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Emerging Risks and Opportunities Related to Food and Agriculture in Development – Implications for Policy and Research

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:35
Joachim Von Braun
, Director General, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

Stephen Biggs
, Research Fellow, School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia

Jim Harvey, Head of Profession for Livelihoods and Environment, DFID

1. Von Braun divided his presentation into three sections:

(i) Major drivers of the current food /health and agriculture scenario
(ii) Conceptual innovations that can inform policy processes and interventions
(iii) Key priorities for research and developmental action

2. Von Braun prefaced the presentation by outlining two challenges that IFPRI aims to address: firstly, excluding China the absolute number of hungry people in the developing world is increasing, and secondly, that hunger is concentrated in rural areas, with the landless poor and small farmers constituting around 70% of the world's hungry people. To frame the presentation on risks and opportunities, he offered an anecdote from a recent meeting with a Minister of Agriculture from a large developing country. In addition to discussions around trade, food and poverty, the Minister was particularly concerned with two issues: farmer suicides and biofuels.

Major drivers of the current food /health and agriculture scenario

5. Von Braun outlined six main drivers of the current food, health and agricultural scenario (in no order of importance): infections, population growth and aging, the consumer- and corporate-driven agri-food system, science and technology, energy and climate, and economic growth and income distribution. Acknowledging the substantial linkages between these drivers, the presentation focused on the latter four drivers.

6. Consumer- and Corporate-Driven Agri-Food System: Outlining how the world food system has undergone 'fundamental transformation' in recent years, he discussed the distribution of value-added from input suppliers to consumers, and noted two key features:

(i) That the fastest growth rates in the value chain are occurring in the retailing stage, with processing also showing increased dynamism;
(ii) Increasing disparity in value-added between input and retail stages.

7. Such changes offer developing countries potential costs and benefits. He highlighted that with increased incomes and changing dietary habits, changes in the agri-food system are often driven by increasingly discerning consumers. Concerns with quality and safety are now accompanied by consideration of the ethical and environmental footprint of agricultural products. Whilst offering some opportunities, these 'credence' factors, and wider food and safety regulations, have large potential costs in terms of market access and competitiveness.

8. Science & Technology: Von Braun outlined two main areas of innovation: firstly, improvements in molecular biology that have contributing to rapid global growth rates of biotech crop acreage; and secondly, the ICT revolution. Comparing countries' agricultural research and development expenditure in the 1990s, he highlighted the rapid growth in agricultural R&D in China and India compared to modest global gains. Expenditure in sub-Saharan Africa declined during this period.

9. Energy and Climate: In addition to discussing risks around global warming and oil price hikes, he focused on two key opportunities for agriculture in developing countries - agriculture as a source of energy. Biofuel not only offers an alternative energy source and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but a potential new income source for farmers, as does bio-ethanol production. This latter energy source has been partly responsible for recent prices in world sugar prices. However, an expansion of biofuel production may come with certain risks and uncertainties: Will high biofuel prices lead to a trade-off in resource-scare environments with food/feed production? Can biofuels be produced by small farmers?

10. Economic Growth and Income Distribution: Two main trends related to agricultural growth were presented: the failed recent WTO negotiations, and the linkages between economic growth and poverty reduction. Von Braun indicated that the failed Geneva round of WTO negotiations prevented a real income gain of around US $1 billion for low-income countries, and how free access to all markets would lead to a global real income gain of over US$7 billion, mostly accruing to sub-Saharan Africa.

11. Von Braun also problematised the sometimes taken-for-granted relationship between economic growth and poverty reduction. Contrary to evidence from the 1970s and 1980s, IFPRI research found that recent economic growth appears not to have led to reduced poverty levels in a number of developing countries. Such findings have implications for agricultural growth (which is strongly associated with pro-poor outcomes) and for social protection policies.

Conceptual innovations that can inform policy processes and interventions

12. Von Braun gave two clear examples of evidence-based conceptual innovations that continue to be linked to policy processes and interventions:

(i) Agriculture and growth-linkage models
(ii) Food security models: Availability, access and safety

He then discussed current conceptual innovations in two areas: rural poverty and poverty traps, and risk and uncertainty.

