Priorities and Opportunities in International Agriculture

Priorities and Opportunities in International Agriculture

With this paper, we provide an overview of some issues that have major impacts on global agricultural policy and make recommendations for action on both ongoing and emerging trends. Our paper is not exhaustive: we tend to focus mostly on agriculture and forestry (production) per se, and pay relatively little attention to issues such as food safety or nutrition. We similarly do not focus much on trade. We tackle more in depth important issues such as resilience, climate-smart agriculture, the role of smallholders, and others.

We start our paper with an introduction that provides the background and a statistical overview of the key trends, based on analysis of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Bank data. Although there is no dire crisis and the shock of the middle of the 2000–2010 decade has largely dissipated, we conclude the introduction by identifying continuing reasons for concern.

We then review how development agencies have handled the four issues that seem to dominate agency discourse: intensifying productivity, enhancing the role of the private sector and redefining the role of public policy and expenditure, reducing poverty, and funding research for dealing with climate change, development of marginal lands and other emerging problems. We discuss limits of land and water, possibilities for better use of marginal lands, options for focusing on export agriculture and not just food security narrowly understood as production for domestic consumption, and a need for deepened understanding of technical change and adoption processes.

In the next section, we propose high-level recommendations for policy makers and development agencies that could have the most impact on the issues identified. We propose these courses of action in the current context of a “post–Green Revolution period,” when the expansion of food production has slowed and the need to deal with increasingly complex problems has become much clearer. Our recommendations (many of which are interrelated) include the following:

  1. Analyze and propose models that assess tradeoffs between incentivizing food production versus incentivizing general value-added and income generation from the sector, for a variety of policy objectives.


  2. Create better analysis, modeling, and policy dialogue on use of water resources—especially on issues of pricing, irrigation, and the role of small versus large farmers in water use and management.


  3. Study farmer adoption of new technologies or improved complex production systems (e.g., agroforestry and agroforestry/livestock models) that could help them both adapt to emerging climate threats, intensify agriculture without increasing emissions and other forms of externalities, and increase the roles of small farmers in export agriculture.


  4. Produce models, based on analysis and modeling, for the development of marginal areas. Carry out policy dialogue and then field experimentation with models.


  5. Improve methods of land use planning using modeling and new technologies.


  6. In tandem with recommendation 1, explore the degree to which, and support policy dialogue on whether smallholders can benefit from high-valued added export agriculture, even in marginal lands, as opposed to assuming that an optimal role for them is in food production.


  7. Continue to improve the research and evidence base for agricultural policy setting, in general, via better modeling and applied political economy.


Finally, we conclude with an appendix that neatly summarizes the strategies and level of emphasis and expertise of 14 agencies on the issues.

Shawki Barghouti

Shawki Barghouti, PhD, is an independent consultant, former Director General of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, and Advisor to the Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank.

Doreen Collins

Doreen Collins, MPH, is Program Manager of RTI International’s Center for Clinical Research Network Coordination.

Luis Crouch

Luis Crouch, PhD, is Vice President and Chief Technical Officer in RTI’s International Development Group.

Massoud Moussavi

Massoud Moussavi, PhD, is an independent consultant and former senior staff member at the World Bank.