Photo Credit: Milo Mitchell / IFPRI

A recent literature review, prepared for USAID, clearly reveals that investments in agricultural research have made large contributions to poverty reduction, nutrition improvement, and resilience through the systemic transformation of local agriculture and food systems. The authors reviewed dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles and books published after 2000, with an emphasis on those published since 2010.

Here are a few of the central findings:

Agricultural research remains among the highest-return public investments. Investments in agricultural research were found to account for nearly all of the growth in Total Factor Productivity seen in recent years in Africa south of the Sahara, as well as a large share of global agricultural growth. Existing agricultural research institutions have, on average, delivered rates of return to public investment above 30-40 percent; this 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 also show that there has been no significant decline in these returns over time or differences in returns across various regions.

Agricultural research has reduced poverty. Agricultural research has been shown to be related to declines in poverty levels in Africa and Asia. Specifically, research to increase the productivity of important staple crops like rice, maize, beans, peanuts, and pigeon pea have played an important role in reducing poverty in these areas, as have investments in dairy technology and post-harvest processing and storage. In addition, recent global simulation models show that increasing agricultural production and productivity is a much more effective way of reducing poverty in poor countries than increasing productivity in the industrial sector.

Agricultural research works even without other investments, but also makes other investments more attractive. Agricultural research offers a lower-cost approach to poverty reduction because it leverages farmers’ own labor and land and attracts additional private investment. However, simulations show that of the investments in agricultural research are even more effective when coupled with other investments, such as irrigation, water storage, and infrastructure such as roads and communications.

Agricultural research has improved nutrition. Innovations can directly improve diets and can also transform agrifood systems to provide higher and more stable household incomes. A recent study shows that across 38 developing countries in various regions, where modern seed varieties were introduced, there were decreases in all-cause infant mortality across the board. Research can also provide ways to reduce post-harvest losses and food safety threats and improve nutrient-dense and disease-resistant crops.

Research to increase resilience is more recent but has still had some success. Agrifood transformation reduces households’ vulnerability to lean seasons and bad years, both through the introduction of more resilient crops and livestock and by helping governments develop programs to reduce the economic vulnerability of the agricultural sector.

Recent literature can help guide future research priorities. Agricultural research is a highly cost-effective channel through which to improve productivity, reduce poverty, and improve nutrition. According to the report, future investments in agricultural research should focus on the following criteria, which overlaps with research from IFPRI and AFDB regarding needed investments in value chains in Africa:

  1. Innovations that raise real household income and provide diversified income,
  2. Increased access to and affordability of safe, nutrient-dense staple foods, and
  3. Improvements in non-food-related determinants of nutrition outcomes, such as improved sanitation, reduction in disease-exposure, and women’s empowerment.

The authors conclude that the ultimate success of agricultural research should be measured not just by increases in overall production or more stable prices of basic commodities in major market centers, but also by more precise indicators of poverty reduction, nutrition, and resilience based on local conditions. Thus, future investments in agricultural research need to be tailored to the specific stressors common in each location, including but not limited to emerging diseases, water scarcity, and extreme weather conditions.

By: Jenn Campus

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