Agricultural Research and Poverty Alleviation

The charge has been levied against agricultural research that its benefits flow primarily to larger-

scale, commercial farmers, and that it does less to reduce rural poverty. Empirical studies have tended to support this assertion. In large measure, this result stems from the relative factor endowments of larger- and smaller-scale farmers, especially in regard to farm size and soil quality, and their ability to purchase inputs, rather than from an explicit research strategy to favor the former. As Mitch Renkow has expressed it:

Almost by definition, the ultimate productivity impacts of improved agricultural technologies will be lower in marginal areas than in favored areas. And where 'marginality' is correlated with physical remoteness, inferior infrastructure or institutional inadequacies, the poorer availability and higher cost of complementary inputs tends to even further widen interregional disparities in the direct effects of new technologies. Furthermore, because the direct effects of new technologies are usually larger in favored areas, spillover effects operating through factor and product markets also tend to be larger when they emanate from favored


This kind of bias in favor of larger farms also reflects the traditional emphasis of agricultural research on (a) new varieties, as opposed to crop management and natural research management, (b) single commodities as opposed to farming systems, (c) varieties that are relatively intensive in modern inputs, in comparison with native varieties, and (d) top-down methods of developing and transmitting research findings. Therefore, the question remains as to whether a change in those emphases, towards different kinds of varieties, cropping systems and resource management, and in the direction of participatory research, could lead to greater benefits from research for poor farmers. On the other side of the debate, skeptics assert that the aggregate benefits to agricultural research will always be greater to the extent that more commercial farmers adopt the research findings, given their ability to extract greater

99. M. Renkow, 'Poverty, productivity and production environment: a review of the evidence', Food Policy, 24(4), August 2000, pp. 475-476.

productivity (at the margin) from those findings. Hence, the debate is framed in terms of a tradeoff between equity and efficiency.

To date, little direct evidence has been brought to bear on the debate. For example, Byerlee's doubts about using poverty alleviation goals to guide research strategies, mentioned earlier in this chapter, were based on a comparison of existing research programs (by crop), in terms of the incidence of their benefits. He asked whether shifting research resources away from some programs and towards others would provide greater benefits to the rural poor and concluded that it largely would not. However, in that study for Pakistan, he did not pose the options of different kinds of varietal research and, more importantly, participatory research with poor farmers.

Fan et al. analyzed the effects of high-yielding varieties and other public interventions on farmers in irrigated areas and rainfed zones in India. They concluded that technology improvements and better rural infrastructure have accelerated agricultural growth and helped alleviate poverty, but that these effects vary considerably between irrigated and rainfed zones, and among different types of rainfed conditions.100 They argued (2000, p. 427), in apparent contradiction to Renkow's conclusions cited a few paragraphs above, that greater returns to public agricultural research and infrastructure investment are now being obtained in rainfed areas, including some apparently marginal areas. However, while this conclusion may be true of some of the areas in their sample, their statistical results do not fully support it.101 It also should be noted that the authors studied only the effect of existing high-yielding varieties. The same caveats can be applied as were mentioned above for Byerlee's work: there was no analysis of the possible bene fits for the poor of other kinds of research strategies. Thus, some principal questions are left unanswered about the potential for agricultural research to reduce rural poverty.

For the case of the Philippines, Keijiro Otsuka has argued that the main poverty-alleviation benefit of agricultural research comes through expanded aggregate output which reduces food prices for all, including the poor.102 There are two problems with this argument. First, in a relatively open economy which is a price-taker, expansion of agricultural production may lead to reduction of imports or increase of exports without a change in domestic prices. Secondly, many rural poor have a small marketable surplus and thus are harmed by a drop in food prices. Indeed, even landless families and farmers whose plots are too small to generate a marketable surplus usually are beneficiaries of an increase in farmgate prices, because it stimulates production and thus increases demand for rural labor. The study by Dean Schreiner and Magdalena GarcĂ­a, cited in Chapter 4 of this volume, shows that the lowest income stratum in rural areas was decisively the greatest beneficiary of increased food prices in Honduras. In the end, the poverty-reducing effect of a change in food prices is an empirical question that depends in part on the numbers of rural landless compared with the numbers of farmers.

Otsuka makes the valid point (2000, pp. 459460) that shifting the orientation of rice research toward less favored agricultural zones greatly complicates the research task with the result that the aggregate benefits, including for the poor, may be substantially reduced. In addition, he makes the following point (2000, p. 460), about making research consistent with an area's comparative advantage, that has wide applicability:

101. Their results show that only in 6 of 13 rainfed zones is the poverty reduction effect of high-yielding varieties greater, per unit of expenditure, than in irrigated areas. In fact, in five of the zones that effect turns out to be zero. (In addition, their coefficients of the effect of high-yielding varieties were not statistically significant at the 5% level for three of the rainfed zones.) The intervention that has the largest poverty-reducing effect, by a wide margin, is the construction of rural roads in rainfed zones.

