Agroecology as Innovation

By Timothy A. Wise*

Cross-posted at Food Tank

Recently, the High Level Panel of Experts of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its much-anticipated report on agroecology. The report signals the continuing shift in emphasis in the UN agency’s approach to agricultural development. As outgoing FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva has indicated, “We need to promote a transformative change in the way that we produce and consume food. We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology can offer several contributions to this process.”

The commissioned report, “Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition.” Two years in the making, the report makes clear the urgent need for change. “Food systems are at a crossroads. Profound transformation is needed,” the summary begins. It stresses the importance of ecological agriculture, which supports “diversified and resilient production systems, including mixed livestock, fish, cropping, and agroforestry, that preserve and enhance biodiversity, as well as the natural resource base.”

It is not surprising, of course, that those with financial interests in the current input-intensive systems are responding to growing calls for agroecology with attacks on its efficacy as a systematic approach that can sustainably feed a growing population. What is surprising is that such responses are so ill-informed about the scientific innovations agroecology offers to small-scale farmers who are being so poorly served by “green revolution” approaches.

One recent article from a researcher associated with a pro-biotechnology institute in Uganda was downright dismissive, equating agroecology with “traditional agriculture,” a step backwards toward the low-productivity practices that prevail today. “The practices that agroecology promotes are not qualitatively different from those currently in widespread use among smallholder farmers in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa more broadly,” writes Nassib Mugwanya of the Uganda Biosciences Research Center. I have come to conclude that agroecology is a dead end for Africa, for the rather obvious reason that most African agriculture already follows its principles.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the new expert report shows, and as countless ecological scientists around the world can attest, agroecology brings much-needed innovations to prevailing smallholder practices. With a long track record of achievements in widely varying environments, the approach has been shown to improve soil fertility, increase crop and diet diversity, raise total food productivity, improve resilience to climate change, and increase farmers’ food and income security while decreasing their dependence on costly inputs.

The failing policies of the present

The predominant input-intensive approach to agricultural development can hardly claim such successes, which is precisely why international institutions are actively seeking alternatives. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is the poster child for the promotion of input-intensive agriculture in Africa. At its outset 13 years ago, AGRA and its main sponsor, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, set the goals of doubling the productivity and incomes of 30 million smallholder households on the continent.

There is no evidence that approach will come anywhere near meeting those worthy objectives, even with many African governments spending large portions of their agricultural budgets to subsidize the purchase of green revolution inputs of commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers. National-level data, summarized in the conclusion to my book Eating Tomorrow, attests to this failure:

  • Smallholders mostly cannot afford the inputs, and the added production they see does not cover their costs.
  • Rural poverty has barely improved since AGRA’s launch; neither has rural food insecurity. Global Hunger Index scores remained in the “serious” to “alarming” category for 12 of the 13 AGRA countries.
  • Even in priority crops like maize and rice, few of AGRA’s 13 priority countries have seen sustained productivity increases.
  • Production increases for maize in Zambia have come as much from shifting land into subsidized maize production as from raising productivity from commercial seeds and fertilizers.
  • There is no evidence of improved soil fertility; in fact, many farmers have experienced a decline as mono-cropping and synthetic fertilizers have increased acidification and reduced much-needed organic matter.
  • Costly input subsidies have shifted land out of drought-tolerant, nutritious crops such as sorghum and millet in favor of commercial alternatives. Crop diversity and diet diversity have decreased as a result.

recent article in the journal Food Policy surveyed the evidence from seven countries with input subsidy programs and found little evidence of sustained—or sustainable—success. “The empirical record is increasingly clear that improved seed and fertilizer are not sufficient to achieve profitable, productive, and sustainable farming systems in most parts of Africa,” wrote the authors in the conclusion.

Agroecology: Solving farmers’ problems

 Branding agroecology as a backward-looking, do-nothing approach to traditional agriculture is a defensive response to the failures of Green Revolution practices. In fact, agroecological sciences offer just the kinds of innovations small-scale farmers need to increase soil fertility, raise productivity, improve food and nutrition security, and build climate resilience.

