Category Archives: Africa

From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to offer recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a current and informed view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe).

Regarding urbanization: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am persuaded that the Charter Cities concept has a chance to evolve into an effective development tool, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!  

An explosion of mobiles in the developing world

According to a recent study, adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points

The Economist on the explosion of mobiles in the developing world.

The reason why mobile phones are so valuable to people in the poor world is that they are providing access to telecommunications for the very first time, rather than just being portable adjuncts to existing fixed-line phones, as in the rich world. “For you it was incremental—here it’s revolutionary,” says Isaac Nsereko of MTN, Africa’s biggest operator. According to a recent study, adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points.

In 2000 the developing countries accounted for around one-quarter of the world’s 700m or so mobile phones. By the beginning of 2009 their share had grown to three-quarters of a total which by then had risen to over 4 billion (see chart 1). That does not mean that 4 billion people now have mobile phones, because many in both rich and poor countries own several handsets or subscriber-identity module (SIM) cards, the tiny chips that identify a subscriber to a mobile network. Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chief executive of Ericsson, the world’s largest maker of telecoms-network gear, reckons that the actual number of people with mobile phones is closer to 3.6 billion.

(…) And Africa is the region with the fastest rate of subscriber growth. With developed markets now saturated, the developing world’s rural poor will account for most of the growth in the coming years. The total will reach 6 billion by 2013, according to the GSMA, an industry group, with half of these new users in China and India alone.

All this is transforming the telecoms industry. Within just a few years its centre of gravity has shifted from the developed to the developing countries. The biggest changes are taking place in the poorest parts of the world, such as rural Uganda.

Much more in this Economist special report: Telecoms in developing markets.

The new harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project

NewImage

Calestous Juma was Project Director and Lead Author of this Harvard Kennedy School based study. Prof. Juma has generously made the 2011 book available for download at the Belfer Center. This is a wonderful example of open research. Buy the book if you can. If not please do read the download. This is the best single book I know of to learn the framework for sound policy for the future. You can see the quality of the work that has gone into this by just scanning the International Advisory Panel and Contributing Authors which includes many of the best, e.g., Robert Paarlberg.

This is more of the good work funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  

African agriculture is currently at a crossroads, at  which persistent food shortages are compounded by threats from climate change. But, as this book argues, Africa faces three major opportunities that can transform its agriculture into a force for economic growth: advances in science and technology; the creation of regional markets; and the emergence of a new crop of entrepreneurial leaders dedicated to the continent’s economic improvement.

Filled with case studies from within Africa and success stories from developing nations around the world, The New Harvest outlines the policies and institutional changes necessary to promote agricultural innovation across the African continent. Incorporating research from academia, government, civil society, and private industry, the book suggests multiple ways that individual African countries can work together at the regional level to develop local knowledge and resources, harness technological innovation, encourage entrepreneurship, increase agricultural output, create markets, and improve infrastructure.

I’ve included this book in my category “What are you optimistic about?” because it is such a good example of science-based policy research that will make a huge difference for the continent of Africa. Will the entrenched NGOs, the EU elites, Friends of the Earth et al let change happen?

Juma, Calestous. The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, January 2011.

MIT’s Poverty Action Lab: devising cost-effective development interventions

Development economist William Easterly has demonstrated convincingly that most “foreign aid” is ineffective, and often is worse than doing nothing (increasing corruption and dependence). E.g., see Africa’s Poverty Trap and Foreign aid vs. growth: Robert Lucas and William Easterly.

But there are effective interventions – so how do we discover how cost-effective various ideas are? That is the mission of J-PAL at MIT, created by French economist Esther Duflo. J-PAL is applying randomized controlled trials (RCT) as a key input to their cost-effectiveness methodology.

For an example, the above graphic summarizes the results of their Teacher Attendance & Incentives program. I like this example because it illustrates that some of the most effective ideas are simple and cheap. In this case, providing a basic digital camera to each village school

(…) Esther Duflo, a French economics professor at MIT, wondered whether there was anything that could be done about absentee teachers in rural India, which is a large problem for remote schoolhouses with a single teacher. Duflo and her colleague Rema Hanna took a sample of 120 schools in Rajasthan, chose 60 at random, and sent cameras to teachers in the chosen schools. The cameras had tamper-proof date and time stamps, and the teachers were asked to get a pupil to photograph the teacher with the class at the beginning and the end of each school day.

