It’s a point of pride among many Canadian farmers that their production efficiency is one of the main drivers behind this country’s economic wealth.
In the early decades of the 20th century, one in three Canadians farmed, a way of life that was highly labour intensive and just a notch or two above subsistence.
Farmers farmed to feed their families and sold the surplus to buy shoes. But as agriculture became more mechanized and productivity increased, workers were freed from the farm to seek better economic activities in town.
It was that kind of labour-force transition that helped grow our economy to where Canada is now among the wealthiest of nations, ranked about 14th in the world for purchasing power parity (PPP), a measure of what the average per capita income can buy.
Instead of feeding just their families, it’s widely acknowledged that the average North American farmer now produces enough food and fibre to feed around 155 people.
So when we look across the oceans towards some of the lesser-developed economies, it’s easy to presume they could — and should — follow a similar path to prosperity.
But that assumption would be wrong, at least for a country like Ethiopia.
For starters, instead of having one-third of its population tied to an agricultural lifestyle as was the case in Canada, four out of five Ethiopians farm. While Ethiopia desperately wants to modernize its agriculture as a means of expanding its economy and producing enough food to wean itself from humanitarian aid, it can’t afford to do it in a way that displaces the rural population.
"Because of its small manufacturing sector, the economy is not yet in a position to absorb significant increases in productivity in agriculture," an Ethiopian government strategy for development released last fall concedes.
The last thing any government should want is to relocate an already poor population into cities ill-equipped with jobs and basic housing, roads and sewer systems to accommodate the influx.
That’s especially so in a country with at least 80 ethnic groups and a history of opposing political ideologies, sometimes violently. The Arab Spring rose from the suburbs, not the countryside.
This is not to say modern technologies won’t play a role in Ethiopia’s drive to increase its agricultural output and grow its economy. But there is an important distinction between the effort to use agriculture as an economic driver and the ongoing push to improve the food and financial security of the majority of people who farm.
The strategies for one — attracting foreign investors to farm large tracts of land using all of the latest machinery, designer seeds and inputs — will be different from the other, which must be built around improved extension services, low-cost inputs and conservation.
Some economic studies suggest a focus on improving the productivity of the middle class of farmers will create more off-farm jobs than zeroing in on either side of the spectrum.
Just last year, the Ethiopian government launched a plan to achieve a green economy and a middle-class income for its 80 million people by 2025. As one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked 167th in PPP, it has a long way to go.
But one of the advantages of being so far behind is the ability to play leapfrog, skipping a few stages of the technological evolution to adopt the latest appropriate innovations.
For example, cellphone use is skyrocketing; the country will largely be spared the cost of developing land-line telecommunications throughout rural areas.
Developing a more efficient agricultural base, reforestation, harnessing renewable power such as hydroelectricity and using advanced transportation and building technologies are identified as the four key pillars of the country’s Green Economy Policy, launched in September 2011.
The Ethiopian government has noted its environment can’t afford the cost of pursuing the same path others followed to development — and neither can the world.
"Under current practices, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would more than double from 150 Mt CO2e (million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2010 to 400 Mt CO2e in 2030," the document says.
Instead, it plans to focus on strategies such as hydroelectricity over coal and electric railroads instead of roads to limit its carbon footprint.
If its green economy strategy unfolds as planned, Ethiopia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be at 2010 levels, the government says.
The plan is good fodder for the skeptics because it is so ambitious, expensive and dependent on foreign investment.
Nevertheless, it bears watching. Who knows? We might learn something.
* Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She recently returned from a tour of rural Ethiopia with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: [email protected]
* This item first appeared on the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2012.
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