Do these innovations sound backward looking to you?

  • Biological pest control – Scientist Hans Herren won a World Food Prize for halting the spread of a cassava pest in Africa by introducing a wasp that naturally controlled the infestation.
  • Push-pull technology – Using a scientifically proven mix of crops to push pests away from food crops and pull them out of the field, farmers have been able to reduce pesticide use while increasing productivity.
  • Participatory plant breeding – Agronomists work with farmers to identify the most productive and desirable seed varieties and improve them through careful seed selection and farm management. In the process, degraded local varieties can be improved or replaced with locally adapted alternatives.
  • Agro-forestry – A wide range of scientists has demonstrated the soil-building potential of incorporating trees and cover crops onto small-scale farms. Carefully selected tree varieties can fix nitrogen in the soil, reduce erosion, and give farmers a much-needed cash crop while restoring degraded land.
  • Small livestock – Reintroducing goats or other small livestock onto farms has been shown to provide farmers with a sustainable source of manure while adding needed protein to local diets. Science-driven production of compost can dramatically improve soil quality.

These innovations and many others are explored in depth in the new U.N. report, the full version of which will be available in English in mid-July, other FAO languages in September. Those advocates of industrial agriculture would do well to read it closely so they can update their understanding of the sustainable innovations agroecological sciences offer to small-scale farmers, most of whom have seen no improvements in their farms, incomes, or food security using Green Revolution approaches. Many farmers have concluded that the Green Revolution, not agroecology, is a dead end for Africa.

*Timothy A. Wise is a Senior Researcher on the Land and Food Rights Program at Small Planet Institute and a researcher at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. He is the author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (New Press, 2019).

Industrial Policy Finally Legitimate?

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
Cross-posted at Inter Press Service.
For decades, the two Bretton Woods institutions have rejected the contribution of industrial policy (IP), or government investment and technology promotion efforts, in accelerating and sustaining growth, industrialization and structural transformation.
Finally, two International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff members, Reda Cherif and Fuad Hasanov, have broken the taboo. They embrace industrial policy, arguing against the current conventional wisdom that East Asian industrial policies cannot be successfully emulated by other developing countries.

Miracle Economies Not Miraculous

They argue that IP has been key to East Asian ‘miracles’, offering valuable lessons for sustaining ‘catch-up’ growth. For them, appropriate IP interventions have been key to successful entry into more sophisticated industrial activities, early strong export orientation, and fierce competition with strict accountability.
For over half a century, especially following Asian and African decolonization after World War Two, developing countries have gone their separate ways with very mixed results, with all too many falling behind. Meanwhile, very few economies have caught up with some of the most advanced economies and firms.
Between 1960 and 2014, 16 out of the 182 economies they study achieved high-income status, underscoring the difficulties for middle-income countries reaching high-income status within two generations. They distinguish three types of countries which have ‘succeeded’, namely the East Asian miracles, those discovering considerable oil and gas, and those that benefited from joining the European Union.
Cherif and Hasanov insist on the key role of industrial policy in the Asian miracles, and for the US after the Civil War, Germany under Bismarck, and Japan after the Meiji Restoration. They argue that East Asian industrial policies have much in common despite their many differences.
The conventional growth formula — of improving macroeconomic stability (typically through anti-inflationary policies), strengthening property rights, and providing physical and social infrastructure and basic services to address government failures — was not enough .
Drawing useful lessons from varied country experiences is fraught with difficulty, especially considering the exogenous and conjunctural factors affecting growth, including luck. In contrast with the conventional empirical approach emphasizing averages, their analysis of long-term cross-country growth experiences underscores the value of studying the ‘tails’ or exceptions instead.

Technology and Innovation Policy

Contrary to earlier formulations of industrial policy as primarily involving investment and technology, Cherif and Hasanov propose three key principles constituting ‘true industrial policy’, summarized as technology and innovation policy (TIP), namely:
•    State interventions to overcome constraints to the early emergence of national producers in more sophisticated industries, beyond conventional notions of ‘comparative advantage’.
•    Export orientation, not import substituting industrialization (ISI); this contrasts with providing effective protection in the national or regional market on condition of early export promotion to achieve export competitiveness.
•    Ensuring both national and international competitiveness with strict accountability.

