noun: an unchallenged belief about international aid or development
In a recent post, Ed Carr explored whether international food security efforts over-emphasize production arguments. This is a provocative suggestion for at least two reasons. First, agricultural productivity has historically dominated discussions of food security, and anyone trying to modify established narratives faces an uphill battle. Second, the sheer quantity of investment in boosting productivity increases the stakes of challenging this model.
He proposes that distribution and waste receive too little attention relative to their (large) impact – mostly because production arguments predominate. As Professor Carr points out, this is a Tyler Cowen-style “low-hanging fruit” argument. Enhancing productivity requires large investments, whereas addressing distribution and waste challenges may be much less costly.
I would add another dimension to this argument: I believe there are also low-hanging fruit within the category of enhancing productivity.
Low-Hanging Fruit in Agricultural Yields?
For my undergraduate thesis, I wrestled with the issue of agricultural productivity in Ethiopia. As often happens to undergraduates doing original research, I lost that wrestling match. I did, however, pick up a few interesting insights along the way.
One such insight came from a senior fellow at the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR). He told my partner and I of a recurring phenomenon: the drop-off in yield between laboratory trials, demonstration plots, and actual field results.
Specifically, EIAR researchers expected their demonstration plots to yield 20-30% less than the lab results from the seed manufacturer. On top of that, he expected the smallholders they worked with to achieve only 60% of the yield on EIAR demonstration plots.
Many factors prohibit farmers from achieving yields comparable to research institutes. The picture below speaks to one of them, which we encountered often in Ethiopia: land management practices that contribute to land degradation.
Photo 1. Erosion gully on a smallholder farmer’s field in Ethiopia.
This picture was taken in the middle of the Meher growing season, which is the main growing season in Ethiopia. It shows a smallholder’s plot that has been overtaken by an erosion gully, and was subsequently taken out of production. These gullies result from digging furrows running from high to low elevation to funnel rainwater off one’s farm. After many torrential rains, however, these furrows reliably develop into gullies that can destroy whole plots.
Before getting to such a drastic state, however, smallholders continue to farm on erosion gully-afflicted fields. Thus, there are many active plots with developing gullies on them. The resulting fragmentation reduces yields – not just because the area of the gully is taken out of cultivation, but also because fragmentation reduces efficiency when plot size is held equal.
My contention is that there are a multitude of problems such as these, which represent low-hanging fruit in the arena of productivity. That is, addressing this problem doesn’t require more research and development into new crop varieties; nor does it require a funded program like Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program. Rather, it simply requires reforming a detrimental land management practice.
Some Disclaimers: Or, Why I’m Not a Techno-Imperialist
Whenever I see a headline like: “Farmers May Boost Yields By Intercropping,” the skeptic in me immediately clears his throat. I believe we ought to assume that anytime we witness a broad pattern of behavior among a community of people whose livelihood depends on doing the given activity well, there’s a reason other than “they don’t know any better.” Articles like that piece on intercropping make it sound as if we can bestow the miraculous knowledge of intercropping on the ignorant African farmer, and she will Prosper. In truth, of course, there’s nearly always a reason for existing behaviors.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder if careful qualitative research could identify, on a country-by-country basis, several production-related low-hanging fruits. These wouldn’t necessarily be easy to address – but then again, neither would Professor Carr’s suggestion that we address distribution and waste, which quickly leads us into the arenas of behavioral reform and infrastructural development. I suspect, however, that there are a couple of problems arising from land management practices that aren’t the product of exogenous systems of exploitation (á la Piers Blaikie’s explanations), but are in fact genuine low-hanging fruits.