Blinkered discussion on agriculture

In: Uncategorized

15 Jun 2008

A roundtable of Nobel laureates hosted by Michael Milken (a financier, philanthropist and man who has served time in jail for securities violations) unwittingly gave an insight into the current food crisis. It seems that even Nobel prize-winners do not think it is possible to transform agriculture in the third world as it would lead to mass unemployment among former peasants. In other words leading economists do not see extensive generalised development as even possible:

“[Michael] Spence [2001 laureate]: The poorest spend 60 percent of their income on food. For now, we need a rapid response to malnutrition whatever the long-term solutions. Over time, productivity can increase, as was the case with the Green Revolution. Yet, 50 percent of Chinese still work in rural agriculture and 70 percent of Indians. Capital-intensive agriculture and higher productivity would displace them from their living. It’s a double-edged sword.

“[Myron] Scholes [1997 laureate]: If you move too fast to improve productivity in food, you create a surplus population that is forced to move to the already over-urbanized cities. That is a huge cost. There are 1.25 billion people in agriculture in India and China. Where will they go?”

Nor are such views restricted to these two eminent economists. A recent article in the Financial Times (Alan Beattie “Seeds of change”, 3 June) quoted a British academic who opposed the introduction of modern agricultural technology because it might replace hand weeding in Africa:

“Andrew Dorward, an academic at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says that adoption of GM crops resistant to herbicide would, for example, be disastrous for many poor households: the crops would allow the replacement of hand-weeding, which is a big source of income for many.”

Others call for the adoption of “appropriate” – that is primitive – technology:
“Leftwing critics of the idea of a green revolution do not doubt that Africa can increase productivity with new seeds and inputs, but say the benefits will go to large corporations and rich farmers. Raj Patel, a fellow at the left-leaning Institute for Food and Development Policy in the US, recently told a congressional committee that projects such as Agra, “while perhaps well intentioned, are models of unaccountable and unsustainable technological investment”. He called instead for “programmes that further the adoption and research into locally appropriate and democratically controlled agro-ecological methods”.”

I suggest such “leftwing critics” spend a few months in the baking sun doing some hand weeding themselves. Perhaps they might then change their minds.

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