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What African governments can learn from U.S. agricultural history

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As 2013 draws to a close, U.S. farming has much to be thankful for—even without a new farm bill. USDA has just forecast that net farm income this year will reach $131 billion, 15% above last year, and the highest level in 40 years. In 2013 we will see the largest corn crop in U.S. history, alongside the third-largest soybean crop.

The United States’ high farm productivity can be traced, in the first instance, to sufficient public investments in agricultural research, going back to the original Hatch Act of 1887, which funded Agricultural Research Stations linked to the nation’s Land Grant university system. The resulting synergies between university-based education, research and extension launched more than a century of technical improvements leading to productivity gains on America’s farms. 

There are lessons in this history for the struggling lands of Africa today, where governments have yet to provide adequate funding for agricultural research. I defy anyone to visit a small farm in Africa and not come back alarmed at the low level of technical improvement. Only about 25% of African farmers today plant improved seeds. Only 4% have irrigation, most still do not use any chemical fertilizer, and veterinary medicine is almost entirely absent. 

Farm tasks are performed without any powered machinery, in part because only a small minority of African farmers enjoy access to fuel or electricity. Improved storage and transport is missing. Roughly 70% of African farmers live more than 2 kilometers from the nearest paved road, so nearly all household transport still takes the form of carrying things on foot. As a result of these deficits, cereal crop yields in Africa are only one-tenth as high as in Europe or North America, the average income of smallholders is only a bit more than $1 a day, and one-third of these smallholders are chronically under-nourished. 

Roughly 60% of African citizens are farmers, so overcoming these crippling deficits should be seen as Africa’s number one development task. This is a task that cannot be accomplished without much larger local investments in agricultural education, research, and extension. Farming technologies cannot be parachuted into Africa from the outside, because Africa’s crop mix is distinct, and its soil, water, climate, labor, and capital endowments are highly diverse. All this implies needs for a broad research effort based on site-specific and locally-done technical adaptation and development. 

Given the clear example of what the United States did for farm productivity using modern science, plus the more recent example of what Asian farmers gained from the green revolution science of the 1960s and 1970s, you might think that today’s political leaders in Africa would be eager to move down this same proven path. You might guess that these leaders would have been busy in recent years building strong public agricultural research systems, linked to public agricultural universities and extension services. You might think this, but in eight of 10 cases you would be wrong. Most governments in Africa have remained surprisingly disinterested in farm science as a pathway out of rural poverty. 

To judge the commitment of these governments to agriculture and farm science, you have to follow the money—or in this case, the lack of money. Even though more than 60% of their citizens depend on agriculture for income and employment, national governments in Africa have persistently spent only about 5% of their public budgets on any kind of agricultural development. By contrast, during the original green revolution in Asia governments typically spent 15% of their budget on agriculture, three times the African rate. In 1972, the government of India was spending 22% of its budget on agriculture, more than four times the average in Africa today. 

Africa’s leaders have repeatedly promised to do better, but so far with little result. At an African Union summit meeting in Maputo in 2003, Africa’s heads of government pledged to be spending at least 10% of their budgets on agriculture by the end of 2008. But when that deadline arrived, only six countries had met that target. Among many of the 39 countries that had not, the share of spending going to agriculture had actually declined between 2003 and 2009. Earlier this year, the ONE campaign did an updated review of the spending patterns of 19 African countries, and found that only 4 of the 19 had met the 10% target. Seven were “seriously off track,” with less than 5% of their expenditures going to agriculture. Three of the worst performing governments were Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. In all 19 of these countries together, government spending was falling $4.4 billion short of the pledged level. 

Regarding agricultural R&D specifically, spending by governments in Africa has been dangerously low for decades. According to a 2006 study by Beintama and Stads, between 1991-2000, the annual rate of growth of agricultural research spending in all of sub-Saharan Africa except Nigeria and the Republic of South Africa, was negative 3/10ths of 1%. Since 2000, there has been scant improvement. Africa’s own governments have established an investment “target” for R&D spending of 1% of agricultural GDP; as of 2006-08, out of 11 countries for which data was available, only 5 had met this “research intensity” target, and many were actually going in the wrong direction. 

Weak investment in agricultural research is not the only shortcoming of Africa’s governments today, but it ought to be among the easiest to solve. History shows there is no other path to farm productivity growth. Governments have pledged many times in the past to do better. Now, it would seem, is the time for them to deliver of these pledges.

Robert Paarlberg Robert Paarlberg (
Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College Adjunct Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School Author of "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know," 2nd edition to be published September 2013

View more posts by Robert Paarlberg

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.