Food for innovative thought

New initiative will offer a fresh take on agricultural investment.
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

©David Rooney

More than two billion people in developing countries rely on agriculture to meet their basic food and income needs. While the development community has long recognised the importance of investments in agriculture to fuel economic growth, the strategies employed have been erratic, sometimes misdirected, and often ineffective. As a result, benefits that poor people might have derived from a vibrant agricultural sector have not materialised.

Of late, however, the poverty and hunger focus of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, plus the high profile accorded to agriculture by the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (a region in which the overwhelming share of the rural population depends on agriculture for both sustenance and livelihoods), and bold new initiatives such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the Rockefeller Foundation, are all putting the spotlight on the need for greater and more sustained investment in enhancing agriculture’s role in hunger and poverty alleviation. But capitalising on this renewed interest raises some challenging questions: To provide significant benefits to the poor, how much should be invested in agriculture? Where and in what? It is these questions that the new research initiative, HarvestChoice, seeks to answer.

Supported by the BMGF, HarvestChoice is a three-year project to generate new knowledge on investment strategies for enhancing the productivity of the cropping systems on which poor people most depend. Ultimately it will provide the poor with a greater share of the overall benefits from agricultural growth. As a complement to this effort, an international roundtable, also sponsored by the BMGF, was convened in Minneapolis on 4-5 April 2007, to assess the potential role of improved information systems in helping to transform crop production. The results of this dialogue, to be published in summer 2007, will feed into the design and implementation of HarvestChoice, and articulate a broader agenda for greater investment in critical knowledge and information systems.

HarvestChoice researchers will use an extensive set of analytical tools, including household surveys, detailed poverty and production system maps, crop growth simulation, and multi-market and multi-sector economic models. These tools will be applied to pinpointing the most promising investments for raising cropping system productivity and delivering improved outcomes for the poor.

“By better understanding the degree to which different types of households—rich, poor, urban, rural, female-headed, male-headed— engage in the production and consumption of different types of agricultural products,” notes Stanley Wood, senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and one of two HarvestChoice principal investigators, “we will be better able to target investments in raising productivity in ways that deliver the most benefits to poorer households.” Our graph, from a national household survey in Rwanda, illustrates the kind of data used and some of the issues to be taken into account.


Click here for bigger graph

The sweet potato is an important staple food in the diet of rural populations, who increase their per capita consumption at higher income levels. In urban areas, however, consumption is much lower and falls as incomes rise. With other higher-value crops, such as the common potato, urban consumption is higher than in rural areas and increases with incomes. In other words, improving sweet potatoes (e.g., the significant efforts currently being made to improve the vitamin A content of the sweet potato as a means of improving health status) will generate a much larger share of benefits for poor rural consumers, but those benefits can be expected to decline over time with increasing urbanisation and rising incomes. The evaluation framework attempts to value and compare such shifting patterns of economic benefits to different socio-economic groups.

As in the sweet potato example, researchers will also compare the geographic location of poor people with the location of major crop production systems within focus countries. The goal here is to better gauge where specific technologies, developed nationally or in similar locales in other countries, might be of most relevance to local communities.

To learn how to make efficient and effective use of new investments, HarvestChoice researchers will undertake economic assessments of potential crop production, consumption, prices and trade, and will study the likely hunger and income consequences of investing in a range of technology options used to address specific productivity conditions of poor farmers. What, for example, will be the relative payoffs to the poor of improved drought or weed tolerance in maize, stronger mosaic virus resistance of cassava, or better storage quality of potatoes? Researchers will also assess the potential benefits of alleviating constraints that currently undercut crop output and quality, such as drought, declining soil fertility, and pest and disease problems. Their findings will help investors and managers draw up a balance sheet of the likely benefits to poor people from different components of their research and development programmes. And because the evaluations will be made using disaggregated information, researchers and investors will be able to make more informed decisions about specific circumstances on the ground and avoid the pitfall of over-generalisation that has plagued agricultural development to date.

While the geographic focus of HarvestChoice is sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, research findings are likely to be relevant to other regions, such as Latin America, where trade and technology spillovers may also be significant.

“Despite the buzz surrounding a myriad of new agricultural technologies,” said Philip Pardey, director of InSTePP* and the other principal investigator for HarvestChoice, “the lag between investing in innovation and reaping the rewards is still substantial.” By generating strategic information as a basis for future investments, HarvestChoice will open the way for policymakers, researchers and investors to further advance agricultural technology in developing countries. Poor people will then be able to reap the benefits of development aid. After all, as Stanley Wood puts it, “educated investments yield both higher economic returns and better lives.”

* HarvestChoice is implemented jointly by IFPRI and the Center for International Science and Technology Practice and Policy (InSTePP) at the University of Minnesota and is supported by a distinguished, independent advisory panel. Implementation partners include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, several centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, plus universities, and individuals from public and private sector institutions.


OECD Observer N° 261 May 2007

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

OECD Observer Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Subscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To order your own paper editions,email

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • MCM logo
  • The following communiqué and Chair’s statement were issued at the close of the OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial level, this year presided by the Slovak Republic.
  • Food production will suffer some of the most immediate and brutal effects of climate change, with some regions of the world suffering far more than others. Only through unhindered global trade can we ensure that high-quality, nutritious food reaches those who need it most, Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD, and José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, write in their latest Project Syndicate article. Read the article here.
  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2019