Agriculture and (under)development

1. Introduction

The influence of agriculture to achieve sustainable and peaceful living conditions is often underestimated, or even ignored, but can have a profound effect in people's lives. This web page highlights some of the main factors contributing to (de)stabilization in the world viewed from the agricultural angle. It will move from a post-colonial situation in the late sixties during the Green Revolution, into the international political and economical arena and end with current and emerging technologies in agriculture, in what can be described as a neo-colonial situation by developed countries imposed on the rest of the world.


2. The Green Revolution

During the late '60s and early '70s, Norman Borlaugh and fellow researchers developed short straw varieties of wheat and rice1, 2. The positive side of these developments was rapid gains in production2, 3 of these staple foods, which were thought to be necessary to feed all the hungry mouths in the world. Feeding the people of world was considered that important, that Norman Borlaugh received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions, because

"world peace will not --and cannot-- be built on empty stomachs"1

However, from the late '70s onwards, it became clear that not all improved as intended: peasants with more arable land, fertilizers and water benefited more from the technological advancements, thus increasing the income gap, and the heavy use of soil resulted in severe environmental problems like erosion and salinization2, 3. During this period other tactics were used in tandem in an attempt to secure food production. These are discussed in the next chapter.


3. Politics and economy

Politics and agricultural economics go hand-in-hand, therefore the next paragraphs take this interdisciplinary approach in illustrating the (economic) policies devised over time.

For the unsuspecting reader it is important to note that 'agricultural economics' and the economics as dealt with in the media are two separate worlds. Agricultural economics does not start dealing with the sector once the farmers have produced a surplus intended for trading but takes the farming family as an economic unit as well, nor does it consider 'farmers' as a homogenous group, but considers small scale investment and stimulation as a research-able topic. Further, distinction is being made between poor-poor countries and poor-developing countries: standard world economics talks about 'the Third World', whereas the average yearly income of the citizens varies from $100 in the poorest nations to about $5000 in poor-but-emerging countries. This difference has a profound effect especially on implementation of technology-oriented policies: these transition economies do not have much capital to invest, but just about sufficient to invest and reap the benefits, whereas the poorest nations are left behind in the race.

3.1 EU and the rest of the world

3.1.1 Lomé conventions

In the early stages after ending of the colonial exploitation by several EU member states, bi-lateral agreements were agreed upon, the so-called Lomé conventions: the EU could secure supply of products like cane sugar, bananas and tuna fish, and the involved developing country, mainly former colonies4 like Jamaica, Surinam, Fiji and the Ivory Coast, could guarantee a fixed market of demand (e.g. 10 Metric tonnes of a product). "Advantages" of such agreements were that the imposed import levy into the EU was lower, or 0, than for the same product originating from countries. The GATT and WTO disagreed, initiated by filed formal complaints from countries like Honduras, Argentina and the United States, with such a preferential treatment5 (continued in §3.2).

3.1.2 Common Agriculture Policies

Although the Lomé conventions were made in mutual agreement, the EU still wanted some form of self-sustainability, in that the EU would be capable of producing sufficient food in case of international tumult. To achieve this, the Common Agricultural Policies were developed. Its focus was to support EU-regional production via a system of subsidies to compensate farmers who otherwise could not have competed against the world market prices2. The variable restitution kept the food prices lower on an international level, thus more difficult for emerging and transition countries (ETEs) to sell their surplus harvest, higher on a EU internal level due to the import levy and promoted overproduction of products like dairy and grain within the EU.
Realizing this could not continue, the first round of restructuring of the CAP started in 1992 with the so-called MacSherry reforms, transferring the subsidies from price subsidies to income subsidies with production-limiting measures like quota, crop rotation including fallow lands, and stimulating measures for ecological sites6, 7. Though all this may sound reasonable on paper, as of yet (2002), it still isn't fully implemented, partly because resistance of farmers: receiving extra money for work you have carried out in producing the (staple) foods makes psychologicall much more sense than being paid to do nothing. Nevertheless, the MacSherry reforms allowed the Uruguay Round to continue.

3.2 The Uruguay Round

The GATT negotiations covering agriculture for the first time were held in Uruguay. After lengthy (6 years, preparations started in 19868) negotiations it was agreed to make a start liberalizing the agricultural sector, following the IMF/WTO/World Bank mantra of "liberalization will make all things right". The main policy measures were cuts in levies and restitutions (tariffs) and phasing out the Lomé agreements8.
However, no matter what method used in calculating the possible effects, all but the OECD (who later revised their prognoses9) came to the conclusion that the effect of such measures would be an increase in world market prices of staple foods [Table 1] (which does not necessarily mean that the farmers will receive a fairer price for their produce; sure is that consumers have to pay more), with an overall economic effect nearing 0 (see also Appendix A-1)2, 4, 5.