It was a simple idea, and it worked. Teacher absenteeism plummeted, as measured by random audits, and the class test scores improved markedly.

 FT has an interesting profile of Dr. Duflo (if you don’t mind reading what they had for lunch).

Norman Borlaug: “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa”

While John Tierney wrote this piece in 2008, it is just as relevant in 2012. If this surprises you, then I recommend you also read Attention Whole Foods Shoppers by Robert Paarlberg.

I hope you will be persuaded to try to enlighten your “green” neighbors – that they are part of the problem, not the solution:

Farmers and consumers in poor countries are now paying the price for decisions made by well-fed Westerners, as reported by my colleagues Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin in their front-page article on cutbacks in financing for agricultural research. They explain how the Green Revolution faltered after Western governments and agencies slashed funds for agricultural research, partly to shift money to other areas, like environmental projects, and partly because of opposition to high-yield agriculture from advocacy groups.

If you find it hard to imagine how anyone could be opposed to growing more food for poor people, read Gregg Easterbrook’s 1997 Atlantic Monthly article on Norman Borlaug, the agronomist whose achievements through the Green Revolution may have saved a billion lives. Mr. Easterbrook wrote:

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the World Bank, once sponsors of his work, have recently given Borlaug the cold shoulder. Funding institutions have also cut support for the International Maize and Wheat Center — located in Mexico and known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT — where Borlaug helped to develop the high-yield, low-pesticide dwarf wheat upon which a substantial portion of the world’s population now depends for sustenance. And though Borlaug’s achievements are arguably the greatest that Ford or Rockefeller has ever funded, both foundations have retreated from the last effort of Borlaug’s long life: the attempt to bring high-yield agriculture to Africa.

Pressure from environmentalists was the chief reason for these cutbacks, Mr. Easterbrook reported:

[By]the 1980s finding fault with high-yield agriculture had become fashionable. Environmentalists began to tell the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Western governments that high-yield techniques would despoil the developing world. As Borlaug turned his attention to high-yield projects for Africa, where mass starvation still seemed a plausible threat, some green organizations became determined to stop him there. “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa,” says David Seckler, the director of the International Irrigation Management Institute.

Environmental lobbyists persuaded the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to back off from most African agriculture projects. The Rockefeller Foundation largely backed away too — though it might have in any case, because it was shifting toward an emphasis on biotechnological agricultural research. “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa,” Borlaug says. The green parties of Western Europe persuaded most of their governments to stop supplying fertilizer to Africa; an exception was Norway, which has a large crown corporation that makes fertilizer and avidly promotes its use. Borlaug, once an honored presence at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, became, he says, “a tar baby to them politically, because all the ideas the greenies couldn’t stand were sticking to me.”

Dr. Borlaug didn’t disguise his anger in summarizing his feelings about greens to Mr. Easterbrook:

“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

(…)UPDATE: 

My colleague Andy Revkin notes parallels in financing for energy as well as agricultural research: short-sightedness seems to reign.

 Continue reading John Tierney.

Doubling Global Food Supply by Engineering Food for All

Regarding food supply and demand: in the next forty years the global demand for food will double. We are already utilizing 35% of the planet’s ice-free land area for agriculture, an area 60 times that of all cities and suburbs. The supply to balance that demand doubling needs to be achieved at affordable prices, on a per calorie basis, using less land, less water, less nitrogen runoff, less pesticide and a smaller carbon footprint.

In a new op-ed at the New York Times, Pennsylvania State University biology professor Nina V. Fedoroff explains how we can do this:

FOOD prices are at record highs and the ranks of the hungry are swelling once again. A warming climate is beginning to nibble at crop yields worldwide. The United Nations predicts that there will be one to three billion more people to feed by midcentury.

Yet even as the Obama administration says it wants to stimulate innovation by eliminating unnecessary regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to require even more data on genetically modified crops, which have been improved using technology with great promise and a track record of safety. The process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation.

