James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

December 10, 2009

More on the Good Guys (CGIAR)

Tracked down a paper published just under a year ago in Food Policy (a peer reviewed journal). “The impact of agricultural research on productivity and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa” by Arega Alene and Ousmane Coulibaly.* 

CGIAR spending on research targeted at agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa (178 million dollars a year in 2003) provides 1.3 million people with an escape from extreme poverty (living one dollar a day or less) every year. Simple division would indicate the agricultural research of the CGIAR centers is saving human beings from the trap of extreme poverty at a cost of just under 137 dollars per person. Of course it isn’t that simple, there are both economies of scale** and, eventually, diminishing margins of return*** to consider, but it seems the work of the CGIAR centers in Africa are big enough to have achieved those economies of scale, and, given their calculations on the elasticity on poverty to investment in agriculture, Africa is a LONG way from having to worry about diminishing marginal returns on agricultural investment.

Given the elasticity of poverty reduction to agricultural research spending they calculate (-.22) the marginal cost* of reducing poverty by another person in Sub-Saharan Africa through investments in agricultural research is only $71. (i.e. spending one billion dollars more on agricultural research would save an additional 14 million people from poverty.) This doesn’t consider the additional postive effects of improving local agriculture (for example reducing the incidence of famine).

Finally consider this quote from the paper for a sense of the work the CGIAR centers are funding and try not to feel as impressed as I do:

National and international agricultural research investments have generated a range of improved technologies, especially of modern varieties of the major food crops. A number of CGIAR centers have partnered with national programs and led major technology development efforts aimed at raising the yields of major food crops or averting yield losses that threatened the livelihoods of millions of Africans. The biological control of cassava mealybug in SSA led by IITA; high yielding, open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) of maize in West and Central Africa led by IITA and hybrids in Eastern and Southern Africa led by CIMMYT; high yielding and mosaic virus resistant cassava varieties in SSA led by IITA; high yielding wheat in Eastern and Southern Africa led by CIMMYT; hybrid sorghum in Sudan led by ICRISAT; semi-dwarf rice for irrigated regions in West Africa led by WARDA and IRRI; early maturing cowpeas in West Africa led by IITA; disease-resistant potatoes in Eastern and Central African highlands led by CIP; disease-resistant bean varieties in Kenya and Uganda led by CIAT; and improved fallows in Zambia led by ICRAF are now cited as outstanding success stories of technological change in food crop production in SSA. New varieties of potato, sweet potato, pearl millet, sorghum, groundnut, pigeon pea, soybean, chickpea, lentil, durum wheat, and barley have also increased the yields in areas where these were adopted.

*My training in economics is limited to introductory micro and macro economics courses, so I’m in no way qualified to evaluate the underlying calculations of this paper. The authors of the paper are also members of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, one of the 15 CGIAR centers, so they’ve got an interest in highlighting the results of increasing CGIAR funding. Weighing against those two points is the fact that their study was published in a peer reviewed journal, which required scientists trained in the same field of study but without connection to the authors to have read over the paper and had no major objections to data or reasoning presented by Drs Alene and Coulibaly.

**Setting up research centers, buying core equipment is expensive, but once the facilities are in place the cost of doing more research is much lower.

***Eventually all the easiest improvements to crops are made, so the cost of having an equal effect goes up because scientists are working with traits that are harder to tackle.

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