Bang for the Buck

Agricultural research is an often-overlooked way of advancing a variety of socioeconomic goals. In many cases, it can give a bigger bang for the buck than a more conventional approach of directly addressing other issues.

Norman Borlaug Statue
Statue of wheat breeder Norman Borlaug in the US Capitol. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he declared, "If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace."
Not every agricultural technology has been good for society. But lots have had historic significance, and by joining Grow Further you can help choose the right ones to get funded and make history in the right way.

 

Economic growth

As Samuel Johnson said, “Agriculture not only gives riches to a nation, but the only riches she can call her own.”  No country has ever successfully developed without first modernizing its agriculture. Recent studies have provided evidence of a causal relationship.

 

Climate adaptation

Agriculture is one of the human activities most sensitive to climate change. The cost of developing crops that resist drought and other climatic stresses is orders of magnitude less than the investment in clean energy required to significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

 

National security

The president of Haiti was ousted in 2008 over handling of food riots, caused by high prices that followed decades of reduced investment in agricultural research. Recent studies have demonstrated that, unless there’s something about droughts in Africa that affects politics outside of their effect on agriculture, droughts lead to crop failures and crop failures make wars more likely. Anecdotal evidence links problems in agriculture to wars and terrorism worldwide.

 

Education and employment

Economists who subscribe to the Todaro Hypothesis believe that the only effective way to reduce urban unemployment in developing countries is to improve opportunities in rural areas. Evidence from India suggests that areas whose geography helped farmers benefit most from new agricultural innovations saw greater improvements in education.

 

Women and minorities

Women and minorities do not always benefit from agricultural technologies–witness the growth of slavery after the cotton gin was invented. But they definitely can see disproportionate benefits, particularly from research targeted towards fruits and vegetables (for women) and marginal lands (for minorities). One study from a Brown University professor even suggested that expanding the cultivation of tea, a crop harvested by women, reduced the selective abortion of female fetuses in China.

 

Health and nutrition

Improvements in nutrition and sanitation, as well as improved medical care, have played key roles in improving health and life expectancy since the 19th Century. Improving sanitation often requires expensive investments in infrastructure, while developing more nutritious crops can be done on a shoe-string budget and probably represents one of the most cost-effective ways to improve public health. Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest challenges on the horizon in health care, and better ways of keeping livestock healthy and productive without antibiotics may help to slow resistance.

 

Environment

Some agricultural technologies, including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dams to supply irrigation water, have had negative effects on the environment, while GMOs have been controversial. However, research targeted toward environmental goals can help farmers produce more with fewer inputs and less land. According to the Borlaug Hypothesis, higher productivity not only helps to feed a growing population but also reduces the amount of land needed for cultivation, leaving more for nature. Anecdotal evidence for the hypothesis can be found throughout the eastern United States, where large areas of dairy pasture have returned to forest as dairy farming has become more productive.

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