There may be additional gains to risk-mitigating policies when rolled out nationwide that do not appear in the smaller-scale randomized controlled trials.
Rich farmers often use large amounts of fertilizer because in the event of a weather disaster, they will still have enough money to cover their day-to-day living needs. Poor farmers don’t have this luxury, leading them to invest small amounts of fertilizer for fear of not having enough money left to feed themselves or their families in the event of a storm or drought. But improved seeds have the potential to reduce this investment inequality. Previous research has found that improved, more durable seeds mitigate the risk of losing crops to bad weather. These seeds prompt farmers to invest more in fertilizer and high-yield farming activities, increasing their overall harvest output.
Donovan’s model reaffirmed this effect. However, Donovan’s simulation revealed other positive price effects that previous randomized controlled trials had not considered. As millions of Indian farmers implement improved seeds and grow their crop yields, his model found that the price of crops falls, making it easier for everyone — including the farmers themselves — to purchase food. With the more affordable prices of food, it is easier for poor farmers to feed their families, further reducing the risk farmers often face when confronting the possibility of poor weather conditions. They can properly invest in their fertilizer knowing they can easily feed their families if disaster strikes their harvest. Altogether, when accounting for this price effect, Donovan found that improved seeds increased agricultural productivity by 6% and GDP per worker by 5%.
Further, Donovan found this price effect reduces inequality between rich and poor farmers. For rich farmers, who were not previously concerned about the tradeoff between feeding their families and fertilizing their farms, the drop in crop prices lowers the value of their harvest. In turn, rich farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer they use. This excess material is then redistributed through market forces to poorer farmers. Ultimately, when implemented at scale, this improved seed program is projected to reduce inequality of farming inputs (fertilizers) and income between poor and rich farmers.
If you scale one of these programs, the gains are much larger than if you just replicated the results from one study,”
- Kevin Donovan
Mushfiq Mobarak, a Professor of Economics at Yale and an EGC affiliate, put the paper’s contribution in a different light. “Donovan’s paper tackles two of the most important, classical questions in the field of economic growth: Why are there such large productivity differences across countries? And more specifically, Why are productivity differences so much larger in the agriculture sector than the non-agricultural sector?”
Mobarak explained that the paper offers an elegant theory that can explain these facts: agricultural productivity is particularly low in poor countries because the high degree of risk faced by farm operators (e.g., from weather) acts as a major deterrent to investment in intermediate inputs like fertilizer. When efficiency is low, farm operators choose to use fewer intermediates to limit their exposure to bad shocks, which happen to be more costly when agents are closer to their subsistence requirements. When efficiency is low, farmers, especially poorer ones, choose to use fewer intermediates to limit their exposure to bad shocks, which happen to be more costly when agents are closer to their subsistence requirements
“Donovan explores the aggregate, economy-wide consequences of this, which is a nice complement to other micro papers that have used experiments with farmers to document the low investment in fertilizer in the face of risk,” Mobarak said. “This is the strength of the diversity of research approaches across faculty affiliated with EGC. Taken together, it provides more holistic understanding of development issues”
Implications for agricultural policy
The impact of crop insurance for smallholder farmers in poor countries makes intuitive sense: without the existential fear of weather shocks destroying their harvest, low-income farmers can make more optimal farming decisions. Donovan’s study fills a key gap in the literature by modeling the aggregate impacts that such factors can have on a country’s broader economy. The findings indicate that crop insurance and other risk mitigation strategies can have a significant impact on low-income countries’ agricultural productivity, narrowing the productivity gap between rich and poor countries and reducing inequality between farmers.
As policymakers in India and other developing countries strive to grow their economies and lift poor farmers out of poverty, these results show that lack of access to risk mitigation tools like crop insurance and improved seeds can have large potential benefits.
As noted by Donovan, “When we think about broad economic policy, we generally think of policy at the level of a state or country. Accurate policy debates must understand the effects that occur at scale.”
Research Summary by Diego Haro