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No country has been able to sustain a rapid transition out of poverty without raising productivity in its agricultural sector. Despite this historical role of agriculture in economic development, both the academic and donor communities lost interest in the sector, starting in the mid-1980s. This was mostly because of low prices in world markets for basic agricultural commodities, caused largely by the success of the Green Revolution in Asia.
After two decades of neglect, interest in agriculture is returning. This paper explores the reasons why agriculture is back on the policy agenda for donors and poor countries alike. The most important reason is new understanding that economic growth is the main vehicle for reducing poverty and that growth in the agricultural sector plays a major role in that overall growth as well as in connecting the poor to growth.
There is a sharp debate, however, between "optimists" and "pessimists" over the potential for small-scale agriculture to continue to play these historic roles. In a world of open trade, ready availability of cheap food in world markets, continued agricultural protection in rich countries, and economies of scale in access to food supply chains that are increasingly dominated by supermarkets and export buyers, large-scale farms with state-of-the-art technology and access to efficient infrastructure can push smallholders out of commercial markets.
Consequently, the paper concludes, geographic coverage and operational efficiency of rural infrastructure, coupled with effective investment in modern agricultural research and extension, will determine the future role for agriculture in poverty reduction.