Journal Issue

What Kind of Agricultural Research?

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
June 1965
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C. P. McMeekan

A life that has combined the romantic role of research in a developing country with the hard facts of investment banking in a wide range of emerging nations has given me one outstanding impression: while organized research in the field of agriculture in underdeveloped countries is largely noticeable by its absence, the research that is done rarely involves an effective partnership between economics and technology.

Most agricultural research in needy countries is based on the thinking and approach of the highly developed Western world; seldom is it directed toward meeting the countries’ own development needs. This has serious consequences. The inadequacy of local data on methods, possibilities, and potentials makes it difficult to plan investment in agricultural development in these countries; it can even relegate planning to the realm of guesswork, with all the dangers implicit in such a state of affairs. It also hampers and frustrates outside participation in agricultural preinvestment studies and investment programs. The situation is particularly galling because economically oriented research programs—those that take account of a country’s economic realities—could so easily have provided the necessary data.

The lack of such studies not only impedes the World Bank’s ability to play an effective role in the agricultural development of its member countries; it also obstructs or may misdirect these countries’ own efforts to improve the pattern of agriculture. Fortunately, the task of realigning agricultural research policies and programs to give them a more practical economically oriented cast may be less difficult in countries where the research organization is still embryonic, or at an early stage of evolution, than in those where the vested interests of long-established groups tend to work strongly against changes in outlook or approach.

The governments of emerging countries should not be blamed for the present situation. Their leaders have long been aware that the economy of the highly developed nations is based largely upon superior technology and that the know-how has its roots in research. Research is a good thing! It is the key to progress! Research must be fostered! Advocates of these views look to the developed lands for guidance in this new adventure. They develop programs similar to those they see. They import advisors. They send their young men abroad for training. They bring them back and support them in whatever they have been trained to do.

Research for the Future

But what these new nations see is the agricultural research of today and not that of yesterday. They see thousands of scientists in the United States engaged in highly specialized studies geared to a future already within the grasp of such a sophisticated agricultural nation. They see men exploring the mysteries of metabolism of plants and animals with elaborate and expensive radio isotope techniques; they find others probing cellular structure with powerful electron microscopes to provide clues to the mechanism of inheritance; they observe large groups attempting to elucidate the mysteries by which hormones control reproduction, milk secretion, growth, and disease. And when they turn toward Europe they see the same kind of activity.

What they do not see and are not told is that this kind of research—research for the distant future—has been made possible only by successful accomplishment in a much less exotic area of activity—the solution of immediate problems hindering development. The wealthy countries can afford the luxury of the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge because they have previously subjected themselves to the discipline of securing reasonably effective control over their environment by simple methods based on a clear concept of needs.

What the needy nations do not appreciate when they import advisors is that these are rarely close enough to the pioneering stage of their countries of origin to be able to adapt themselves to new environments with physical, social, economic and political problems so radically different from those they know. The agricultural scientist, the general practitioner who made the useful advances in the past, hardly exists any longer in North America or Europe. He is no longer being trained. Few of the specialists who have replaced him really know “farming” for the complex that it is. Their work of today is no longer dominated by immediate usefulness. It lies in fields that are often only remotely connected with agricultural production as it now exists. Inevitably, these men are handicapped in a raw environment. Few understand the power of radically different economic forces that make it quite unrealistic to attempt to transfer methods and approaches of their own countries to the less developed lands.

Then what about the young men who are sent to the developed countries for training? Surely they have a realistic understanding of problems in their homelands? Unfortunately, this is often not so; or at least not so by the time they go home. Generally, they return home with outlooks and techniques much too advanced for their countries’ needs. They are specialists because their tutors are specialists. They absorb a philosophy of modern science that attaches more merit to publication in a scientific journal to enhance their specialist reputation than to the dignity of immediately useful but unpublishable work. It is difficult to induce these young specialists to take on such mundane jobs as the testing of different cultivation practices, the better feeding of a pig, or the rather dirty routine of diagnosing pregnancy in a cow to provide a basis to better cow management systems.

Practical Problems

The prime responsibility of the agricultural scientist is to serve the industry of which he is a part. In any developing country, this defines very clearly the work to be done. In practice it means applied rather than basic research, the latter being left to the developed countries that can afford it. It means that the agricultural technologist takes established principles and promising theories and develops from them techniques that can be fitted into a pattern and program of production. Acceptance of this view does not imply a lack of interest or non-participation in basic research that turns up new knowledge, evolves new theories, or modifies old ones. Soundly designed and executed, applied research often does these things as byproducts of the main objective. This is fortunate because it recruits and retains within the field of applied agriculture those bright creative minds that are essential to it. However, in contrast to the attitude of the purist who avoids like a plague any taint of economic justification for his existence, the applied agricultural research worker is proudly dedicated to the underlying motive of usefulness.

