Reaping the Benefits of Agricultural R&D
A DISCUSSION OFRekindling the Slow Magic of Agricultural R&D
In “Rekindling the Slow Magic of Agricultural R&D” (Issues, May 3, 2021), Julian M. Alston, Philip G. Pardey, and Xudong Rao focus on a critical issue: the decline in funding of agricultural research and development for the developing world. I believe, however, that they give too much credit to the public response to COVID-19. An equally proactive response to the climate crisis or the crisis of agricultural production/food security would in the end save more lives. That said, there are two further issues to note.
First, despite the scientific and long-term human importance of the Green Revolution, the experience taught us a great deal about the potential negative social consequences of new technologies. It taught us to distinguish development ideology from development technology; to apply the latter carefully in light of local power relations; and to think of rural development as more than just raising farm production, but also increasing rural populations’ quality of life. In many countries, for example, wealthy farmers or absentee landowners took advantage of labor-reducing, better-yielding technologies to increase productivity and production, but also to push smallholders and tenants off the land. (Although in part overcome over time, this lament was often heard in India and Africa.) We need to bear these lessons in mind as we go at it again so that new technologies do not have the same disruptive, inequality-increasing impact today as Green Revolution technologies had in earlier decades.
By the same token, a key weakness in the entire system has been its continued (and continuing) dependence on local governments. In a great many cases, rural problems—e.g., low farm-gate prices, lack of access to technology and knowledge, food insecurity itself—are the direct result of government policies. Today, countries are paying the price of such policies, as rural areas empty and onetime farmers give up in the face of increasing personal food insecurity. The loss of these farmers only increases national and international food insecurity in a world where food reserves are shrinking.
Governments and intergovernmental organizations deal with governments, so this may be beyond reach. But to the extent that external research designs can focus on the rural poor majority or constrain governments—or both—to put investment where it will help those in real need, not just those in power, it would be wonderful.
Cofounder and Codirector
Warm Heart Foundation
Phrao District, Thailand