Modernising Agriculture in Developing Countries

There is considerable scope for modernising agriculture in developing countries, to feed their populations and potentially export a surplus

As argued by The Economist for example, Africa needs a green revolution.  The article showed that Sub-Saharan Africa had cereal yields of less than 1.5 tonnes per hectare, a figure that had not substantially increased for 50 years, whereas the East Asia and Pacific regions had achieved yields of over 5 tonnes per hectare with dwarfed varieties of cereal, known as Green Revolution Varieties or GRVs.

There are drawbacks in the use of GRVs, notably the need to use more fertilisers – which can damage the environment.  Research continues, though.  Researchers at the University of Oxford and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have discovered “a new gene which improves yields of cereal crops such as wheat and rice, using less fertilizer”.  As reported in an Economist article, Fields of beaten gold, higher yields can be achieved with genetically-modified (GM) crops – and “There is now no serious scientific evidence that GM crops do any harm to the health of human beings”.

Some people believe that the future of every country lies in having large farms and a population drift towards the cities.  George Monbiot has refuted this view, in an article Meet the ecomodernists:

“since Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work in 1962, hundreds of papers in the academic literature demonstrate the opposite: that there is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the crops they produce.  The smaller they are, on average, the greater the yield per hectare.”

Agricultural land is a scarce resource across the world, but its use is not taken into account as a cost when calculating economic output.  Small-scale agriculture is the most highly productive way of using land and enables people to stay on it, rather than creating problems by moving to overcrowded and unprepared cities.

Rural areas have development needs that differ from those of urban areas, so self-sufficiency can be a practical approach.  The Barefoot College in India has demonstrated and taught how local power generation and rainwater collection, for example, may be more practical (and lower cost) ways of modernising agriculture in developing countries, rather than attempting to emulate the national infrastructure of wealthy countries.

Saudi Arabia has leased some farmland from Ethiopia, in what The Economist called Outsourcing’s third wave.  That agreement suited both governments and it might be seen as a revival of an older model of foreign ownership.

Although economic growth is beneficial to the extent that it can reduce hardship and increase opportunities for the very poor, it is not a measure of benefit to people’s happiness nor of long-term sustainability for the environment.  Small-scale agriculture provides a way of producing more food.  It provides more jobs for unskilled labour and offers a lifestyle which many people find attractive.  This is not to say that those who live off the land in developing countries should be left in abject poverty.  Their conditions could be improved by some of the measures mentioned in previous sections: better education, better infrastructure and better access to global markets for their produce.

The rest of the world would also benefit in terms of cheaper food.  There would be less damage to the environment, because energy usage would be lower and there would be less wastage.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/3584a.htm