These views have their impacts upon the work of the agricultural economist. His research priorities, too, must lie in the direction of assisting the technologist. He must provide appropriate analyses of economic forces capable of modification through technical attack. In this, he must measure the impact of definable technological weaknesses upon efficiency. These things must be done with a keen sense of priorities; perhaps his most vital function is to pinpoint priority needs. The agricultural economist, like the agricultural scientist, should above all seek to be useful. In this he must recognize his dependence on technology if his attitude is to be creative and forward looking rather than merely descriptive or historical. Without appreciation of the need for and potentials of conscious partnership along common lines, each group runs the risk of working in a vacuum. It is a tragedy that this risk is a reality in so many countries.


New Zealand provides an example of the economic and social dividends that can come from conscious pursuit of realistic policies for agricultural research. New Zealand is still an under-developed country in the sense that its natural resources of land and climate are still far from being fully exploited even on a basis of existing know-how. Thirty years ago, when organized agricultural research was just beginning, it was much less developed; the problems that then faced New Zealand in the development of a modern agriculture were little different in principle and nature from those facing most of the newly emerging nations today. There was no organized agricultural research. The use of land was based upon rule of thumb experience, upon tradition, upon trial and error. There were few facts upon which to base planned development. There was, however, a widespread consciousness of potentials, and in particular of the possibilities of translating the principles underlying farming advances in Europe and North America to the New Zealand scene. The major problem was how.

Applied Economics

From the first, organized research in the field of animal production—the main business of New Zealand—was based on a marriage between economics and technology. This union was strongly influenced by a study of the dairy industry made in 1926. This provided the first critical appraisal of this industry in terms of inputs and outputs and of the relative importance of measurable factors affecting efficiency. The study highlighted five main points: the overwhelming importance of pastures rather than forage crops and concentrates; the key importance of output per labor unit; the major contribution of animals per unit area, rather than output per animal, to production per acre; and output per acre as the most significant single criterion of economic efficiency.

These five points set the pattern of the research program, which other individuals and institutions carried forward. The first sent New Zealand along the road of pasture exploitation for low-cost milk production and thus to becoming the only significant dairying country where grass is the sole dairy feed. A grassland research station concentrated on improvement of suitable species of grasses and clovers, on high quality seed production based on certification of quality, and on studies designed to achieve maximum production. Soil and fertilizer units devised fertilizer practices to the same end. Management units concentrated on better utilization so that a maximum of the feed produced was turned into milk.

The second factor, output per labor unit, focused the attention of special teams on milking and management procedures to achieve maximum output per man. Better milking machines, automatic cleaning, nonstripping, machine stripping, and the ‘herring bone dairy’ transformed an arduous chore to a factory operation and stepped up the number of cows milked per man to 90 head.

The concept of high stocking rate as the key to high per acre output and maximum economic production led to revolutionary attitudes and practices in grassland management which are slowly spreading to the rest of the grassland world. Teamwork by pasture, animal husbandry, and veterinary practitioners at the now well-known Ruakura Animal Research Station lifted milk yield targets from 500 gallons to 1,200 gallons of milk per acre from grass alone.

Applied Science

These approaches enabled the pattern of dairy research to be extended. Analysis of the causes of dairy herd wastage justified and stimulated technical efforts to eliminate those causing maximum loss. New Zealand became the first country to make national use of vaccines to control contagious abortion and blackleg, and of penicillin to control mastitis. Extension of this economic approach to sheep and beef cattle farming provided guidelines which shaped the pattern of research into wool, fat lamb, mutton, and beef production with similar spectacular results. In the last 15 years, during which the sheep population of her two foremost competitors in South America remained static, that of New Zealand doubled to over 50 million head. Today New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of dairy produce and mutton, and the second largest supplier of wool to world markets. Its people enjoy a standard of living comparable to that of the most advanced countries.

All these advances were based on a conscious effort to take the existing principles of northern hemisphere science and to work out practical ways of applying them to the realities of the New Zealand scene. In practice, many techniques of key importance in America and Europe had to be abandoned. All technical research was economically oriented. The spectacular transformation of millions of acres of New Zealand land by application of the trace elements, cobalt, copper, molybdenum, or selenium, for example, did not arise from the inquisitiveness of back room scientists about the role of individual chemicals upon plant and animal health. It sprang from the determined and sustained effort of scientists dedicated to conversion of useless lands into usable ones.

This whole attitude and approach virtually forced the adoption of a special type of research organization—a project basis to research in which the requisite specialists, including economists, were drawn together in teams with the common objective of attacking the problem decided upon.

This is in marked contrast to the more usual type of organization where scientists are grouped in relatively independent specialist departments and where in consequence coordination, most particularly economic coordination, is most difficult to obtain. The project method tends to keep the feet of the scientist firmly on the ground. Specialist departmentalism easily leads to his occupying a zone so high in the air that he is often unconscious that the farmer exists beneath as an economic being.

The reasons New Zealanders went about the business of technical research in the way they did is because their environment forced this approach upon them. They were conscious of the tremendous and pressing problems of a raw and undeveloped land. They belonged to a young nation in a hurry to grow up. They were interested in a high standard of living for their people and themselves. Their immediate needs were pressing and clearcut. In this general climate, they had no alternative.