Hyundai vs Proton

Cherif and Hasanov also contrast the cases of Malaysia’s Proton with South Korea’s Hyundai in support of their three principles. They argue that Proton did not export enough, reflecting failure to build sufficient managerial and engineering skills as well as an innovative automotive cluster.
Hyundai, by contrast, has successfully created a global brand. Cherif and Hasanov insist that allowing several South Korean industrial conglomerates or chaebols to develop rival auto industries and the push to export were key to its success.
Governments have directed capital and labour into industrial ventures that firms probably would not have undertaken without appropriate incentives, but market competition, market signals, and private sector accountability are also recognized as important.
Without conclusive evidence, Cherif and Hasanov claim that due to the government’s push to export, Korean automakers ‘moved first, then learnt and adjusted’. In exchange for very low real interest rate loans, Korean chaebols had to quickly secure foreign market shares, while accountability was enforced by firing senior managers who failed to reach export targets.
Pressure to compete and export forced Hyundai to increase its R&D effort and technology upgrading, producing its own engine in 1991, and later, its first electric car. Korean encouragement of several chaebols in the automotive industry later forced them to restructure, with few surviving.
But would fostering more than one automotive firm have ensured Proton’s success in light of Malaysia’s smaller domestic market and more modest industrial capabilities? And what were the economic costs of Korea’s arguably wasteful automotive industry competition?

Three Development Policy Options

Cherif and Hasanov emphasize the importance of government ambition, accountability and adaptability. Government ambition is seen in terms of a feasible or pragmatic level of sophistication of new sectors and domestic ownership of industrial technology.
Government policy implementation must be subject to accountability, not only for firms, but also policymakers and senior managers responsible. As conditions change and new knowledge becomes available, policy interventions must adapt to continue to be effective and feasible.
  • Low gear: The conventional approach to growth — of improving the investment environment, key institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic stability, investments in education, and minimizing other government interventions — is likely to result in relatively slow ‘snail’s pace’ growth.  Such policy interventions typically address government failures, but not necessarily market failures, especially to develop more technologically sophisticated sectors beyond conventional understandings of comparative advantage.
  • Middle gear: This approach mainly relies on attracting FDI into more technologically sophisticated industries to participate increasingly in global value chains, or by improving the technological level of existing industries. This may accelerate growth for middle-income countries, but is unlikely to lead to sustainable development or ‘high-income status within two generations’ owing to limited national capacities and capabilities.
  • High gear: The East Asian miracle economies are said to be using a ‘moonshot approach’ for governments to create competitive national firms in frontier technologies, and more sophisticated industries with homegrown technologies, creating conditions for high, sustained long-term growth.
The speed and extent of the leaps to more sophisticated industries and technologies created by national firms are crucial for sustaining long-term development. Countries that manage this process well have better chances of soon becoming relatively advanced economies.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

Farming First: A Recipe to Feed a Crowded World

By Timothy A. Wise

Cross-posted at Mark Bittman’s Heated at Medium

One version of an old joke features a shipwrecked economist on a deserted island who, when asked by his fellow survivors what expertise he can offer on how they can be rescued, replies, “Assume we have a boat.” Economists have a well-deserved reputation for making their theories work only by making unrealistic assumptions about how the real world operates.

I was reminded of the joke often in the five years I traveled the world researching my book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. Policy-makers from Mexico to Malawi, India to Mozambique, routinely advocated large-scale, capital-intensive agricultural projects as the solution to widespread hunger and low agricultural productivity, oblivious to the reality that such initiatives generally displace more farmers than they employ.

Italy and China’s One Belt One Road Initiative

By Sara Hsu

China has become a leader in globalization, most visibly through its One Belt One Road initiative, which spans several continents and aims to build up infrastructure and trade between China and the rest of the world. While the program has, for the most part, remained controversial in the West due to a fear of Chinese imperialism, in March 2019, Italy broke with the G7 major economies and signed up for the program. Some analysts have expressed concerns that this move will allow China a back door into Europe’s heartland, while others see it as a shrewd move on the part of the Italians, allowing them to obtain much-needed financing for a number of endeavors. So, which is it, and is this a win-lose or a win-win situation?

