noun: an unchallenged belief about international aid or development

Are There Low-Hanging Fruits for Agricultural Productivity?

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.


9 responses to “Are There Low-Hanging Fruits for Agricultural Productivity?

  1. Ed Carr October 24, 2011 at 7:14 pm


    Great post, and I think right on point – surely there are low hanging fruits in the realm of agricultural productivity that don’t require a major reworking of existing agroecological systems, and those should be sought out and promoted.

    I really appreciate your observation:
    “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.”

    Indeed, that is more or less the basis of my research career. Amazing how simple a proposition it is, and yet how difficult it seems to be for people to grasp!

    • Marc F. Bellemare October 30, 2011 at 3:32 pm

      Ed, Nathan:

      I fully agree with you guys. I often tell the students in my development seminar that before calling any behavior “stupid” or “irrational,” they should think long and hard about the specific circumstances that lead to the emergence of said behavior.

      An example which I know well, thanks to having written a whole dissertation on the topic, is that of sharecropping. For the longest time, economists and other social scientists viewed the institution as irrational. Adam Smith saw it as an unsatisfactory arrangement between slavery and the English system in which the tenant paid a fixed cash rent to the landlord. Alfred Marshall saw it as an inefficient arrangement, practically calling those who practiced it stupid because in his view, they could do strictly better.

      It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century, with the publication of Stiglitz’s “Incentives and Risk Sharing in Sharecropping” in REStud in 1974, that social scientists started seeing sharecropping contracts as very rational. In fact, Stiglitz’s reasoning was that if we don’t call commission sales “irrational,” there is no reason to call sharecropping “irrational” either, since both contracts do the exact same thing, i.e., they partially insure the agent (e.g., the tenant, the salesperson) against risk but also tie his pay to his performance and this partially eliminate moral hazard. In other words, by throwing risk aversion into the mix, Stiglitz had re-established the rationality of sharecropping.

      • Ed Carr October 30, 2011 at 4:51 pm

        Amen Mark – and people think of us as sparring partners 🙂 Now, with all this convergence on one post, the real question is where are the people who disagree? After all, there is a lot of programming that assumes irrationality out there . . .

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  3. Nathan Yaffe October 30, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Dear Professors Carr and Bellemare,

    Thanks for taking a moment to comment. I particularly appreciate the citation to Stiglitz’s paper. I often find myself arguing with people who are casually interested in development work, who immediately assume that a behavior is irrational and that there is an objectively more rational alternative behavior to propose in its stead.

    At the risk of exposing my naivety (although I generally try not to hide it…), and in light of Prof. Bellemare’s twitter comment, can either of you think of any prominent scholars who mostly take a behavioral economists’ “irrationality” approach to development theorizing? It strikes me that there might be some interesting work on crop insurance that has to grapple with irrationality, but my limited exposure and (as of yet) lack of grad school training is limiting my thinking here.

  4. Marc F. Bellemare October 30, 2011 at 6:38 pm


    Duflo et al.’s paper in the most recent issue of the American Economic Review about “nudging” farmers so as to make them use fertilizer starts from the hypothesis that some farmers are present-biased (i.e., they have self-control problems):

    Elaine Liu also has a cool paper on technology adoption, in which I believe she finds support for prospect theory when studying the adoption of Bt cotton in China. I am currently working on crop insurance for cotton producers in Mali. Our project is not explicitly behavioral, but we do aim to study the decision process of farmers regarding insurance purchase, which may lead to behavioral considerations. I believe other researchers are working on more explicitly behavioral insurance research projects. See here:

  5. Ed Carr October 30, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Interesting question Nathan. Marc is far more qualified than I to comment on the econ lit, but I would note that there is a huge literature in geography and anthropology that tries to understand social structures, behaviors and beliefs from the perspective of those who hold them . . . which I think goes to the heart of this question, as it assumes that there is some sort of rationality at play. I guess that my piece on adaptation and livelihoods in Global Environmental Change is an example of this thinking directly relevant for development. In it, I try to address the underlying logic of what seem to be problematic livelihoods/adaptation outcomes:

    I’m in the midst of working up an alternative approach to livelihoods analysis that starts from a basic understanding that all logic is local and contextual, and therefore to understand livelihoods decisions we have to get into that logic. I hope to post something on that once I get it revised and resubmitted . . .

  6. Ed Carr October 30, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Oh, and for heaven’s sake, call me Ed 🙂

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