16 November 2021

The economics of genetic resources in agriculture

How can new crop varieties – the products of plant-breeding innovation – be beneficially diffused from one setting to another, when the value contained within seeds is not immediately observable but instead must be discovered through experimentation? This question underlies the whole of Nicholas Tyack’s PhD thesis. He investigates it by studying how different institutional changes and investments affect such diffusion efforts, and the ramifications for the economics of development in the agricultural sector.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

After majoring in biology during my undergraduate studies, when I was primarily interested in ecology and plant science, I spent a year undertaking an independent research project on the economic valuation of crop wild relatives (wild plants related to crop plants) with the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, Italy, an organisation working to safeguard the world’s agricultural biodiversity. It was this experience that helped me better understand how essential the genetic diversity of crop plants is for agriculture and society more broadly, and that set me on the path to eventually writing a thesis on the topic of the economics of genetic resources in agriculture.

What are your main research questions?

The promise of the advances in plant breeding that occurred as a result of the development of Mendelian genetics for development leads to several important economic questions related to innovation, diffusion, adoption, and displacement: What is the best way in which high-yielding varieties can be diffused from developed to developing countries, and what role do regulatory frameworks such as intellectual property right protection play in either aiding or restricting diffusion? What are the frictions that make technology transfer more difficult, such as information asymmetry in markets for improved seed, and how can “counteracting institutions” such as certification systems lessen the impact of such problems? And what is lost when farmers abandon the diverse farmer varieties they had been cultivating to adopt modern varieties?

In the three chapters of my thesis, I investigate three topics associated with these questions, arising from the technological revolution in agriculture initiated by the advent of scientific, Mendelian plant breeding and the diffusion of modern crop varieties across the developing world. I investigate these issues on three levels: international (in the first paper), national (in the second), and local (at the village level, in the third paper). 

Can you describe each of these papers? 

In my first paper, “The Diffusion of Genetic Resources and Yield Gaps in the Developing World”, I analyse the conditions under which the international diffusion of modern varieties led to the convergence of developing country yields towards the technological frontier, and the role played by developing country institutions and investments in contributing to successful diffusion. Using a cross-country sample spanning the period of the Green Revolution (1960–2005), I find that developing country institutions and R&D investments mattered for the success of diffusion. 

In the second paper, “Certification and Credibility: Smallholder Experimentation with Improved Maize of Heterogeneous Quality in Uganda”, I compare two certification systems in Uganda to determine the degree to which they have been successful in mitigating information asymmetry in markets for improved maize seed, which are characterised by a high degree of quality heterogeneity. I find that the quality-declared certification system, which relies on training farmers and farmer groups in quality seed production, greatly outperformed the formal, private sector seed certification system in the country. 

In the last paper, “An Experimental Approach to Farmer Valuation of African Rice Genetic Resource Conservation”, I present the results of an experiment designed to investigate how smallholder rice farmers in Côte d’Ivoire appreciate different values associated with the conservation of heritage, African rice (Oryza glaberrima) landraces that have largely disappeared from farmers’ fields in West Africa. I demonstrate that farmers value having access to these old, heirloom varieties almost as much as they do having access to new, advanced rice varieties bred using modern techniques.

Can these findings from the Green Revolution help us meet current challenges such as those posed by climate change?

While most of my thesis looks backwards at the diffusion and adoption of modern crop varieties in the past, the insights it provides may indeed be useful in terms of thinking about how more productive and climate-resilient crop varieties can best be developed and spread as the climate continues to change and global population increases during the 21st century. In addition, scientific advances in genetics and the development of new plant-breeding techniques will continue to generate new innovations of potential use in developing country agriculture, making a better comprehension of the factors contributing to successful diffusion an important topic for development economics. Importantly, I highlight how an improved understanding of farmer preferences and local seed systems is essential if the potential of agricultural innovations (embedded in crop varieties) is to be realised in the coming decades.

What are you doing now, in your post-PhD life?

I have just started a job as the Van Vliet Term Assistant Professor of Agricultural Economics in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of the University of Saskatchewan, where I am looking forward to potential collaboration with natural scientists and getting to know more about the agricultural sector of the province, which is the world’s leading exporter of lentils, oats, flax, and durum wheat (among other crops).

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Nicholas Tyack defended his PhD thesis in Development Economics in September 2021. Professor Martina Viarengo presided the committee, which included Professor Timothy Swanson and Professor Jean-Louis Arcand, thesis codirectors, and Professor Salvatore Di Falco, Geneva School of Economics and Management (GSEM), University of Geneva.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Tyack, Nicholas. “Genetic Resources and Agricultural Productivity in the Developing World.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.

Members of the Graduate Institute can download the PhD thesis from this page of the Institute’s repository; others may contact Dr Tyack for access.

Banner picture: excerpt from Rice Terraces in Sa Pa, Vietnam by Christopher Crouzet, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.