China Has Strategic Objectives In Going Global, Does Africa?

From The Real News Network.

If Africa as a continent does not have strategic objectives of its own, the history of impediments to African economic development will be repeated in its engagement with China, says Ethiopia’s Alemayehu Geda.  

LYNN FRIES: It’s The Real News. I’m Lynn Fries. My guest on today’s show is Ethiopia’s Alemayehu Geda, who is a Professor of Economics at University of Addis Ababa. We are meeting at the UN Geneva, where Professor Geda just presented at anexperts meeting. Professor Geda, welcome.

ALEMAYEHU GEDA: Thank you very much.

Read the rest of this entry »

World Bank Financialization Strategy Serves Big Finance

 By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis ChowdhuryCross-posted at Inter Press Service.

The World Bank has successfully built a coalition to effectively advance its ‘Maximizing Finance for Development’ (MFD) agenda. The October 2018 G20 Eminent Persons Group’s (EPG) report includes proposals to better coordinate various international financial institutions (IFIs) in promoting financialization.

New Pan-Agency Development Financing Report Suggests Major Economic Crisis Brewing

By Jesse Griffiths

Cross-posted at ODI.

The 2019 Financing for Sustainable Development report from the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Financing for Development was launched today.

For those – like me – who worry that the world is sleepwalking into another crisis, it’s not reassuring. It confirms that global debt is at record levels and ‘financial fragilities’ have built up across the globe. It’s also disappointingly light on solutions that could reverse these trends.

What is the IATF report?

The IATF is a group of fifty major international institutions that work on finance issues, including various United Nations bodies, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization.

This report is its annual stocktake on progress towards meeting commitments to finance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s an impressive undertaking, covering all major financing sources, with a mandate to look at the global financial and economic system as a whole.

World Bank Financializing Development

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury

Cross-posted at Inter Press Service.

The World Bank has successfully legitimized the notion that private finance is the solution to pressing development and welfare concerns, including achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through Agenda 2030.

A recent McKinsey report estimates that the world needs to invest about US$3.3 trillion, or 3.8 per cent of world output yearly, in economic infrastructure, with about three-fifths in emerging market and other developing economies, to maintain current growth.

The world financing gap is about US$350 billion yearly. If new commitments, such as the SDGs, are considered, the gap would be about thrice the currently estimated gap as available public resources alone are not enough. Thus, for the Bank, the success of Agenda 2030 depends on massive private sector participation.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative vs. the Washington Consensus

Cross-posted at Inter Press Service.

With the Washington Consensus from the 1980s being challenged, President Donald Trump withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and China pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), most notably with its own initiatives such as the multilateral Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the political and economic landscape in East Asia continues to evolve. Jomo Kwame Sundaram was interviewed about likely implications for developing countries in the region and beyond.

IPS: What do you think of world growth prospects and China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

Jomo: Although there are some hopeful signs here and there, there are few grounds for much optimism around the North Atlantic (US and Europe) for various reasons. Unconventional monetary policies, especially quantitative easing (QE), have helped achieve a modest recovery in the US, but appears less likely to succeed elsewhere. Such measures have also accelerated massive wealth concentration, which is why a few of the world’s richest men own more than the bottom half of the world’s population.

Greening the New Deal

By Shaun Ferguson (guest post)

The Green New Deal is desperately needed, and arguing about a price tag is like Henry Ford wondering if the country will be able to afford his brand new automobile.  With the introduction of a House Resolution by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), a debate has surged across the country on the affordability of the Green New Deal. The sheer distraction of the affordability discussion is enough to ensure that very few people will pay attention to what is really at stake. For when the bigger fish eat up this little fish we will need to remember how we got here and what matters most.  As the bright young critics have quickly observed, the Green New Deal could hardly be too green. Time is wearing thin and we need to make haste.