March 14, 2008

What role plays agriculture in economic development?

In 2007-2008 agriculture became once again a major issue in the global agenda. Even, the World Bank recognizes the importance of this sector for economic development in its 2008 World Development Report. Another reason is linked to rising prices of agricultural commodities caused by drought in some major exporting countries (e.g. Australia), rising global consumption and growing use of agricultural commodities for biofuels. Some actors underlined that the 21th century will be the agricultural century.

Agriculture plays for sure an important role in development. In fact, according to IFAD, 2/3 of poor in developing countries live in rural areas.

Agriculture debates at the international level are always linked with the trade dimension. In fact, even if only around 10% of the global production is traded, trade plays a crucial role in agriculture because it influences greatly prices. Trade in crucial for farmers incomes as well as for the added-value produced by the agricultural sector. For this reason, agricultural negotiations at the WTO are very difficult.

Economic history, as Reinert and other authors show us, can give us some insight on the role of agriculture in development:

  • Never in the history a country succeed to achieve development through its agricultural sector. In fact, often agricultural products are subject to decreasing returns that, as we showed in a post on trade and development linkages, does not enable a country to develop successfully. Nevertheless, some products can be subject to increasing returns notably rare products (Japanese beef meat from cow daily massed with sake), transformed and typical products (e.g. Swiss cheese, wine, etc.) and likely biofuels.
  • Never in the history was rural development possible without the presence in the same region/country of an industrial sector providing inputs and tehcnological innovations. Historically only industrialization allowed to raise durably productivity in agriculture.

Nevertheless, agriculture can play an important role in development event if we take into account what the history tell us:

  • Agricultural exports enable countries to increase their incomes that can be used to implement a strategy of industrialization and of development of an advanced service sector. An interesting option to start industrialization is to create an industry that transforms agricultural commodities. Often, this industry is easier to set up than high-tech industry. This will increase the country income, by climbing the value chain. These additional resources will be invested again in order to improve industrialization and create new industries, jobs and incomes. In this way, a developing country can start a virtuous economic development cycle.
  • Agriculture can raising incomes and help poor farmers to increase their consumption and improve their education. These two outcomes will both increase the national/regional market size essential to allow the development of a national (temporary protected against international competition with tariffs) industrial sector and increase the opportunities of farmers (when productivity rise) to have the skills required to work in the industrial sector. This process is what we observed in developed countries history.

You will think: “If it is so easy, why only a bunch of developing countries succeed to achieve high growth rate?” The reason is quite simple. Developing countries faced huge difficulties to export their agricultural commodities at a fair price. Historically there were at least three reasons:

  • Developed countries subsidies depressed international as well as developing countries local prices. This both decreased farmers and developing countries incomes and pushes out of business many farmers. For this reason, nowadays number of developing countries, even net importers of agricultural products, cannot fully profit of their production potential. Developed countries subsidies are a partial explanation of the growth success of many developing countries between the end of WW II and the 70s (when subsidies were relatively low in developed countries) and the growth low rates in the 80s and 90s (when developed countries invest large amount of money in subsidies).
  • Developed countries, for long time basically the only market for developing countries, in order to protect their farmers, adopted high tariffs and implemented non-tariff measures that restrict greatly the acess to their markets. Subsidies also played a role. In fact, they caused overproduction and reduced the need of import. What is more, developed countries tariffs policies imposed higher tariffs on transformed products (tariff escalation) in order to protect their agro-industry. This constraint developing countries to continue to export commodities without having a chance to develop their transformation industry.
  • Agro-industry is an oligopoly of developed countries industries that take advantage of their dominant position by negotiating low prices with producers. This issue can be solved if the WTO rules will include an international antitrust policy. This was never very high on the agenda because developed countries want to continue to take advantage of their dominant position in many sectors.

Today, the situation is different. In fact, agricultural prices were very high the last couple of years. The consequences are that developing countries can use agriculture more profitably to start a sustainable development path. What is needed is a WTO agreement that:

  1. Pushes developed countries to decrease their subsidies and opens their market (and eliminate tariff escalation);
  1. Allows developing countries to implement policies (tariff and subsidies) to modernize their agriculture (and temporarily protect poor farmers until an industrial sector is developed) and to increase their competitiveness and export capabilities.

In conclusion, agriculture can be a powerful tool to start a sustainable growth and economic development. Nevertheless, barriers that prevent to realize this potential are still large. Doha Round negotiations do not seem to be likely to remove these barriers effectively.


IFAD (2001), Rural Poverty Report. The Challenge of Ending Rural Poverty

Reinert Erik S. (2007), How Rich Countries Got Rich... and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, New York, Carrol And Graf

World Bank (2008), World Development Report. Agriculture for development

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