Development talk at the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society annual conference

A man carries a crate of onions. Photo by: Tory Taylor / USAID / CC BY-NC-ND

The Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society annual conference brought global experts in agriculture, horticulture and food security to Brisbane on Feb. 7-10 to discuss the state of play for the sector in the current politically charged world.

Climate change, Trump and Brexit were common points of discussion and Devex caught up with a number of speakers to discuss topics impacting the development sector.

Brexit and Trump

A hot topic among agricultural and horticultural specialists is the impact Brexit and Trump will have on agricultural trade. A keynote presentation by L. Alan Winters, professor of economics at the University of Sussex, explored the impact of Brexit on agricultural subsidies.

“People thought trade and globalization was a done deal and irreversible,” Winters told Devex. “To suddenly be right at the top of the priority lists of research and policy is a major shift in global economics. With Brexit and Trump, what changes is suddenly the risks and opportunities are greater.”

The impact may be especially felt by developing countries looking to expand their markets and economic opportunities.

“If the world economy starts to fracture, developing economies are going to have to decide which team they are signing up with,” Winters said. Rather than having a large, open market to sell goods to, developing economies will have a single trading partner. “This will mean developing countries become more reliant on the commercial interests of one large, rich economy. Ultimately the benefits of trade will be eroded with less opportunities to develop new markets.”

For developing economies, Winters believes the current trading system is the best opportunity for economic advancement. But he urges such countries to start taking action now to plan ahead for what may come.

“Watching and waiting is very important, but developing economies need to gear up to join the conversation when the conversation comes live,” Winters advised. “As Britain, for instance, seeks to establish its own tariff schedule in the WTO, developing countries need to register their interests and engage with the British government through DfID.”

Winters also encourages developing countries to take appropriate steps to become more efficient and effective trading partners by reducing red tape and other barriers to import and export processes.

And Winters said he will be closely following the action over the coming years to analyze how the politics of today impact developing countries now and in the future.

Climate and agriculture

Discussions of agriculture go hand-in-hand with discussions of weather and climate through the direct impact of weather events on growth and yield.

John Beddington, co-chair of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, discussed in his keynote address the legacy the 20th century has left for today — issues of security, water, energy and climate change. Improved life expectancy, meanwhile, has led to a larger and growing population that needs to be fed. “These problems are well known, but not easily solvable,” he told Devex.

To meet the demand for an increasing and increasingly prosperous population, Bedding said that global crop yield will need to increase by 2.5 percent year-on-year. “Agriculture needs to become more efficient.”

Technology is going to become an important player with “big solutions” in the biological area, such as gene editing to improve yield and resistance to diseases. And computers will design materials for farming that are more efficient and solve formerly unsolvable problems, including predicting the impact of climate change.

Agricultural scientists, he believes, also need to become more effective in fighting climate change. “Agriculture currently produces a lot of greenhouse gasses, which needs to be addressed. There was work a few years back on climate smart agriculture, which is really important but it is not being pushed in the way that I would like to see.”

Beddington is also urging scientists worldwide to speak out against anti-climate rhetoric. “There so much anti-climate discussion that is scientific nonsense,” he said. “Scientists need to be prepared to come out of the lab and attack.”

With the state of world and the urgency for food security, it is an important fight for the agricultural and horticultural sector to take up.

Encouraging developing countries to take leaps in the food-to-market process

Malcolm Wegener, an honorary senior research fellow at the University of Queensland, highlighted his concerns that developing countries were still behind the rest of the world when it comes to the food-to-market supply chain.

“In August last year, I went to visit a wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Surabaya in Indonesia,” he explained to Devex. “What I saw was very reminiscent of what I knew from my childhood at the old Brisbane wholesale fruit and vegetable market.”

Developing countries such as Indonesia, Wegener said, were still operating 40 years behind developed worlds. He pointed out that many small producers create the same commodity and go to the market at the same time. “They tend to have poor market information while buyers have superior information and there are many middle men in the supply chain taking their cut.”

But technology can enable them to overcome supply chain barriers. By better utilizing mobile technology and data, they can better target the production of food for the highest value year round and produce better quality products. And when smallholder farmers combine to create a larger supply network, they can compete with larger suppliers to deliver products to the more valuable supermarket chains.

Wegener is confident there is already work progressing, but it is not a large scale. “Australia has set up a project in a number of developing countries called PRISMA to improve access to markets, and many people in Indonesia are thinking about this way of business. But it needs to be bigger.”

To help developing countries skip decades of the food-to-market evolution chain experienced in the developed world, Wegener is keen to encourage development donors and NGOs to work with smallholder farmers to make technology and networks a natural part of their business process.

“I am pretty confident this will be self-perpetuating, but it needs a push.” Wegener said.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.