Table 1. Effects of the liberalization by OECD countries on the world market prices of some agricultural products
(changes in % of reference year).
Model Wheat Other grains Meat Dairy Sugar
Anderson & Tyersa.
a. Production growth independent of prices
b. Production growth related to prices





Zietz & Valdèz
USDA/SWOPSIM (Krisshoff)
RUNS (Burniaux)
WALRAS (Burniaux)
Source: Goldin, I and Knudsen, O. (eds.). 1990. Agricultural trade liberalisation; implications for developing countries. OECD/World Bank, Paris.

Further, it has been asserted that the developing countries of the Lomé agreements are not geared up for competition on the international market5: they do earn more under Lomé as compared to the world market price (see Appendix A-2), but not sufficient to have developed the otherwise required infrastructure for competition, thus the EU essentially keeps them in a position of sustained underdevelopment in what seems to be a deadlock. Depending on your point of view, you can say that the EU is generous to those countries because of the higher prices being paid for their produce, or that it's merely exploitation in a way that is little (nothing more than strictly necessary) away from the critical threshold of (revolutionary) unrest.


4. New technologies and bioserfdom

Parallel to the outlined political end economical (dis)incentives, agricultural technology has developed itself into a multibillion dollar economy with the so-called 'Gene Giants' like Monsanto, DuPont, Zeneca, Epicyte (part of Dow Chemicals) etc. One could argue if we have understood the lessons learnt from the Green Revolution.

4.1 Primary Production

The new and emerging technologies in relation to the primary production process can be divided into research into the development of genetically modified crops (GMOs), and the use of the invented genetic alterations of the plant DNA.

4.1.1 Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property (IP) is a flexible concept, but in the agricultural sector it deals with the moral right on claiming DNA. Only since the last few years you cannot randomly patent DNA itself anymore, but only a unique application of a gene coding for a desirable characteristic like salt-tolerance. Western agriculture is predominantly based on monocultures using just one cultivar (i.e. all plants in a field are of the exact same genetic makeup), but wild varieties are required to develop new GMOs, resulting in the following scenario: take plants from diversity-rich areas in the 3rd World, create new plant varieties in the lab with that underutilized gene pool, patent the resulting GMO and sell it back to the peasants10, the Gene Giants making huge profits along the way.

4.1.2 Genetically Modified Plants

Having taken, and still taking, genes coding for desirable traits, the myriad of possibilities are only limited by human's imagination. The type of GMOs are divided into 3 generations:
  1. Pesticides: the new GMO plants are resistant to certain pesticides, in order to use exactly those pesticides to exterminate other weeds and increase crop yield. Of course, both have to be purchased with the same multinational company.3, 11, 12
  2. Traitor plants: allows a plant's traits to be "turned on or off" when a chemical is applied to the plant or seed11, for example draught tolerance or pesticide resistance on demand. A subgroup of traitor plants are the Terminator Seeds: GMO plants that produce sterile seeds in order to avoid cross fertilization of GMO plants with 'natural' plants10, 11, 13 . Gene Giants market this option as a novel way of 'biosafety'. This means that 1.4 billion peasants will need to buy new seeds yearly, instead of using a small part of last year's harvest, thereby losing basic control over their livelihoods. Both the technology and sociology are considered unethical3.
  3. The 3rd Generation GMO crops, mostly still in various stages of R&D, are the so-called pharma crops3, 14, where medicines are built in into the plant DNA, e.g. insulin, vaccines, extra vitamin B production, but also human antibodies functioning as human spermicide (as a new form of anti-conception). It is not possible to identify these GMO/non-GMO plant form the outside.

4.2 Secondary production and processing

Further up in the food production chain is the conversion from plant produce into meat, fostering the negative protein balance: edible tapioca, sorghum and soy from developing countries to function as feed for livestock in/for 1st World countries' meat-eating consumers. The ratio of meat to edible plant is about 1/5 - 1/7, i.e. a rather inefficient conversion of highly useful harvest which otherwise could have fed the malnourished people with healthy meals.

