Until very recently, the world was overwhelmingly agrarian and poor; today, an increasing number of developed societies are both overwhelmingly affluent and urban. But the role of agriculture in economic development presents a paradox. On the one hand, the transition out of agriculture is essential for the "structural transformation" that leads to mass prosperity--history is clear on this message. On the other hand, political measures to force rapid industrialization at the expense of agriculture cause the poor to suffer, and actually slow the overall pace of development.
In this sixth Henry Wendt Lecture, C. Peter Timmer, professor at Stanford University, warns that "a world without agriculture" as envisioned by many contemporary development economists is not the path to reduced hunger and poverty in those countries most at risk. Today, Timmer argues, poor countries tend to undervalue the role of their agricultural sectors in stimulating economic growth and reducing poverty--not always the same thing--while rich countries provide massive and distorting subsidies and protection to their own farmers. These circumstances can only be explained by the intersection of forces driven by the historical process of structural transformation and the political backlash generated by widening income gaps between rural and urban households. Getting agriculture “moving” in poor countries will be a crucial key to global poverty reduction in the years ahead, and understanding the complex political economy of agriculture in rich and poor countries will be instrumental in this effort.