February 16, 2006

Faculty Studies Technology to Reduce Poverty in Third World

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The problem of world hunger can be tackled on many fronts by those with the resources to do so. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is conducting groundbreaking work on this issue, helping to mitigate the problem by pinpointing economic and scientific reasons for starvation in third-world countries.

Prof. Christopher Barrett, applied economics and management, presented the results of a paper studying the link between rural poverty and agricultural performance in Madagascar last night. The paper, co-authored by Barrett and Bart Minten, manager of Cornell projects based in Madagascar, attempts to “determine how agricultural technology impacts poverty measures in a given country.”

“In some sense this is an obvious question with an obvious answer: that agricultural technology benefits the poor,” Barrett said. “Yet it proves very difficult to pin this question down, specifically, because it’s proven very difficult to get precise numbers.”

In order to pursue specific examples, he looked at advances in the production of rice, the primary crop in Madagascar, and its effects on various provinces and poverty levels in the nation.

Currently, more than half of the rice-growing population in Madagascar does not produce enough rice to feed their families, he said. For that reason the technological focus was based on SRI (System of Rice Intensification), which measured the advances in rice produced in a given region thanks to a technological advance.

“Seeing as Madagascar’s rice-growers are mostly unmechanized, you would expect that an increase in rice production would mean an increase in labor demand and therefore higher real wages,” Barrett said. “We collected specific data about rice-growing communes instead of households because they’re isolated, and thus easy to differentiate from each other.”

Barrett and Minten found that increases in rice productivity reduced food insecurity (the percentage of the population unable to eat three meals or more per day) by 30 to 40 percent on average, greatly helping the plight of those rice producers in the poorest regions of the country. Wage rates also increased on average, which affecting poor regions more acutely than rich regions. Rich regions, they found, were more likely to have workers who did not produce their own rice, and so overall effects that benefited rice producers had a greater effect on poverty-stricken areas.

“Average income, along with demand for rice, increased greatly when production was amplified,” he said. “This raised the overall economic health of poor regions, and provided more business for their primary industry.”

Prof. Peter Hobbs, crop and soil sciences, an attendee at the lecture, believed that the lecture presented a new perspective on an issue he has been tackling from a technical perspective.

“As an agronomist I tend to look at specific methods of increasing production, whereas he [Barrett] is looking at the social and economic side of the issue,” he said. “We can see that small increases in income would hopefully increase their overall education, giving them the chance to get out of poverty.”

Noroseheno Ralisoa, a native of Madagascar, attended in order to see what measures were being taken to fix farming issues in her home country.

“I was wondering what he would have to say about irrigation, because in Madagascar there is a big project now to increase irrigation standards,” she said. “It is not like in Asia, where they are prepared for floods. In Madagascar we have floods because of our irrigation systems, and food is lost.”

Archived article by Tom Beckwith
Sun Staff Writer