13. Rural poverty and poverty traps: Highlighting the increasing disparity between agricultural producers (especially small farms) and agricultural processors and retailers, von Braun flagged-up the 'key role of services and employment in rural areas in the next fifteen years' with employment in services and industry increasing as fast in rural as urban areas. With declining farm employment, the future of rural areas may include rural industrialisation and urbanisation.

14. Von Braun acknowledged that such long-term transformation will be an uneven and inequitable process, and highlighted how research on poverty traps and social exclusion shows the need to manage change to prevent permanent welfare loss, especially in young children. Moreover, as the outcomes from long-term transformation creates spillovers and effects that cross sectoral boundaries and scales of analysis, he stressed the need for multi-disciplinary collaboration, giving the example of IFPRI's recent work on 'Understanding the Links Between Agriculture and Health'.

15. Risk and Uncertainty: Von Braun utilised a framework of risk severity (on the y-axis) and risk likelihood (on the x-axis) to map the location of specific examples of risk. In addition to acknowledging that many sources of risk are mainly man-made, von Braun argued that the solution to risk is through improved governance (including political stability, control of corruption, voice and accountability, and regulatory quality).

Priorities for research and development actions

16. Noting the previous 'unhappy relationship between research and policy, caused in part by changing debates and paradigm shifts', von Braun argued that there is a need to move beyond disagreements, and suggested two priorities for research and development action: Development Strategies, and Experimentation.

17. Development Strategies: Von Braun presented two conceptual frameworks to analyse the macro-economic, trade and public investment context for agricultural growth. The first combines risks and opportunities through an IMPACT model to project future scenarios dependent on policy or technological/resource success or failure. The second was a Strategic Analysis and Knowledge System (SAKSS) to inform the design and implementation of rural development strategies. This latter conceptual framework has received recognition from the G8, and is being applied with success in Ethiopia. He noted two caveats: that a one-size-fits-all approach to SAKSS is flawed, and that the approach is strongly supplemented by spatial disaggregation.

18. Experimentation: Von Braun argued that experimental research, with its roots in the classical hypothetico-deductive medical model, offers a clear opportunity to link research and policy more explicitly. Randomized Control Trials (RCT) or quasi-experimental methods which utilise 'before and after' or 'with and without' comparisons offer policy a more 'rigorous' basis for decision making than much current research. Control groups and pilot schemes are central to such a comparative methodology. IFPRI is currently conducting research using experimental methods on numerous issues, including credit, employment, health and nutrition. He did not ruminate on the implications of experimentation for qualitative, participatory or other quantitative methods, or the potential linkages and sequences within a mixed methods approach.


Points raised in the discussion included:

What are the likely impacts of biofuel production on smallholders? What steps can be taken to maximise smallholder benefits?

Von Braun replied in detail to this important question. Firstly, there is a need for international and domestic regulation as currently there are no standards or common criteria. Secondly, there is a danger that biofuel production may attract subsidies and trade barriers in the North, limiting benefits for low-income countries. Thirdly, small farmers certainly have an opportunity with biofuels - more so that with bio-ethanol. Contract farming is a feasible avenue. Fourthly, low potential and remote rural areas may be able to benefit substantially from biofuels.

How can donors use experimentation and the conceptual frameworks for Development Strategy?

Von Braun replied that engaging with frameworks helps to discipline and structure institutions, and that experimentation can help fill data gaps, such as where infrastructure should be positioned.

Who informs the nature of the experimentation? Will it be the same international actors who are currently driving policy reforms? Can experimentation findings be rolled-out or scaled-up without contextual factors - such agro-ecological and ethnic differences - being taken into account? Can scaling-up findings from experimentation allow for different political structures and interests at higher-levels of economies and governments? In addition to experimentation methods, we should learn how to influence policy from the successes of advocacy groups such as Oxfam - learning from effectiveness in practice.


At this opening seminar in the 'Learning from Experience - Linking Research and Development' event series, Joachim Von Braun of the International Food Policy Research Institute outlined major drivers of the current food /health and agriculture scenario;conceptual innovations that can inform policy processes and interventions; and key priorities for research and developmental action.