One is tempted to draw an analogy with Denmark, where the economic crisis at the turn of the century, through the opening up of lands of the new world, forced a new way of life on the people and was responsible for the economic bias of agricultural research for which Denmark has been renowned ever since. One is equally tempted to look at the converse in the United Kingdom, which so long relied upon the farm lands of her dominions and colonies to the detriment of her own agriculture—a situation perhaps largely responsible for the preoccupation of British agricultural research workers with the pure rather than the applied and for the lack of conscious planned attack on production, problems of economic importance. When I reviewed the organization and programs of the major production research stations of Britain in 1958, on behalf of the Agricultural Research Council, I found that none employed an agricultural economist, and that few programs and projects were based or justified on economic grounds. I was staggered to find scientists so rarely exposed to the thinking of farmers and with so little knowledge of, or interest in, the practical problems of the industry they were selected and paid to serve. I am not unconscious or unappreciative of the substantial contributions to knowledge that have come from the British system. It is not without significance, however, that countries other than Britain herself—particularly New Zealand—have capitalized on this knowledge more rapidly and efficiently. This capitalization is what the less developed countries should and can do.


International agencies have not been unaware of the agricultural needs of the underdeveloped world. Several organizations have set out to meet these needs and have expended a tremendous effort in recent years.

The results have fallen far short of expectations, although the general objectives of each project are usually soundly based. They have aimed at making some positive contribution to the economic and technical solution of the problems of the country concerned. The weakness has been in execution. Here the problem is one of sub-agency remote control and of staffing. For reasons already outlined, recruited staff are not always suitable. Too often they regard their period of temporary though highly paid exile as a means of following up some basic scientific problem which would add to their personal scientific reputation. Remote from contact and knowledge of actual local conditions and needs, too often the executing sub-agency has condoned and even encouraged this.

For example, a project that should have aimed, in practice, at increasing the efficiency of animal production in an animal producing country was allowed to become concentrated upon a scientifically interesting disease, the economic importance of which is insignificant in relation to economic problems of calving percentage, slow growth rate, and low output per hectare per man and per unit of capital investment. Similarly, with a project on dairying in a country whose people desperately need milk, the efforts of the expatriate group as a whole have been channeled toward solution of fundamental problems of cattle physiology in hot humid environments and not upon the job of converting millions of acres of tropic pastures to milk. There seems little justification for the provision of radio isotope equipment to a country where the economic need is for elementary studies on how to use better the feed supplies available, rather than exploration of the fate of minerals in the animal body, especially since the equipment concerned has not been used since it was installed by expensive and highly trained technicians several years ago.

This trap of transfer of technologies is difficult to avoid—I have been caught in it myself. I have fostered trainees to whom the practical techniques of artificial insemination were imparted, and who have not applied this knowledge to improve the welfare of their farming communities but have engaged in academic studies concerning the travel of spermatozoa up the genital tracts of mice and rabbits. The fact that such studies had already been investigated by much better qualified people escaped the notice of the individuals as well as the agency concerned. These are not isolated examples. In consulting work round the world, I have found them to be the rule rather than the exception.


What can be done about all this? There are some positive approaches.

There is then the need to ensure that research in underdeveloped areas is economically oriented. Apart from direct support of survey studies designed to point the way to useful research, the World Bank could get together with existing agencies with the objective of making their contributions more positive. It could write into many of its loan operations support for research and advisory services designed to make projects more rewarding to all concerned. This would not be a new venture.

Basic to the whole problem is the matter of training. The time has arrived to establish, with international aid, a series of regional training establishments in the fields of crop production, grassland improvement, and animal production, of such status that they could attract the best qualified young men of the emerging countries, who would be sent to them automatically for training. The British help to Trinidad and the Bank help to Los Baños in the Philippines are examples of positive action of this type. The established research organizations of the Western world, which lie in temperate and not tropical zones, cannot meet this need. The Bank could help more to set up such centers, just as it has supported other kinds of educational activity in underdeveloped areas.

Western science has a great deal to contribute to the less developed nations. This contribution, however, must be geared to the needs of such nations and not to the standard attitudes of Western countries. The training of peoples of less developed nations should not be accepted unless a special responsibility is recognized. Our top universities are not incapable of adjusting themselves to the needs. They must be impressed, however, with the necessity of adjustment. They should be helped with appropriate financial support.

If I were asked to draft a manifesto for the revolution that is needed in agricultural research in the developing countries, I should stress a few vital points. The first, of course, is the ideal aim of “usefulness.” The second would be cooperation between agricultural researchers and economists—and also administrators and politicians, who, like the first two groups, would have to nurture the ideal of usefulness in all their planning and thinking. Finally, the efforts of these groups in the developing countries would have to be backed up by fresh thought, new attitudes, and new kinds of help, to which I would hope that the World Bank group might well make an important contribution.

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