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WB Calls for Renewed Emphasis on Agriculture for Development

The latest World Development Report calls for greater investment in agriculture in developing countries and warns that the sector must be placed at the center of the development agenda if the goals of halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 are to be realized.

Titled Agriculture for Development, the report says the agricultural and rural sectors have suffered from neglect and underinvestment over the past 20 years. While 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, a mere 4 percent of official development assistance goes to agriculture in developing countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, a region heavily reliant on agriculture for overall growth, public spending for farming is also only 4 percent of total government spending and the sector is still taxed at relatively high levels.

The World Bank Group is advocating a new 'agriculture for development' agenda. According to the WDR, for the poorest people, GDP growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth originating outside the sector.

"A dynamic 'agriculture for development' agenda can benefit the estimated 900 million rural people in the developing world who live on less than US$1 a day, most of whom are engaged in agriculture," said Robert B. Zoellick, World Bank Group president. "We need to give agriculture more prominence across the board. At the global level, countries must deliver on vital reforms such as cutting distorting subsidies and opening markets, while civil society groups, especially farmer organizations, need more say in setting the agricultural agenda."

According to the report, agriculture can offer pathways out of poverty if efforts are made to increase productivity in the staple foods sector; connect smallholders to rapidly expanding high-value horticulture, poultry, aquaculture, as well as dairy markets; and generate jobs in the rural nonfarm economy.

"Agricultural growth has been highly successful in reducing rural poverty in East Asia over the past 15 years," said Francois Bourguignon, World Bank chief economist and senior vice president, development economics. "The challenge is to sustain and expand agriculture's unique poverty-reducing power, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where the number of rural poor people is still rising and will continue to exceed the number of urban poor for at least another 30 years."

For its part, the Bank intends to continue increasing its support for agriculture and rural development, following a decline in lending in the 1980s and 1990s. Commitments in FY07 reached US$3.1 billion, marking an increase for the fourth straight year.

Detailed findings

The report also warns global food supplies are under pressure from expanding demand for food, feed, and biofuels; the rising price of energy; and increasing land and water scarcity; as well as the effects of climate change. This in turn is contributing to uncertainty about future food prices.

Agriculture consumes 85 percent of the world's utilized water and the sector contributes to deforestation, land degradation, and pollution. The report recommends measures to achieve more sustainable production systems and outlines incentives to protect the environment.

The report says in agriculture-based countries -- home to 417 million rural people, 170 million of whom live on less than US$1 a day -- the agricultural sector is essential to overall growth, poverty reduction, and food security. Most of these countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the sector employs 65 percent of the labor force and generates 32 percent of GDP growth.

For Sub-Saharan Africa's development, the report highlights issues to be urgently confronted: too little public spending on agriculture; donor support for emergency food aid with insufficient attention to income-raising investments; rich-country trade barriers and subsidies for key commodities such as cotton and oilseeds; and the under-recognized potential of millions of women who play a dominant role in farming.

In transforming countries such as China, India, and Morocco, agriculture contributes on average only 7 percent to GDP growth, but lagging rural incomes are a major source of political tensions. Dynamism in the rural and agricultural sectors is needed to narrow the rural-urban income gap and reduce rural poverty for 600 million poor while avoiding falling into subsidy and protection traps that will stymie growth and tax poor consumers.

In urbanized countries, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, agriculture contributes just 5 percent of GDP growth on average. However, rural areas are still home to 45 percent of the poor, and agribusiness and food services account for as much as one third of GDP. The broad goal is to link smallholders to modern food markets and provide remunerative jobs in rural areas.

The report says rich countries need to reform policies which harm the poor. For example, it is vital that the United States reduces cotton subsidies which depress prices for African smallholders. In the emerging area of biofuels, the problem is both restrictive tariffs and heavy subsidies in rich countries, which drive up food prices and limit export opportunities for efficient developing country producers. The report also asserts that industrialized countries that were the major contributors to global warming urgently need to do more to help poor farmers adapt their production systems to climate change.

(China Development Gateway October 20, 2007)

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