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Archive for August 2018

Making South Africans more productive

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Economic growth is defined, in its most basic form, as doing more with less. Economists often overcomplicate things. We talk about ‘an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of 2%’ when in fact we could simply say ‘the average South African produced 2% more than last year’. More production translates into greater incomes. Take India and China. At an average growth rate of 7%, these countries will double their production/output/income in 10 years. In contrast, if South Africa continues to grow at 2% it will take 36 years to double our income. That is why South Africans are so upset: we see millions of Indians and Chinese growing wealthier, transforming their countries from subsistence breadbaskets to industrial and ICT powerhouses, while we are frustrated by the meagre increases in our living standards.

The Indians and Chinese also show that it is only economic growth that will allow us to escape poverty. We cannot redistribute ourselves rich. Even if incomes were equalised in South Africa, we would still be poorer than those Americans who live below the poverty line. The unescapable truth is that if we want to prosper, we need to make South Africans, all of us, more productive; we need to get South Africans to produce more than they do at the moment.

With an unemployment rate upwards of 30%, this would not seem to be too difficult a task. A lot of people are able and willing to work – to produce stuff – but they currently cannot find employment at the price they are willing to work for. How we address this mismatch is a question that should occupy the minds of the smartest people in our society. Perhaps we need more students to study growth theory, industrial organisation, labour economics and economic history – compared to India and China, for example, too few South Africans take up graduate studies in Economics. But perhaps we also need more scientists, entrepreneurs, tinkerers, coders, designers, educators and experimenters with the vision and ability to make their fellow citizens more productive. In short: we need more people like Norman Borlaug.

An agronomist who completed his PhD in plant pathology, Borlaug became fascinated as a student with the productivity of crop farming. In the 1940s, he moved to a research unit in Mexico where he began developing high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. His wheat varieties, combined with modern agricultural production techniques, soon improved Mexican farmers’ incomes, and then spread to other countries. By 1963, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India. In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the ‘Green Revolution’, a massive transformation of agricultural productivity in mostly Latin America and Asia.

A new NBER Working Paper by three economists spell out just how consequential this revolution was. They use variation in geography combined with the exogenous timing of agricultural research successes in high-yielding crops to measure the effect of the high-yielding crops on output. The results are startling: they find that a 10-percentage point increase in the share of area under high-yielding varieties in 2000 is associated with a massive 10-15 percentage point increase in per capita GDP. To put that differently, if a country moves from having no high-yielding crops to having half its crops of the high-yielding type, then income will almost double. That is why Borlaug is considered to have saved almost a billion people from starvation.

Higher agricultural output, in a Malthusian world, usually results in fertility increases as food becomes more abundant. But the authors also show that this was not the case with the Green Revolution. Higher agricultural yields actually reduced population size, as parents chose quality over quantity.

The paper also shows that the new high-yielding crop varieties, in contrast to what many environmentalists believe, actually benefited the environment. Increases in the area under high-yielding varieties has, the authors find, tended to reduce the amount of land devoted to agriculture – ‘improvements in the productivity of food crops actually lead to intensification of agriculture on a smaller land area, preventing expansion on the extensive margin’.

Their results suggest at least three lessons. First, there is huge potential for improving living standards in developing countries through new crop varieties remains. This is especially true in many African countries, where adoption is far from universal, and agriculture is still an important sector. Second, new biological technologies are available to increase productivity of some crops, both by increasing yields and by reducing costs – for example, disease-resistant varieties that minimise the need for spraying with costly pesticides. Third, ‘technology continues to have a huge potential for improving incomes in the poorest places on our planet’. Indeed, the authors’ results suggest that the investments in the development of high-yielding crops have been ‘the most successful form of foreign aid to developing countries in the past half century’.

By itself, land reform in South Africa will not be enough to improve living standards, as the rest of the continent’s poor agricultural productivity attest to. What is needed is large investments in developing new technologies – universities, research institutes and the research capacity of state-owned enterprises, with the help of foreign donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – to improve the productivity of our farms and factories and fibre-optic networks.

‘Whoever makes two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before,’ writes Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, ‘would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.’

Technology and scientific advancement is often last in line when the menu of economic policies are discussed in South Africa and on the rest of the continent. But technology that can ‘make two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before’ – or, in a more general sense, can make South Africans produce more with less – is the only way we can escape the stasis of the last decade, regardless of what South African politicians repeatedly promise.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 19 July edition of finweek.


