On Science, Agriculture and Progress, Part 2

In my last post I challenged the “ceteris paribus” thinking of the two critical comments. Here, I’d like to focus on the larger historical context.

Take the closing sentence of the second comment: “Enough is enough! Give African farmers the tools and knowledge they need to lift themselves out of poverty.” A noble sentiment, to be sure, but one that seems to leave out some important questions.

Why are African farmers in poverty in the first place? Why don’t African farmers have tools and knowledge? Surly, no one would suggest that they have always been poor and never had the tools to deal with that condition. But, if we accept that, then we have to ask: Who took the tools and ignored the knowledge? Now the question of development has some context.

Take cocoa in Ghana. Historian Gareth Austin has pointed out that European schemes to improve cocoa production in Ghana in the 1910s and 1920s were a miserable failure. Large plantations set up according to scientific principles failed to be productive while African farmers, being very conscious of their available labor and resources, found ways to be productive and sustain their livelihood. But that knowledge was ignore by British colonial officials.

Since the 1970s, global processes driven by the interests of large chocolate manufacturers have pushed cocoa prices lower and lower. Adjusted for inflation, cocoa prices today are a fraction of  those in the late 1970s. How did this happen? The second comment claims that “Innovation is the driver of the secular decline in commodity prices that has generally been the norm over the last 90 years of progress in the agricultural sciences.”

Yes, but in the case of cocoa the drive of the industry to establish cocoa in areas where it had not been an important crop before was equally important. It is no accident that Indonesia came online as a cocoa producer just after global prices reached their peak in the late 1970s. Today, yhe process continues in Vietnam. And who benefited from the secular decline in cocoa prices? Not the farmers. Most of them are worse off today than they were 30 years ago.

But even if African farmers were to become the most efficient producers, there is no guarantee that they’d reap the rewards. Take Mali which is probably the most productive cotton producer in the world. But U.S. subsidies of its cotton producers has driven down world market prices leaving Malian producers without income. Take corn farmers in Mexico who have been driven off the land by subsidized U.S. corn. And the European Union is right up there with its agricultural subsidies.

At the same time Europe and the U.S. use their muscle either bilaterally or through the World Bank to prevent African countries from extending similar support to there farmers. The World Bank’s opposition to the fertilizer subsidy in Malawi is just one example. You see,  “ceteris” just isn’t “paribus.” Context matters.

To be continued …

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