102. K. Otsuka, 'Role of agricultural research in poverty reduction: lessons from the Asian experience', Food Policy, 24(4), August 2000, p. 447.

We do not argue that agricultural research should not try to develop new technologies for marginal areas. On the contrary, we argue that more resources should be allocated to research that generates appropriate technologies for such areas. We argue against rice research for unfavored areas, simply because the development of appropriate technologies can hardly be expected. We would like to suggest that the development of new technology for agro-forestry, growing commercial trees, has high potential, because it is much more efficient than shifting cultivation. The development and wide adoption of new and more efficient agro-forestry systems will both improve the incomes of poor farmers in marginal areas by increasing the efficiency of land use and contribute to partial restoration of forest environments. Yet, surprisingly, no international agricultural research center has conducted serious research on this promising technology. There might also be other crops and technologies particularly appropriate for marginal agricultural areas.103

Otsuka's suggestion is stated in a broader way by Hazell and Haddad, who point out the importance of better technologies for natural research management on less-favored agricultural lands. To the extent that poorer farmers are located on marginal lands, which often is the case, then improved natural resource management is central to increasing their economic productivity:

While some types of commodity improvement work seem vital for less-favored areas - improving drought tolerance, yield response to scarce plant nutrients, food nutrient content, pest and disease resistance, and livestock health and productivity - there is a growing consensus that major productivity improvements will first come from improved natural resource management (NRM) practices and technologies.104

This observation points toward an approach to reducing poverty by means of better technology that is based on agro-economic zones, rather than by attempting to identify target groups by income criteria, which is always more difficult in rural areas than in urban areas.

Clearly, the choice of strategy for research in relation to the rural poor depends very much on the context. As Renkow has summarized the debate:

Weighing the impact on poverty alleviation of alternative breeding and crop management research activities requires a careful assessment of where the poor live, what types of income-generating activities they engage in and the ways in which new agricultural technologies alter the returns to resources owned by household members. Available evidence does not support easy generalizations about the best means of improving the welfare of the poor in marginal areas. Instead, it reinforces the need for continual examination of alternative policies and investment strategies on a case by case basis. . . .

Undoubtedly agricultural research that specifically targets difficult production environments may represent the most pro-poor public investment available for some marginal areas. This is especially likely to be true for locations in which agricultural income shares of the poor are high, agronomic circumstances limit the adoption of technologies developed for other, more favorable production environments and prospects for research success are relatively high. However, in many situations, government investments in infrastructure and institutional

103. Crop diversification, including agro-forestry, plus better crop management by poor, hillside farmers, improvements that were achieved through participatory work with rural communities in Western Honduras. have been found to yield important gains in income levels of the poor, in efforts sponsored in that country by the FAO.

104. Peter Hazell and Lawrence Haddad, Agricultural Research and Poverty Reduction', Food, Agriculture, and the Environment Discussion Paper No. 34, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, USA, August 2001, p. 27.

reform may well yield significantly larger and more rapid benefits to the poor in marginal areas than will investments in agricultural research targeted to those areas - especially where non-agricultural sources of income are relatively important.105

Where research has neglected the more difficult and heterogeneous agricultural environments, a case can be made for participatory agricultural research as a valuable instrument for poverty reduction. Co-operation with farmers in research can lead to better identification of varietal characteristics relevant for them, and to directing research toward their priorities among pest control, natural resource management, varietal improvement and post-harvest technologies. Farmers also can be skilled agents of varietal selection in their own agro-ecological contexts.

Ashby et al. have underscored the potential for participatory research to confer significant benefits on poor farmers:

With its emphasis on empowerment, the CIAL process is likely to have highly positive equity effects. In several cases very poor or marginalized groups normally left behind by development have taken up the process enthusiastically.106

The participatory approach can be intensive in terms of human resource requirements relative to the number of farmers benefitted, but when properly managed it has already proven to be promising in many cases in Africa, Latin America and, especially for pest management, in Asia.

In general, to make research more useful for poor farmers, it is necessary to promote sustained dialogs between poor farmers, including women, and facilitators and agricultural scientists, and not limit the collaboration to occasional visits by researchers to farms and villages. Many scientists fear that an involvement in 'development' will hinder their efforts at 'good science'. However, the two goals should not be contradictory, and the latter should be seen as supporting the former. Otherwise, the argument for giving financial support to agricultural research becomes very much weaker.

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  • Nasih
    How agriculture has brought about poverty alleviation?
    2 years ago

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