What are the relationships between agriculture, the environment and development? What should be the relationships between agriculture, the environment and development? Development thinking has, for a long time, focused almost solely on economics. GDP per capita has been the standard measure of how developed a country is. Agriculture has been heavily influenced by this thinking, with the expansion of industrial agriculture owned by transnational corporations. This can increase agricultural productivity in the short term, but can also have negative environmental consequences, and negative effects on local populations. Recently there has been a movement towards taking into account environmental and social consequences in development thinking that are not necessarily connected to economic indicators.
The importance of agriculture in developing countries was highlighted recently by famine throughout Africa. Rains have failed and temperatures have risen, leaving millions without food from Ethiopia to South Africa. This is partly due to Climate Change, and also to a particularly strong el-nino (2016). In particular this has put into sharp contrast Ethiopia’s recent surge in GDP growth, with its ability to prevent famine (see my last post).
The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is one organization that is influential in development thinking and practice. The foundation widely supports agriculture in developing countries. They especially focus on small farmers, and women, trying to target the most marginalized sections of society. Their stated goal is to “help all people lead healthy, productive lives.” This is one definition of development, and agriculture factors prominently in its achievement. The Gates Foundation specifically aims to increase the productivity of small farmers in an effort to bring prosperity to poor rural areas, and enable them to send their children to school. Their goal is to also do this in an environmentally friendly manner (2011). These appear to be laudable goals, that not many people would disagree with. However, many charities, including the Gates Foundation, have been criticized for not truly delivering on the improvements they say they will make. After completing a project and funding dries up, often the effects of that project dry up as well. In addition, the Gates Foundation mentions explicitly their funding of projects involving the research on and use of transgenic crops, which many environmental groups do not approve of.
Another viewpoint is through an academic and engineering lens. Sreekala Bajwa is a professor at North Dakota State University who is an agricultural engineer. He advocates an approach called precision agriculture. This approach requires the studying of specific environmental conditions on any land being farmed, as well as increased communication between farmers in the same area. This system allows farmers to know exactly how much irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. to use. According to Bajwa this will maximize production while reducing the carbon footprint and other negative consequences of agriculture (2015). However, many poor small farmers, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, would have difficulty affording any of the technology or materials required to use this technique, and environmentalists often disagree with the use of any chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
In contrast to this view that agriculture is primarily a scientific and engineering issue, Annalies Zoomers, a professor of International Development, and George Schoneveld, a Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Nairobi, view agriculture in its place in the middle of social, political and economic practices. They advocate Inclusive Green Growth (IGG). Under IGG governments would play a bigger role in ensuring private investment, especially from transnational corporations (TNCs) would benefit everyone, as well as stopping land grabbing. Governments would concentrate more on aiding small farmers, including building infrastructure that would benefit everyone. Food should be produced by and for the local community and only exported when there is a surplus. The authors argue that these changes are necessary to achieve IGG, which has failed in the recent past due to the diminishing of the state and the power of the private sector. One main challenge that the authors admit is that in order to make these changes, a strong government is necessary, and strong governments are lacking in many places, especially Africa (2015). There are also questions about how productive agriculture can be without significant technological improvements. IGG extends to much more than just agriculture, though. It includes all natural resources and environmental protections. One recent innovation in attempting to achieve IGG gets around the troubles experienced by African governments. A group of Zambian villagers is suing the TNC Vedanta for polluting their water through mining operations…in London. Vedanta is based in London, and although its transgression was perpetrated in Zambia it might be held to account in its hometown (Vidal 2016). There are precedents for this in Europe, but so far none in America.
Incorporating social and environmental factors, such as food security, in development is a contentious issue. Recently there have been many ideas put forward, some of which I have written about such as low-carbon growth, green economy, agroecology and IGG. It is clear that humanity as a whole needs to increase agricultural production, but we also need to decrease our negative effects on the environment and decrease inequality. Treating development as purely economical and relying on free markets has not worked for us so far. It should be acceptable for states, especially wealthy states, to not have continuous economic growth. Food security should be more important than economic growth. Economic growth is not desirable if it only benefits a small percentage of a population and destroys the environment. Consumption should not be the ideal of a society. In order to feed everyone on Earth we need to waste less food. We need to improve scientific knowledge and technology related to agriculture. We need to promote social well-being as much as economic development. We need to support governments who will do what is best for everyone, and not special interests. Most of all we need to think to the future so that we will be able to continue to survive in the long term.
Bajwa, S. (2015). Precision Agriculture and International Development. Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World. Retrieved from: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/retrieve.do?sort=DA-SORT&docType=Article&tabID=T002&prodId=AONE&searchId=R1&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&contentSegment=¤tPosition=23&searchResultsType=SingleTab&inPS=true&userGroupName=mlin_c_clarkunv&docId=GALE%7CA405807060&contentSet=GALE%7CA405807060
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2011). Agricultural Development: Strategy Overview. Global Development Program. Retrieved from: https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/Documents/agricultural-development-strategy-overview.pdf
IPPMedia (2016). ‘Little Boy’ devouring African Food. IPPMedia. Retrieved from: http://www.ippmedia.com/features/little-boy%E2%80%99-devouring-african-food
Schoneveld, G, & Zoomers, A. (2015). Natural resource privatisation in Sub-Saharan Africa and the challenges for inclusive green growth. International Development Planning Review. Retrieved from: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/retrieve.do?sort=DA-SORT&docType=Report&tabID=T002&prodId=AONE&searchId=R1&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&contentSegment=¤tPosition=25&searchResultsType=SingleTab&inPS=true&userGroupName=mlin_c_clarkunv&docId=GALE%7CA399413678&contentSet=GALE%7CA399413678
Vidal, J. (2016). Mining Giant Vedanta Argues UK Court Should not Hear Zambia Pollution Case. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/apr/12/mining-giant-vedanta-resources-uk-court-zambia-villagers-case-alleging-pollution