Key Agricultural Development Debates

ID-100214047In conjunction with World Food Day last week, the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and Institute of Development Studies (IDS) launched a series of seven papers investigating the key agricultural development debates surrounding sub-Saharan Africa.

For many years the importance of agricultural development for poverty and hunger eradication was a key issue to be argued, debated and championed but more recently this message has been largely accepted with agriculture becoming a central theme on African and international development agendas. As World Food Day showed there is general agreement that smallholder and family farms play a critical role in providing food security, livelihoods, environmental protection and rural development.

Although investing in agricultural development, and smallholders specifically, is widely believed to help tackle poverty and hunger, the way of going about this is much contested, and debates over the right policies, technologies and investments are ongoing. It is these debates that these seven papers, the first of twelve, have explored, in particular looking at how such debates have changed since 2001 and the release of an issue of Development Policy Review entitled “Rethinking rural development“. This issue suggested that the role of agriculture in driving development and economic growth was diminishing with more people leaving the sector to pursue other jobs.

Today agriculture is largely seen as both critical to a country’s economic transition and, because the sector employs millions of people and families, as a route to improving the livelihoods of people around the world. Perhaps this is because the way agriculture is viewed has changed – within agricultural development spheres discourse is as often as not full of ideas such as market development, value chains, public-private partnership and enterprise. Agriculture in developing countries is being viewed as a business with risks but also with many opportunities. Recent rises in food prices, liberalisation of markets, the rise of regional trade and economic partnerships in Africa, and new African institutions such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) have opened the door for agriculture-led development and private investment.

Whether these developments will ultimately be good or bad for African development divides opinion. Do market-led approaches marginalise subsistence farmers, increasing their vulnerability to poverty? Will small-scale farmers ultimately have to leave farming as commercial farms capitalise on market opportunities? How much control over the development of farms and agriculture should individual farmers have? The seven papers presented aim to ignite debate on how African agriculture is changing and shed light on the way forward. The topics of these papers ranges from the changing African economic, political and social landscapes and its impact on food systems; the types of investment most appropriate for smallholder farmers, given their heterogeneity; economic diversification and the link between urban and rural economies; the potential of input subsidy programmes; and the role of ICTs.

Here we suggest some key agricultural debates currently taking place but we’d love to hear from you as to what you think the most important debates are in African agricultural development, and how you think resolution can be found.

  1. Trade, subsidies and agriculture

Does protection of the farming industry and of producers in developed countries harm agricultural trade and development in Africa? Or are domestic and regional markets more important for Africa’s economic growth? An IFPRI blog discusses the harm US and EU subsidies may be having on global food security while an article in Foreign Policy looks at the future of free trade in Africa.

  1. The introduction of GM

Do GM crop varieties present a missed opportunity for the majority of African countries that have not legalised their commercial growing? What role can GM crops play in reducing hunger and poverty? Who would have access to GM seed, and are less sophisticated technologies such as fertiliser and conventionally bred improved varieties more important for smallholder farmers? These BBC and The Guardian articles explore Africa’s need to grow biotech crops to support sustainable development while these articles from the University of Michigan and SciDev.Net believes GM would be detrimental to Africa’s food security.

  1. The role of markets and agri-business

Will small-scale farmers be forced out of agriculture if exposed to open market competition or will markets open up opportunities for all farmers to improve their farming businesses? Will large scale agro-industry companies bring widespread access to seeds, other inputs and new technologies or will their presence hamper the development of African-led enterprises? A World Bank report last year explores how the potential of agri-business can be unlocked while an article by Matthew Newsome explores the pros and cons of agribusiness in Africa.

  1. The importance of food sovereignty and agroecology

Food sovereignty, often linked to agroecology, have been heralded as a way of improving farmers’ livelihoods while at the same time protecting the environmental base on which agriculture depends. The 6 pillars of food sovereignty and the global social movement are explained by the World Development Movement. Michael Pimbert describes how achieving food sovereignty “will entail a fundamental shift away from the industrial and neo-liberal paradigm for food and agriculture” while Philip Aerni discusses the flaws in the food sovereignty debate. One significant criticism is that agroecology will not feed a future enlarged population and will require more land on which to farm but in many cases agroecological methods such as permaculture can improve yields for farmers in developing countries and reduce reliance on external resources.

  1. Private investment and resource grabs

Recently the Principles for responsible agriculture and food investments were approved at CFS 41 although not all agreed with the final draft. The Committee on World Food Security has also agreed on a set of voluntary global guidelines on responsible governance of land tenure and access rights to land, fisheries and forest resources. Although useful as a tool to advance progressive land tenure policies, civil society has raised several criticisms of the guidelines. New tools to boost private sector investment in African agriculture such as the African Enterprise Challenge Funds and New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition are in some cases welcomed but there are also fears that this is just a different, but no less damaging, version of colonialism.

  1. Climate change

Of course we couldn’t talk about agricultural debates without talking about discussions surrounding how climate change is likely to affect farming in Africa and what developed countries need to do to help farmers adapt as well as mitigate climate change through global agriculture. While many agree the effects are likely to be significant, pledges from international leaders have so far fallen short of the estimated economic costs climate change will bring. As yet agriculture has failed to get on the agendas of UN climate meetings to any significant degree, and a stalemate between climate activists and political leaders appears to exist, one that will hopefully be broken as climate negotiations continue.

Where do you stand on these debates? Do you feel there are far more important discussions to be had regarding African agriculture? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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