Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; mkhabelat@arc.agric.za. Photo: File
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected] Photo: File

Growing R&D agricultural gap is a problem

By Opinion Time of article published Nov 12, 2020

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The developing world faces the mammoth task of producing adequate food to meet the demands of its burgeoning population, as yield levels of major crops have struck a plateau.

Food and nutrition security are major concerns for the developing countries of the world and agricultural research and development (R&D) in a majority of these countries is at the crossroads.

The earlier days, when the benefits from technological breakthroughs attained by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research institutes and the public sector research of the developing countries, were spilling over to the developing countries seem to be over.

Cutting edge crops and animal research are capital-intensive and the private sector seems to be gaining the upper hand in investing and harnessing such. While the developing countries continued to bank upon public investment for their agricultural R&D during the 1990s, in the developed world, it is the private investment that dominates agricultural R&D.

Private sector investment will be contingent upon stringent and facilitating Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime. A robust IPR regime also has a bearing on public research institutions such as science councils, especially in incentivising innovation and generating the much needed revenue for research programmes that yield innovation.

It is hardly worth embellishing the technology-buying disadvantages of the developing nations. Suffice to say that with the shrinking base of public sector and private sector investment and the research benefits not spilling over, the increasing inequality is bound to exacerbate inter-country technology gaps and push a big majority of the developing countries to the brink of a technological poorhouse.

The most challenging task for planners and policy-makers is to match the demand and supply of food (and fibre). While the demand depends largely on the rate of growth of population, the supply depends on the application of improved production technologies on a given land, especially in big and land-scarce countries.

With population expansion, the demand for food has been ever increasing. While it took 102 years between 1825 and 1927 for the world population to increase by one billion, the next billion took only 33 years between 1927 and 1960, the subsequent billion has taken as little as 15 years between 1960 and 1975 and the rate of growth continues to accelerate.

The average annual rate of growth of world population has remained fairly high even in recent decades. For example, 1.98 percent during the sixties, 1.82 percent during the seventies, 1.7 percent during the eighties and 1.41 percent during the nineties, 1.14 percent during the last but one decade (2001–10) with a current population around 7.02 billion. The most significant demographic characteristic for the next century is that the bulk of population growth will occur in the developing world.

Besides dealing with the pressure exerted on food demand by the increasing population, developing countries have also been determined to boost production and bring about balance in the demand-supply chain.

A consistently rising production largely realised through technology-driven productivity or yield breakthroughs, is the strategic answer on the supply side. Agricultural growth and expanding food supplies have been sustained in varying forms and content by agricultural R&D.

Since the middle of the 20th century, a small group of rich countries such as the US, Japan, Germany and France have been the cradle for agricultural R&D. Both rich and poor countries depend on the agricultural research conducted in the private and public laboratories of these countries.

The public purpose and global outreach in agricultural research of these countries were manifested in their persistent efforts to innovate and deliver component technologies, almost philanthropically, to facilitate an increase in farm-level productivity and food security among the developing economies.

Those among the developing economies which endeavoured to put their domestic agricultural R&D base into a state of preparedness for acclimatising and absorbing imported technology on the one hand, and to put the needed market and institutional arrangements in place on the other, emerged as primary drivers of the adoption of new technologies.

On the positive side, the spread of Green Revolution Technology in certain regions of India, during the late 1960s, is the strongest testimony of how R&D could transform a food-deficit and food-importing economy into a food self-sufficient economy. The actors were mainly in the public sector and the impact domains were rice, wheat, soybean, sugarcane, reclamation of saline soils, watersheds, vaccines and diagnostics, to cite a few.

On the negative side, a very large part of the developing world, which is away from technological benefaction is now feared to become trapped into a technological orphanage, because of the changing rules of technology generation and marketing. This poses a real threat of world food deficit, hunger and malnutrition.

The main objective of this article is to confirm the technological infirmities of the developing world agriculture; to caution international development organisations; and facilitate policy makers in the developing world in according agricultural R&D top priority for addressing the threatening prospects of severe food deficit, hunger and malnutrition.

The technological weakness of the developing world, individual countries or regional, is seen in relation to the developed world realities. It encompasses R&D investment in all its manifestations: agricultural R&D in relation to overall R&D; agricultural R&D investment as a proportion of domestic GDP; agricultural R&D in public and private sectors, and agricultural R&D in relation to total rural population or population dependent on agriculture.

Similarly, four big developing countries (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) accounted for almost 50 percent of the public agricultural research money of the developing world in 2000, up from 37 percent in 1981.

The increasing unevenness is bound to exacerbate inter-country technology gaps and push a big majority of the developing countries to the brink of technological poor house.

It would be prudent for regions to identify countries that could become centres of agricultural R&D rather than each country striving to meet all its agricultural R&D needs. South Africa, in the Southern Africa or even African region, is poised to become such a centre of excellence given its research capabilities, technical know-how, infrastructure and higher education system – all of which are preconditions to successfully implementing and scaling-up agricultural R&D.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]


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