Written by Johan Fourie

August 27, 2018 at 08:00

Why vegetarians are from Knysna and meat-eaters from the Karoo

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Talking about factor endowments sounds like one of the most boring dinner conversation topics ever. The land/labour ratio of India, Europe or Africa does little to whet the appetite, and might actually be a polite way to signal that the evening is coming to an end. And yet, factor endowments explain far more about ourselves – from what we produce and trade, to how we marry and what we eat – than we would care to admit.

The ratio between a country’s endowment of land and labour – the land/labour ratio – is common to economic theory. One of the central theories of international trade, for example – the Heckscher Ohlin theory – uses factor endowments to explain what countries produce and trade. In its most succinct form, it says that a country will export goods that use its abundant factors intensively, and import goods that use its scarce factors intensively. Basically, if South Africa has a lot of land relative to Bangladesh, then we should produce things that use land intensively (like cattle), and export this to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh should produce things that uses its most abundant factor – in this case labour – most intensively (like clothes), and export this to South Africa. Both countries would win from the trade. This is standard Econ 101 stuff.

But increasingly the land/labour ratio is used to not only explain a country’s comparative advantage in production, but also explain the social and cultural differences between places. How we marry is one example. Take the lobola, the bride price that is traditional to most marriages in southern and eastern Africa. Why do Africans have a lobola, while Indians have a dowry? One answer: factor endowments. See, Sub-Saharan Africa traditionally had a lot of land relative to people. A high land-to-labour ratio meant that people were immensely valued for their ability to perform labour. Women, given their reproductive ability, was therefore of great value, and powerful men would claim multiple wives to ensure not only a long lineage but also a large workforce. That is also why polygamy is still popular amongst many African societies across the continent, and why indigenous slavery (raids on neighbouring tribes to poach their people rather than their land) was a feature of precolonial Africa.

By contrast, labour is abundant in India relative to land. There the institution of bride price never emerged; instead, it would be a dowry system, where the bride or bride’s family would pay (in property or money) for the right to marry the husband. This was to consolidate the most important asset – land, not labour – to ensure a successful lineage. Europeans, incidentally, had the same low land-to-labour ratio, which is why it is typically the wife’s family who pays for the wedding in European custom.

Factor endowments, surprisingly, can also say much about what we eat. In a series of tweets on 12 June, Sarah Taber, agricultural scientist and host of the Farm to Taber podcast, explained just how our eating habits are the result of the environment and endowments (the land/water ratio) around us. She starts by mentioning that many cultures have traditionally had low or no-meat diets. Think of the Ganges valley, the Nile valley, or the Amazon. What do these places have in common? It rains a lot. This matters because in such environments, plants that humans can consume tend to grow, like those with tender stems, leaves and fruit, or those with enlarged seeds or energy storing roots. The rest of the plant is basically useless to us.

On the other hand, many societies, like the Mongols, the Bedouin, the Inuit or the Masai, have evolved to consume almost only meat. This is because they live in places that are dry or very cold, where plants are either very sparse or very tough, and made entirely of things that humans cannot digest. These plants are almost entirely cellulose, having tough stalks, fibrous leaves, and so on. But cows, sheep, goats, horses and camels can consume these scrubs with 3- to 4-chambered stomachs that turn the cellulose into sugars.

Taber goes on to say that we neglect to factor in these differences when we debate vegetarianism, for example: ‘Failure to recognize the role of local environment in diet is a major oversight in the vegetarian community at large. Traditional vegetarian societies are trotted out to showcase that low/no-meat diets are possible. But it’s done without recognition as to why those particular societies did it, and others did not.’ The key, she says, is that we fail to recognize that for dry regions, the bottleneck in productivity is not land. It is water.

She then explains that a farm in a dry area, if used for cultivating vegetables, might produce enough food to feed 10x the number of people than it would if it was to produce meat. But, she shows, it would require a 1000x more water to produce those vegetables. ‘In places where there’s limited land and a surplus of water, it makes a lot of sense to optimize for land. So there, grow and eat crops. And in places where there’s a lot of land and limited water, it makes sense to optimize for water. So there, grow and eat ruminants (meat).’

‘It’s really interesting to me that the conversation around vegetarianism and the environment is so strongly centred on an assumption that every place in the world is on the limited land/surplus plan. You know what region that describes really well? Northwestern Europe. In many ways, viewing low/no-meat diets as the One True Sustainable Way is very much a vestige of colonialism. It found a way of farming that works really well in NW Europe, assumed it must be universal, and tries to apply it to places where it absolutely does not pencil out.’

The next time you run out of dinner conversation, a discussion about factor endowments may not be such a bad option after all.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 7 July edition of finweek.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 18, 2018 at 09:03