Alain de Janvry on everything from GMOs to the Green Revolution

Apr 7th, 2010 | By | Category: Ask the Experts

Aude Lorriaux interviews the economist about how GMOs can revolutionize agriculture and why the Green Revolution didn’t work in Africa.

by Aude Lorriaux           

Alain de Janvry is a French professor of Agricultural & Resource Economics. Teaching and researching at the University of California at Berkeley, at the high-level expert forum in Rome in October he called for a new paradigm of agriculture, that would push it forward for development, and would consider the roles of poverty, gender, and environment.

Africa Reporting Project : You mentioned a new paradigm in the development of agriculture. What does that mean?

Alain de Janvry : Basically what it says is that agriculture has many functions to play in development. You want to use agriculture not only for growth but you want to use it also for poverty reduction, to manage the environment, to reduce food insecurity, and exposure to shock. Agriculture has all those functions to play and you need to look at what you do with agriculture. How you produce food? Who is producing the food? Who is going to access to the food? You need to answer all those questions in order to jointly try to achieve all of those different goals of development.

ARP : What would be the agriculture of tomorrow? What should we developp?

ADJ : Clearly we have to raise yields and it should be done in an environmental and sustainable fashion. The opposition between agro-ecology and GMO is a false dichotomy. You can use GMOs and put them into agro-ecological farming systems which incorporate scientific technology. I don’t believe that farmers can do alone. I think there’s a very important role for science. Unfortunately, there’s a big lag in adoption of avalaible technology. Yet, it’s perfectly within reach. Science should include what the genetic progress has to offer instead of staying with the old tools of the plant breeders who do plant selection without using GMO’s. The worst you can do is to prevent investment into the science that  molecular biotechnology provides. But it has to be environmentally sustainable and it has to be accessible to small farmers in a social manner.

ARP : Why did the first Green Revolution, that allowed yields to be raised in India, not work for Africa ?

ADJ : The first reason is neglect.  The policies were bad policies in the sense of price incentive; public budget and foreign aid also didn’t support agriculture. There’s still a lack of investment in the agricultural research. The second reason is that in Asia you had already the public goods and infrastructure but in Africa you have to build everything at the same time. So it requires a kind of inter- or multi-sectors approach that would in the same time manage agriculture and health and public services. You need to create a complementarity accross sectors.

And also one of the difficulties is, because of the specificity and variety, you need local governements and therefore, decentralization. Many countries have been decentralizing but it’s still something that is not satisfying the people. Burkina Faso has been decentralizing but the local governments still would need to invest more in agriculture.

There has not been enough attention given to agriculture, not enough investment. The growth in agriculture consequently has only been the area expansion. Area, yet, is running out. Per capita area where people are tends to decline. There are some areas of course in Africa , but it’s not where people are. Actually, there are areas where agriculture could be eventually put in production but there would need to be some investments to link them to the markets, which is what the foreigners are looking forward to do.

China, Korea, and India are looking into accessing those lands in Africa. They could put in those infrastructures and bring some water control.

It’s the only region in the world where agriculture is laging so badly : yields are stagnant, food production per capita is really low.  Otherwise the specificity of the African agriculture is that it’s 90% rain-fed, as opposed to Asian agriculture which is mostly irrigated. As a result you have a much more complex system. Anything that has to do with rain-fed agriculture is much more complex. What was done in the Philippines with rice or in Mexico with corn could relatively easily translated to India and China. But in Africa the farming system is different. In Africa you don’t only have cereals, you have cassava, millet, potato, teff.  So from the beginning it’s a much more complex situation.

ARP : Is the rain-fed agriculture cultural or is it mainly because of the lack of investments?

ADJ : Obviously it’s because of the lack of investments but the question is why haven’t there been more investments. One of the issues which is important in that sense is that most of Africa is low population density. Places like the delta area in Vietnam or along the main rivers in China or the Gangetic plains in India have been able to invest in irrigation because there was a lot of population there. But what we observe is that Africa has a low population and then building infrastructure in Africa is very costly—organizing large scale water irrigation systems become very expensive per capita.

Though there are a few places in Africa where investments have been done. In Mali for example, where there’s the Office du Niger, and in Sudan, with the Gezira Scheme. Mali is working well in part because it has a good agriculture policy and good farmers organizations. And the infrasturcture, in part left by the colonial power, is good.  It’s not well-maintained because there is an invasion of Jacinthe, and they are unable to deal with this. But still the office du Niger is one of the most successful cases, along with Ghana and Senegal. So Mali is exporting crops, quite high-value crops.

ARP : And what country is not successful and why?

ADJ : In comparison, Nigeria is not successful. They have neglected to invest. The petrol there was so appreciating the exchange rate so they had unfavorable prices as a consequence. They have an influx of foreign currency, which means that imports are cheap and exports are not competitive. And as a consequence agriculture is facing cheap import.

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