South African Agricultural Research and Development: A Century of Change

By: Liebenberg, Frikki, Pardey, Philip G. and Kahn, Michael

The 20th Century saw substantive shifts in the structure of agriculture and agricultural production in South Africa. Farm size grew, farm numbers eventually declined, and production increasingly emphasized higher-valued commodities, notably a range of horticultural crops. The real gross value of agricultural output grew steadily (by 3.32 percent per year) from 1910-1981, but declined thereafter (by 0.21 percent per year from 1982-2008). These long-run sectoral changes provide a context to present and assess an entirely new data series on public agricultural R&D (and related regulatory and extension) spending and associated scientist trends. South African agricultural R&D has been affected by a series of major policy changes. These are also documented and discussed here, along with the associated institutional changes regarding the conduct and funding of public agricultural R&D in South Africa. We reveal a number of disturbing trends, including an effective flat lining of the long-run growth in total agricultural R&D spending that took hold in the 1970s, an erratic path of funding per scientist, and a loss of scientific personnel in recent decades. Moreover, South Africa has lost ground relative to its competitors in international commodity markets such as the United States and Australia in terms of the intensity of investment in agricultural R&D. These developments are likely to have long-term, and detrimental, consequences for the productivity performance and competiveness of South African agriculture. They deserve serious policy attention as the 21st Century unfolds, with a firm eye to the long-run given the long lags (often many decades) that typify the relationship between agricultural R&D spending and productivity growth.

This paper highlights the importance of research into business and economic history outside of “Triad” countries (that is, the USA, Western Europe and Japan). More to the point, the need to rescue data relevant for economic management in sub-Sahara Africa (such as the South African export-led fruit, wine, and sugar industries which, the authors tell us, have kept a positive trade balance since 1910). This paper thus offers a first interpretation of a newly constructed long term series of South African agricultural data while focusing on productivity gains from agricultural R&D (in their science policy context).

A very rich and detailed study indeed. Although it would have been interesting to learn more about the changing nature of agricultural organisations themselves (and particularly the influence of say legacy institutions from the British empire to foster entrepreneurship and trade patterns), this paper is certainly worth a read.


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