The Challenge For Agricultural Technology

The challenge for developing country agriculture in the next 25 years is enormous, particularly if it is not only to satisfy the growing effective demand for food, but also to help reduce poverty and malnutrition in an environmentally sustainable fashion. Due to population growth and rising incomes, demand in the developing countries is predicted to increase by 59% for cereals, 60% for roots and tubers, and 120% for meat over this period (Pinstrup-Andersen, Pandya-Lorch, and Rosengrant, 1999). This increased supply cannot come from area expansion since this has already become a minimal source of output growth at a world scale and has turned negative in Asia and Latin America. Neither can it come from any significant expansion in irrigated area due to competition for water with urban demand and rising environmental problems associated with drainage, soil salinity, and chemical runoffs. While it will thus need to come from growth in yields, the growth rate in cereal yields in developing countries has been declining from an annual rate of 2.9% during 1967-1982 to 1.8% during 1982-1994, which is the rate needed to satisfy the predicted 59% increase in demand for cereals over the next 25 years. The growth in yields cannot consequently be let to fall below this rate in developing countries without further increasing the share of food consumption that is imported. With 1.2 billion people in absolute poverty (earning less than $1.00 per day, see World Bank, 2001) and 792 million underfed in the developing countries (FAO, 2000), agriculture should also play a major role in reducing poverty and improving food security, particularly since some three-quarters of these poor and underfed live in rural areas where they derive part, if not all, of their livelihoods from agriculture as producers or as workers in agriculture and related industries. More importantly, the real income of poor consumers depends on the price of food.

For poverty to fall and for the nutritional status of the poor to improve at the current levels of food dependency, the decline in growth rate of cereal yields will have to be stopped, and yield increases compared to current trends will have to occur in part in the fields of poor farmers and will have to generate employment opportunities for the rural poor. Since the growth rate in yields achieved with traditional plant breeding and agronomic practices has been declining, the next phase of yield increases in agriculture will have to rely on the scientific advances offered by biotechnology, precision farming, and production ecology, with most of the gains expected to be derived from the first. Yet, while biotechnology has made progress in the agriculture of some of the more developed countries, it has had little actual impact in most developing countries, and particularly in the farming systems of the rural poor. The objective of this paper, therefore, is to explore under what conditions the current biotechnological revolution in agriculture could be helpful in reducing poverty in developing countries. While there are acknowledged ethical and precautionary objections to the use of some particular techniques of biotechnology, it should be kept in mind that failure to develop and capture this potential could further increase the income gap between developed and developing nations and could be a serious setback in the struggle to reduce poverty. At the same time, environmental and consumer risks that may, for example, derive from adoption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), will have to be carefully assessed and regulated for biotechnology to yield its potential benefits and not to risk creating setbacks to the already limited welfare of the rural poor in developing countries.

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