barrett: The G8 Food Security Initiative – A Welcome Step

July 21, 2009

Economic Development

Today's announcement by President Obama and the other G-8 leaders of a $20 billion three-year investment in developing country agriculture marks a historic shift that merits widespread applause.

barrett2-110x155.jpgChris Barrett, CCSF Associate Director - Economic Development

Throughout world history, agricultural productivity growth and more efficient, inclusive food distribution systems have been the primary engines of economic growth, poverty reduction and improved human health in North America, Europe and East Asia.

But following the successes of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the world grew complacent about the threat of hunger and the need to invest in developing country agriculture. As a result, global agricultural research fell sharply over a quarter century, yield growth rates slowed and global stocks of cereals declined, leading to last year’s price spikes. The problem has been most acute in the poorest countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where yield gaps are highest, markets perform poorly, and the humanitarian consequences of underperforming agricultural systems are catastrophic. Last year’s global food crisis awakened world leaders to the need for renewed commitment to agriculture in charting a sustainable path out of chronic poverty for the one billion people who live a dollar a day or less.

Three-quarters of the world’s poor depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Agriculture affects the rest of the poor too, because food is the single biggest expenditure they face. Poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, and low educational attainment and agricultural productivity are self-reinforcing processes. Research shows that agricultural productivity growth is the key to escaping this trap. The World Bank estimates that economic growth from agriculture generates three times more poverty reduction than does growth in any other sector.

Poverty reduction turns increasing the productivity of the poor’s labor, land and livestock. This demands technological advances that increase sustainable yields and institutional improvements that increase the returns on each unit the poor produce. It also requires fostering conditions that encourage the poor to invest in assets on which their and their children’s productivity depends. Secure property rights, good governance, sound financial systems, reliable risk management options, and adequate physical and institutional infrastructure to facilitate commerce are essential if farmers are to take up promising new technologies, enter remunerative markets, invest in their futures and permanently escape poverty.

A longer-term perspective is needed than has prevailed these past few decades. The G-8 announcement explicitly recognizes that food aid is necessary to relieve unnecessary human suffering, but it’s a short-term palliative, not a long-term solution. Natural and manmade disasters will, unfortunately, continue to throw millions into sudden food insecurity each year. The global humanitarian response system can meet such emergency needs with food aid and other assistance as and where it is needed. But the world must cease relying on food aid as if it were an effective tool to address underlying causes of poverty and hunger.

The other key dimension of a long-term perspective concerns the sustainability of productivity growth in developing country agriculture. We must steward natural resources carefully. The developing world needs what Sir Gordon Conway has called “a doubly green revolution,” based on rigorous scientific experimentation to develop the range of technologies, institutional arrangements and policies appropriate to the highly varied agroecological conditions in which an unacceptably large share of humanity finds itself trapped in persistent poverty. Increased attention must be explicitly paid to improving water access and management for poor farmers and to conserving and rehabilitating valuable soils required for improved seeds to deliver on their promise.

It is more than coincidental that the G-8 launched this initiative simultaneously with a resolution on redoubling efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The two are natural complements. If we don’t get developing country agriculture moving, population and income growth will compel farmers to clear vast swaths of tropical forests, aggravating greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating anthropogenic climate change. And the consequences of climate change are expected to hit the rural poor in developing countries especially hard.

As Secretary of State Clinton said last month, “The question is not whether we can end hunger, it’s whether we will.” The G-8 announcement of a developing country food security fund is a welcome step in that direction.