I am actually writing a paper about this, so it’s very much on my mind! Buckle up, this is gonna get long…
I work in what’s known as “farming systems analysis.” That means basically that I look at all the different components of rural smallholder livelihoods and how they fit together. Agriculture (narrow definition i.e. staple crops) is an important part of rural livelihoods. Agriculture more broadly, including horticultural crops–vegetables and fruit trees and what have you–and livestock is an even more important part. Which is why I usually say I work in agricultural development, because it’s simpler.
I think the job of agricultural development work is threefold: improve food security (at different scales, from household to global), improve farmers livelihoods, all while protecting the environment.
I don’t think you’ll find many people arguing with that broad definition, but as always the devil is in the details.
For example: one way to improve global food security might be to have a bunch of giant commercial farms using the best technology to get the highest yields possible. This is part of the logic behind “land grabs” in low population density areas. (Another big reason for land grabs is national food self-sufficiency which is mostly about politics and I’m not going into that here)
On the other hand, if you want to make more nutritious food available to rural people in Africa, you’d be better off looking at ways it can be produced locally–if for no other reason than that the transportation logistics, especially for anything perishable, are a nightmare. Side note: nutritious food is key, protein and micronutrient deficiencies are more widespread than overall lack of calories, especially in children and mothers. Which is why I do a lot of work with legumes. This is pretty clearly a place where improved production can make a difference.
If you’re concerned with helping people make more money, instead of focusing on staple crops like maize, you’re better off looking at high-value export crops (the role of cotton in Mali is a long story for another day), increasing the amount of processing you can do in rural areas (i.e. building a mango juice factory), or producing fruit, vegetables or livestock products for urban areas.
All of this can be done in ways that are more or less environmentally friendly. To be perfectly blunt, I’m not super concerned with environmentalism for its own sake–at least compared to people who are insistent that African farmers should grow organic and not expand onto any new land. Look: when you’re trying to feed your family you’re not going to care about cutting down some trees, and asking people to do so is just….just no. The exception here for me is with pesticides, because of the truly awful human health consequences of (mis)using the toxic shit that gets dumped in countries without well-enforced regulations.
So re: your question about the role of improving production, it’s complicated. Improving production is a good thing, no doubt, and there’s definitely a role for improved seed, improved management practices, etc. But improved technology is not, on its own, going to “feed the world” or “end rural poverty” as some people claim (these are popular “why should you care about my esoteric research” opener in ag science papers and a square on “conference buzzword bingo”).
I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope type calculations for the area where I work in Mali, which is one of the highest potential areas in the country–maybe the region. The results of that say, basically, that even if you improve yields of staple crops to the levels we get in scientist-managed trials, you’re only going to improve incomes to just above the World Bank’s absolute poverty line–which in Mali is US$250 per person per year (US$1.90/person/day at purchasing power parity). That is a very low bar. For comparison, if you go work in a gold mine, you average US$1225 per year. So you can push improved technology all you want, but who’s going to invest in fancy seeds when they can just send a couple of sons to go work elsewhere?
You do a lot better, incomes-wise, if you can expand land areas and add semi-intensive livestock production (raising sheep or selling milk are the things I’ve looked at). To do that requires labor-saving technology like tractors, as well as infrastructure–veterinary services for livestock, a cold chain for milk production. How you get those is the domain of politics and economics: farmers can only buy tractors if they can get credit (and that’s true everywhere, not just in Africa). You can only get milk (or vegetables, or anything perishable) to market if the roads work. You can’t keep animals alive without vaccines, which need to be administered by someone who knows what they’re doing, and in some cases need to be kept cold.
If you don’t have the other stuff, improving productivity is just, as my advisor likes to say, “optimizing a dysfunctional system.” You can make improvements on the margins, but there’s a limit to the extent of real change that can happen.
I guess in part my role is to point out some of this stuff: the limits of what we’re doing now, the things that can contribute to real systemic change, so that people in positions of power can make better decisions. And my role is also to identify those small-scale changes that might not solve the big problems but do make people’s lives better. Getting a supply of cowpea early in the rainy season might not solve poverty, but it does mean people get some high-protein food at a time when they’re trying to make last year’s maize stretch till this year’s harvest. And that matters. Like anywhere else, there’s things that should happen to change the systems that keep people in poverty, and there’s ways to make things better for people given the world as it is. And it’s good to keep those balanced.