April 26, 2018


The Economist’s Daily Chart says the developing world can produce even more food:

Poor countries tend to fall short of their agricultural potential because they use geographic resources less efficiently. That is the conclusion of a new working paper by Tasso Adamopoulos of York University and Diego Restuccia of the University of Toronto. Messrs Adamopoulos and Restuccia analysed 30 years of geographic data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, covering some 9m individual plots of land in 162 countries. The authors found that rich countries (the top 10% by GDP per person) are about three times as productive as poor ones (the bottom 10%). However, they estimated that if all the world’s farmers extracted the maximum potential output from their fields, the gap in yields between rich and poor countries would vanish almost entirely.


So what would it take for the developing world to catch up? Improving the mix of crops grown by farmers in poor countries, the authors reckon, would shrink the productivity gap by 20%. Improving efficiency—by adopting modern technologies and eliminating wasteful government policies, for example—would cover the remaining 80%. Such dramatic improvements have already been achieved in many places: according to the World Bank, today’s cereal-crop yields in lower-middle-income countries are three times higher than their historical level. The catch is that it has taken those economies 55 years to register those gains.

I’ve quoted at length because non-subscribers may not be able to crack The Economist paywall. Try this route if the other link doesn’t reach the article.

I know of a case in Uganda where an improved “mix of crops” and some advice on how to improve tilling had positive results in less than three years. The farmers involved had access to a European agronomist who was working for an NGO. I got to visit two farms with the agronomist and spend about an hour with one of the farmers. He assured me the results were remarkable — yields had improved and he and his wife had more money. He also said he wished he had received the advice 20 years ago. Then he gave me a very healthy pineapple to take to my wife in America. (I gave it to the cook at the guest house where I was staying.) The Ugandan government was not involved in the project but clearly it didn’t impede the NGO’s work. So why does it take 55 years to close the gap? New technology (mechanization being one example) can be expensive and developing nations lack the money. But I’ll bet wasteful government policies are major factors.”Wasteful” has to include government corruption, bureaucratic resistance and bureaucratic mismanagement.

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