Ag Research and Development in the 21st Century: Recent Evidence of Impacts on Poverty, Malnutrition and Resilience
The modern era of agricultural research for rural development began in the United States over 150 years ago and spread rapidly across the developing world over the past 50 years. Evidence about its impact has accumulated over time. To help align future research with the U.S. Government’s Global Food Security Strategy, we reviewed the most recent evidence published since 2010 for impacts on the specific objectives of poverty reduction, improved nutrition and greater resilience in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Our summary of the evidence is available in a complete literature review and video presentation.
Central findings from this evidence review are:
1. Agricultural research remains among the highest-return public investments. Existing agricultural research institutions have, on average, delivered rates of return to public investment above 30-40 percent, which is much higher than the 5-10 percent available to other public investments or the 2-5 percent cost of borrowing public funds. Recent studies have found no significant decline over time or differences across regions in these returns. As with other kinds of investment, payoffs are high because only a few investors are able to mobilize the required resources.
2. Agricultural research has reduced poverty. Where research has targeted agrifood systems serving the poor, they have benefited directly from higher productivity of the crops and livestock they raise, and lower real costs for the foods they need. Poverty reduction from productivity gains are especially large in regions where poverty is concentrated among smallholders with access to land, as in much of Africa today. Where the poor have less access to farmland, poverty reduction from higher productivity occurs primarily from lower food costs and increased nonfarm employment growth.
3. Agricultural research works even without other investments but makes them more attractive. Simulation models developed from estimates of household and market response show that agricultural research offers a lower-cost approach to poverty reduction because it leverages farmers’ own labor and land, and attracts additional private investment. Research offers even greater returns when additional public resources are provided such as irrigation and water management, infrastructure and transport or communication systems.
4. Agricultural research has improved nutrition. Adoption of innovations can improve diets directly and also through transformation of agrifood systems towards higher and more stable household incomes. A new study of 38 developing countries shows large decreases in all-cause infant mortality in villages to which modern variety seeds were introduced. Other studies document specific pathways towards improved diets and reduced disease, such as the introduction of nutrient-dense crops like orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, improved tomatoes and eggplant as well as reduced postharvest losses, protection against mycotoxins and other food safety threats, leading to better diets and more off-farm employment in value chains such as poultry or dairy.
5. Research for resilience is more recent but finds some success. New studies demonstrate how agrifood transformation reduces vulnerability to lean seasons and bad years in general. Specific pathways for resilience on farms include pest-resistant crops that reduce vulnerability to biotic stress, and livestock vaccines that reduce vulnerability to disease. Drought-resistant maize and submergence resistant rice are promising but may not spread rapidly unless they are bundled with other more obviously beneficial traits like higher yields. Social science research has helped governments develop programs to reduce vulnerability such as index insurance for African and Asian agriculture.
6. Recent literature helps guide future research priorities. Agricultural research remains a highly cost-effective instrument to improve productivity and can be steered to lower poverty, improve nutrition and build resilience in target regions. Priority-setting processes to reach nutrition and resilience objectives more quickly could involve a sequence of investment criteria such as the following:
- Will research results help adopters earn higher and more stable incomes? Evidence reveals faster adoption of more attractive innovations and rapid abandonment of techniques that fail to raise the user’s living standards.
- Will research results help lower and stabilize the real cost of nutrition and health? Impacts on nutrition depend on increasing access and lowering prices for a healthy diet, including safe nutrient-dense foods, as well as labor time for maternal and infant care.
- Will research results help protect households against emerging stressors? Impacts on resilience depend on innovations that address the specific stressors that are increasingly common in each location, such as emerging diseases, water scarcity and extreme weather, via direct resistance or agrifood transformation to escape from each kind of stress.
Carl Pray, Distinguished Professor of Agriculture, Food and Resource Economics, Rutgers University
Feed the Future Policy Research Consortium
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Phone: 1-848-932-9121
Will Masters, Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition and Department of Economics, Tufts University
Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Nutrition
Email: email@example.com; Phone: 1-617-636-3751