Investing in agricultural innovation can address a range of challenges, sometimes more cost-effectively than taking a more direct approach.
Agricultural research is an often-overlooked way of advancing a variety of socio-economic goals. In many cases, it can be much more cost-effective than the conventional approach of directly addressing other issues.
Here are some global benefits that could happen by investing in agricultural innovation:
As Samuel Johnson said, “Agriculture not only gives riches to a nation, but the only riches she can call her own.” No country has ever successfully developed without first modernizing its agriculture. Recent studies have provided evidence of a causal relationship.
Agriculture is one of the human activities most sensitive to climate change. The cost of developing crops that resist drought and other climatic stresses is orders of magnitude less than the investment in clean energy required to significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Agriculture is also a significant contributor to climate change, but practices like conservation tillage can, when successfully adapted to local contexts, remove carbon from the atmosphere as well as improving farm profitability.
Health and Nutrition
Improvements in nutrition and sanitation, as well as improved medical care, have played key roles in improving health and life expectancy since the 19th Century. Improving sanitation often requires expensive investments in infrastructure, while developing more nutritious crops can be done on a shoe-string budget and probably represents one of the most cost-effective ways to improve public health. Human and animal diseases and medications have significant overlap, and veterinary research is an important component of the One Health approach to improving human health and preventing pandemics.
Research targeted toward environmental goals can help farmers produce more with fewer inputs and less land. According to the Borlaug Hypothesis, higher productivity not only helps to feed a growing population but also reduces the amount of land needed for cultivation, leaving more for nature. Anecdotal evidence for the hypothesis can be found throughout the eastern United States, where large areas of dairy pasture have returned to forest as dairy farming has become more productive.
The prime minister of Haiti was ousted in 2008 over handling of food riots, caused by high prices that followed decades of weak global investment in agricultural research. Anecdotal evidence links problems in agriculture to wars and terrorism worldwide. And rigorous quantitative studies have linked droughts in Africa to subsequent conflict. Unless droughts somehow affect politics directly, the causal relationship probably runs through agriculture.
Women and Minorities
Women account for a majority of agricultural labor in some countries, but often have limited access to land titles and credit, or even to food when it’s scarce in a household. In many countries, ethnic and religious minorities live on marginal lands that have historically been overlooked by agricultural researchers. To improve equity, researchers can engage women and minorities in research and work more on fruits and vegetables (often grown by women) and marginal lands. The results can be dramatic. One study from a Brown University professor even suggested that expanding the cultivation of tea, a crop harvested by women, reduced the selective abortion of female fetuses in China.
Education & Employment
Economists who subscribe to the Harris-Todaro Model believe that the only effective way to reduce urban unemployment in developing countries is to improve opportunities in rural areas. Evidence from India suggests that areas whose geography helped farmers benefit most from new agricultural innovations saw greater improvements in education.