Civilization depends on our expanding ability to produce food efficiently, which has markedly accelerated thanks to science and technology. The use of chemicals for fertilization and for pest and disease control, the induction of beneficial mutations in plants with chemicals or radiation to improve yields, and the mechanization of agriculture have all increased the amount of food that can be grown on each acre of land by as much as 10 times in the last 100 years.

These extraordinary increases must be doubled by 2050 if we are to continue to feed an expanding population. As people around the world become more affluent, they are demanding diets richer in animal protein, which will require ever more robust feed crop yields to sustain.

New molecular methods that add or modify genes can protect plants from diseases and pests and improve crops in ways that are both more environmentally benign and beyond the capability of older methods. This is because the gene modifications are crafted based on knowledge of what genes do, in contrast to the shotgun approach of traditional breeding or using chemicals or radiation to induce mutations. The results have been spectacular.

For example, genetically modified crops containing an extra gene that confers resistance to certain insects require much less pesticide. This is good for the environment because toxic pesticides decrease the supply of food for birds and run off the land to poison rivers, lakes and oceans.

The rapid adoption of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant soybeans has made it easier for farmers to park their plows and forgo tilling for weed control. No-till farming is more sustainable and environmentally benign because it decreases soil erosion and shrinks agriculture’s carbon footprint.

In 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres. Of the 15.4 million farmers growing these crops, 90 percent are poor, with small operations. The reason farmers turn to genetically modified crops is simple: yields increase and costs decrease.

Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.

Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government’s three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Decades ago, when molecular approaches to plant improvement were relatively new, there was some rationale for a cautious approach.

But now the evidence is in. These crop modification methods are not dangerous. The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the past 25 years. Its recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods. Serious scientific bodies that have analyzed the issue, including the National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society, have come to the same conclusion.

It is time to relieve the regulatory burden slowing down the development of genetically modified crops. The three United States regulatory agencies need to develop a single set of requirements and focus solely on the hazards — if any — posed by new traits.

And above all, the government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm.

Professor Fedoroff was president of the AAAS when she wrote this.

The evidence from developing countries already shows us that doubling of demand will include increased demand for meat (which requires more land and water than grain calories). So please tell me how we are going to achieve this revolution in agricultural productivity without utilizing all the available science and innovation? Must we continue hobbled like children in a sack rack?

Scientists design malaria-resistant GM mosquito

Here’s some good news via David Tribe:

Scientists have developed a model for a genetically modified (GM) mosquito, which produces malaria-eliminating antibodies and is unable to transmit the parasite to humans by biting, potentially making it a viable alternative to a malaria vaccine.The modified Anopheles stephensi mosquito — one of 30–40 mosquito species that commonly transmit malaria — releases antibodies that either kill or stall the development of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite which causes the most severe form of malaria in humans.”This is the first model of a malaria vector with a genetic modification that can potentially exist in wild populations and be transferred through generations without affecting their fitness,” Anthony James, lead author on the study and professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of California Irvine (UCI) in the United States, told Wired magazine.

The study, which has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was carried out by researchers at UCI and the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. (snip) Link to the article in Wired.co.uk

Link to the full article in PNAS

Africa Needs Aid, Not Flawed Theories

Bill Gates applauds the historical narrative, but doesn’t like the Rational Optimist’s views on aid to Africa. I agree with Bill’s points on aid for health care, and climate change. Bill doesn’t address Ridley’s case against general economic aid, where I think William Easterly has successfully demonstrated that the primary effect is to enrich the political elites and delay the day that they are forced to gain the “consent of the governed”. Excerpt:

The second key idea in the book is, of course, “rational optimism.” As Mr. Ridley shows, there have been constant predictions of a bleak future throughout human history, but they haven’t come true. Our lives have improved dramatically—in terms of lifespan, nutrition, literacy, wealth and other measures—and he believes that the trend will continue. Too often this overwhelming success has been ignored in favor of dire predictions about threats like overpopulation or cancer, and Mr. Ridley deserves credit for confronting this pessimistic outlook.

Having shown that many past fears were ultimately unjustified, Mr. Ridley finally turns his “rational optimism” to two current problems whose seriousness, in his view, is greatly overblown: development in Africa and climate change. Here, in discussing complex matters where his expertise is not very deep, he gets into trouble.