Last, I touch upon the food processing technology like the vanillin production, HFCS15 and 'fake cocoa'16: By using GMOs, mainly microorganisms, it is possible to produce these ingredients in Western countries in fermentors, thereby removing the dependency on ETEs like Madagascar, West Africa and the Philippines for these products. Implementations like the vanillin made 500.000 peasants in Madagascar and Indonesia redundant overnight. One can argue if this is just technological progress and tough luck for those farmers, or if some consideration and support for transition to other crops in the affected ETEs would have been a fairer approach. Applying new technologies is one thing, and not necessarily bad, but being aware of, and anticipating on, likely consequences as to implementing them in a sustainable and responsible manner is something entirely different


5. Concluding remarks

Despite the under exposition of agriculture in mainstream development discussions and its contribution to peace, partly because it represents a measly 13% of the world economy and 'standard' economy prefers to start with a situation of surplus and ponders how to utilize that17, it certainly does have an, possibly far reaching, effect on the provision of human's most basic need: food.

Some of the questions that sooner rather than later will need to be addressed to achieve sustainable agriculture and food production are: To end with a positive note: there is an increasing amount of (medium to highly) successful projects around the world that do stimulate sustainable agriculture and economic development, like the organic farming initiative in Cuba18 and micro-credit projects in India.



1. Anon. Food & agriculture... a growing world crisis! Serf Publishing Inc., 7/26/01, 2001.

2. Struif Bontkes, T.E., Boersma, R. and Augustijn, M.J.C. Landbouworiëntatie. Syllabus Vakgroep Algemene en Regionale Landbouwkunde, Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen. 1992. 210p.

3. Zerbe, N. Biotechnology and Rural Development: Implications for Southern African Agriculture. Department of Political Science York University. 2001. 40p.

4. Tims, W. Ontwikkelingslanden en EU-landbouwbeleid. In: EU-landbouwpolitiek van binnen en van buiten. Hoogh, J. de and Silvis, H.J. (eds). Wageningen: Wageningen Pers, 1994. pp 177-195.

5. Grynberg, R. The WTO incompatibility of the Lomé Convention trade provisions. Asia Pacific School of Economics and Management Working Papers, the Australian National University. March 1998. 29 p.

6. Berkhout, P. and Buck, W.S.J.M. EU-landbouwbeleid en de GATT. In: EU-landbouwpolitiek van binnen en van buiten. Hoogh, J. de and Silvis, H.J. (eds). Wageningen: Wageningen Pers, 1994. pp 162-176.

7. Stelt-Scheele, D.D. van der. EG-landbouwstructuurbeleid van Mansholt to MacSherry. In: EU-landbouwpolitiek van binnen en van buiten. Hoogh, J. de and Silvis, H.J. (eds). Wageningen: Wageningen Pers, 1994. pp 100-113.

8. Schott, J.J. and Buurman, J.W. The Uruguay Round - an assessment. Washington: Institute of International Economics. 1994. 219p

9. OECD. Agricultural Policies in emerging and transition economies. 2000. 153p.

10. Anon. Premio Nobel contra patentes geneticas. Red del Tercer Mundo, Económico, No 81.

11. ETC Group. Defend food sovereignty - Terminate terminator (terminatorbrochure02.pdf). ETC Group, Winnipeg, Manitoba. 2002. 6p.

12. Monbiot, G. Monsanto Solicits Africans. Synthesis/Regeneration, No 17, Fall 1998.

13. ETC group. Sterile Harvest: New Crop of Terminator Patents Threatens Food Sovereignty. Jan 31 2002.

14. Ribeiro, S. Maíz contra humanos. La Jornada, DF, 25 de enero del 2002.

15. Todt, A., Rehaag, R., Waskow, F und Zimmerman, H. Gentechnologie in de supermarkt. Amsterdam: Alternatieve Konsumentenbond. 1994. 122p.

16. Smink, G.C.J. and Hamstra, A.M. Impacts of new biotechnology in food production on consumers. Den Haag: SWOKA. 1995. 170p.

17. Martinussen, J. Focus on agricultural development. In: Society, State and Market. London: Zed Books. 1997. pp 129-142.

18. Rosset, P. and Benjamin, M. (eds.). The greening of the revolution - Cuba's experiment with organic agriculture. Australia: Ocean Press. 1999. 85p.



Table A-1. Alternative scenarios of liberalization in the agricultural sector, and its effects on GDP of countries
(in % of the GDP with a scenario of unchanged policies)

OECD countries
Developing countries
All countries
Liberalisation by:
    Developing countries
    All countries



Source: Parikh, et al, 1988 table 8.123.

Figure A-2. Effects of the Lomé conventions on the price of cane (sugar)4.

This is a write-up of a presentation held at 11-11-'02, part of the course PS5111 - Development issues and conflict transformation in emerging societies, Department of Government & Society, University of Limerick, Ireland