Last month my esteemed co-authors, Marc Bellemare and Sunghun Lim, and I published a chapter on agri-food value chains within low- and middle-income countries in volume six of the Handbook of Agricultural Economics. It was both a huge honor and a huge undertaking to write this chapter about such a rich and important literature. A handbook chapter like this one represents the work of many beyond the authors and includes the volume editors, reviewers, and participants of a workshop where we presented an early draft of our chapter. My co-authors and I are so grateful for the constructive feedback we received throughout the process of writing this chapter.
The outline of the chapter is listed below. We first review the literature relating to domestic agri-food value chains and, then, global value chains. The core contribution of the chapter, in our view, however, is our discussion of existing research gaps as a way to set priorities for future research.
We start the chapter by pointing out that, despite the importance of agri-food value chains, graduate training in economics tends to focus primarily on the extreme ends of our economic system (e.g., on either consumers or producers), and largely ignores the important middle segments. Here are the first few paragraphs of our chapter:
Graduate courses in economics typically begin with consumer theory or producer theory. In consumer theory, a utility-maximizing individual consumes goods and services subject to a budget constraint. In producer theory, a profit-maximizing firm produces goods and services given prices and available technology. Consumers and producers meet on the market and, given initial endowments, prices facilitate efficient transactions between the two textbook agents, who interact directly with each other.
Indeed, almost all of us rarely, if ever, transact directly with the primary producer of our food. Instead, we rely on a series of economic agents who process, package, transport, ensure consistency, check quality, monitor safety, and market products and services—including the food we eat. These many transactions combine to form agri-food value chains, which are central to the functioning, structural transformation, and economic development of modern economies.
Our collective professional focus on consumer and producer theory, along with the explicit or implicit assumption that producers and consumers effortlessly transact, leads to an emphasis on researching the end points of our economic system. It is common for PhD students—those who study agriculture or development, in particular—to focus entirely on the production or consumer side of the economy. It is rare to find a young researcher aiming to study the organization of agri-food firms and industries that bring consumers and producers together within low- and middle-income countries. There are, of course, reasons for this—such as lack of data, methodological preferences, and technical challenges—but as we will discuss in this chapter, none of these challenges are necessarily prohibitive.
If this sounds interesting and worthwhile to you, we hope you enjoy the chapter. And, while you are at it, check out the other excellent chapters in the Handbook of Agricultural Economics.