Mr. Ridley spends 14 pages saying that everything will be just fine in Africa without our worrying about negative possibilities. This is unfortunate and misguided. Is his optimism justified because things always just happen to work out? Or do good results depend partly on our caring and taking action to prevent and solve problems? These are important questions, and he doesn’t answer them.

(…) Mr. Ridley devotes his attention to just two present-day problems, development in Africa and climate change, and seems to conclude, “Don’t worry, be happy.” My prescription would be, “Worry about fewer things while understanding the lessons of the past, including lessons about the importance of innovation.” This might qualify me as a rational optimist, depending on how stringent the criteria are. But there can be no doubt that excessive pessimism may cause problems with how society plans for the future. Mr. Ridley’s book should trigger in-depth discussions on this important subject.

Why Africa Is Poor and What Africans Can Do about It

Cato recently held a book launch for South African development expert Greg Mills (you can pre-order at Amazon). This is a very smart book by a man who has spent his professional life in the thick of the problem (bad governments making bad policy choices).

Economic growth does not require a secret formula. While countries from Asia to Latin America have emerged from poverty, Africa has failed to realize its potential in the 50 years since independence. Greg Mills, the former director of the South African Institute of International Affairs and one of South Africa’s most respected commentators, confronts the myths surrounding African development. He shows that African poverty was not caused by poor infrastructure, lack of market access or insufficient financial resources. Instead, the main reason Africans are poor is because their leaders have made bad policy choices. Please join us to hear why a growing number of African opinion makers and ordinary citizens believe that to emerge from poverty, Africa must embrace a far greater degree of political and economic freedom.

I recommend the podcast of the event (download MP3). Excellent comments by Marian L. Tupy, a policy analyst with the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

One of my favorite development economists wrote the lead blurb

“Poverty is now optional” is Greg Mills’ invigorating message’, Paul Collier, Oxford University, Author of The Bottom Billion and The Plundered Planet

African poverty has been optional for fifty years — just keep in mind that the African elites do just fine under the status quo. And so do the NGOs, who effectively get a commission cut of the western aid budgets (as does the consulting industry housed around the DC beltway).

Good job Cato! Now, if we can just inject some sanity into the NGOs and OECD aid agencies. The billowing aid continues to insulate the African leaders from the consequences of their policies (and of course insulates them from their own populations).

On aid, I was pleased to hear Greg Mills respond to questions, with, paraphrasing:

Obama said his Africa policy was to “double the aid”. In fact that is a clear signal that there is no Africa policy. An effective, Africa policy is far more nuanced and complex than “double the aid”. What is the point of aid if you do not have tools for measuring the effectiveness of that aid?

While we are at it, let’s measure the effective of NGOs! I would be perfectly happy to have the organization that I run measured. Also, measure the effectiveness of consultants.

(…) The average age of African leaders is 75. The average age of Africans is 25. The numbers for Europe are about 55, 45. I am stupified by how passive African electorates are. How long would Robert Mugabe have lasted in Serbia?

Greg Mills emphasized that Africa’s demographics are a powerful positive force for economic development. Africa is rapidly becoming urbanized; by 2020 fifty cities of over one million population. (I think Africa today is about 40% urban). One clear benefit of the urban trend is it incentivizes agricultural productivity. The subsistence lifestyle so dear to the NGOs is finally going to be swept away. My guess is that the dreaded GMO crops will finally be grown seriously in Africa.

And in about the same time frame, one-quarter of the world population of “young people” under age 25 will be in Africa. They expect what they can see in the developed world – the affordable electricity, the communications, the computers, the autos. An African policy will be focused on ensuring those wants are satisfied rapidly by economic growth (jobs). If those expectations are not met…

Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor

(…) The United States, Western Europe, Japan, all countries in developed parts of the world that have significant hydro potential, have used more than 80 percent of that potential. In Africa, they’ve used 3 percent.

So you have countries like Norway and Switzerland and others that have developed 90 percent of their hydro potential, then sitting on the boards of their aid agencies and the World Bank and they say to Ethiopia, “We don’t like dams. We don’t like hydropower. You can’t have it. We won’t support it.” This is done in the name of environmental concern and it’s deeply, deeply resented by these countries.

(…) In my view, there’s a deep problem with the aid business. You read the UN Millenium Development Goals and in my view they put the social cart before the economic horse. They are all about social outcomes, but nothing on the economy that’s produced those outcomes, so infrastructure doesn’t figure, agriculture doesn’t figure. These global solutions are driven by rich countries and rock stars and just sort of run from fashion to fashion.

Marc Gunther interviews Harvard development expert John Briscoe.

(…) John, who was trained as a civil and environmental engineer, has worked as an engineer in the water agencies of South Africa and Mozambique; as an epidemiologist at the Cholera Research Laboratory in Bangladesh; as a professor of water resources at the University of North Carolina; and, for the past 20 years in a variety of policy and operational positions in the World Bank. Most recently he has served as the Bank’s Senior Water Advisor and the Country Director for Brazil. John is now a professor of environmental engineering at Harvard.

This is a terrific interview — I learned several things about water resources. Unfortunately, the rich country “environmentalists” don’t like dams, or GMO. Here’s an excerpt on Brazil and the 2008 food crisis:

(…)

JB: Yes. I think the energy, water, and food—this is a bad metaphor–but they are three sides of the same coin. You can hardly deal with one without the others. They all are interrelated.

Here there’s an extremely worrying situation. Look back to the 1960s and the success of the Green Revolution. People were saying that poor countries like Bangladesh could never feed their people. We now have India, Bangladesh, all these places, essentially, self sufficient in food production. We had in the 1960s and 1970s a yield growth of 3 to 4 percent a year. This was just incredible and had huge positive impacts. Even today, food prices are less than half than what they were in 1960 in real terms. So, this has been, in my view, one of the greatest achievements of science, contributing to the well-being of billions of people.

MG: But those gains are petering out, correct?

JB: Essentially, yes. Because the scientific ingredients of the Green Revolution have largely run their course, we now have yield improvements of half a percent and one percent, with large growing populations. and markets are becoming very, very thin. When there is some disturbance, the market tips and we food crises as in 2008.

Let me give an example: I lived in Brazil for the last three years. Brazil has had an amazingly positive experience. The value of agricultural output in Brazil today is three times what is was 35 years ago and Brazil is an agricultural superpower, one of the biggest producers of bio-fuels, of soy beans, meat, fruits, etc.

It turns out that of that 300 percent increase in production, 90 percent is attributable to productivity increases. Only 10 percent of that increase is accounted for by increases in input of land, labor, and capital. Most it comes from being much smarter. This is because Brazil over this period – even through hyper-inflation, through economic crises — never stopped investing massively in agricultural research. So they have today, without anybody being a close second, a research establishment on tropical agriculture that is by far the best in the world. They’ve seen enormous returns on investment in agricultural research.

Strikingly, look at that same period and see what the development agencies, including the World Bank, did in agriculture. In 1975, about 20 percent of development assistance went to agriculture because it was, in my view, correctly perceived that agriculture was one of the bedrocks on which countries developed. By 2008, agriculture had slipped from 20 percent to around 3 percent of official development assistance.

Why? Like all things, it’s complex. One contributor was that there was a lot of opposition to modern agriculture from green groups, environmental groups and others who don’t like irrigation and large scale agriculture, just as there was opposition to large-scale infrastructure. There was also a sense that the private sector would take care of this. The private sector, of course, does do quite a bit with agricultural research, but there is an enormous role for the public sector as well.

So, we get to 2008 and I was actually in Brazil when the food crisis struck. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development — a twenty million dollar project done by the World Bank and 17 other partners – then came out telling us why the Brazilian approach (heavily scientific, large scale, and technologically sophisticated) was the wrong way to go and that the right way was small, beautiful and organic. And the Minister of Agriculture of Brazil quite rightly tore me to pieces and said, “This is bizarre….”

(…) Fortunately, I think what is very good in the international scene is the rise of the middle income countries, like China, India and Brazil. They are much closer to the issues of poverty, much more pragmatic, much less ideological and bring much more common sense to the discussion.

Bizarre indeed. Thanks Marc — an important interview for everyone to read.