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Five reasons why I think it's unhelpful connecting our intrinsic worth to our instrumental worth (or anything aside from being conscious beings):

  1. Undermines care for others (and ourselves): chickens have limited instrumental worth and often do morally questionable things. I still reckon chickens and their suffering are worthy of care. (And same argument for human babies, disabled people and myself)
  2. Constrains effective work: continually assessing our self-worth can be exhausting (leaving less time/attention/energy for actually doing helpful work). For example, it can be difficult to calmy take on constructive feedback (on our work, or instrumental strengths or instrumental weaknesses) when our self-worth is on the line.
  3. Constrains our personal wellbeing and relationships: I've personally found it hard to enjoy life when continuously questioning my self-worth and feeling guilty/shameful when the answer seems negative
  4. Very hard to answer: including because the assessment may need to be continuously updated based on the new evidence from each new second of our lives
  5. Seems pointless to answer (to me): how would accurately measuring our self-worth (against a questionable benchmark) make things better? We could live in a world where all beings are ranked so that more 'worthy' beings can appropriately feel superior, and less 'worthy' beings can appropriately feel 'not enough'. This world doesn't seem great from perspective

Despite thinking these things, I often unintentionally get caught up muddling my self-worth with my instrumental worth (can relate to the post and comments on here!) I've found 'mindful self-compassion' super helpful for doing less of this

Three well-intentioned critiques of improving agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa as a poverty intervention:

  • Income from smallholder cereal farming has a low ceiling (as noted by Hannah): the average maize farmer in Malawi (2.6 tonnes/hectare and 0.7 hectares) will earn an extra 4.9 USD per day (for the whole family) if they triple their yields (assuming zero costs for accessing required seeds, labour, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, credit and government farm-gate price of 0.49 USD per kg of maize)
  • Pursuing higher yields can increase risk for farmers: higher yields generally require more investment (and credit can be very expensive for smallholder farmers). This makes crop failures even more harmful for poor farmers, and climate change makes crop failures more likely.
  • Commercial productivity metrics neglect other (perhaps much larger) benefits of smallholder farming: rural poor people often value their farms for resilience more than revenue (such as subsistence, housing, balanced nutrition, culture/lifestyle, income diversification, backup asset). In view of this, many smallholder farming families might be uninterested or harmed by interventions to aggregate farms for higher agricultural productivity.

Perhaps a more effective cause framing would be around creating off-farm income/resilience opportunities for farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa? This might improve incomes while indirectly improving agricultural productivity (as farms naturally become bigger and more productive with marginal farmers proactively move away from farming)

I was still excited to see this podcast episode as carefully-targeted agricultural interventions can be really beneficial across many areas (food security, poverty, emissions reductions etc) and seem neglected by EA community (from my perspective). I'd be very happy to informally support anyone working on this (I'm a PhD student specializing in scalable farmer communication and Nitrogen productivity of rice farms in South Asia)

Cheers Helene!

Fertilizer subsidy cost-effectiveness: I agree - fertilizer subsidies could be cost-effective in principle. I guess I see reducing subsidy costs as more of a potential co-benefit of increasing returns from fertilizer. Specifically, growing more food with less fertilizer could alleviate the need for food and fertilizer subsidies (improving the cost-effectiveness and political feasibility of redirecting resources to other government services)

Why subsidies politicized: I guess a large part is the proportion of voters employed in agriculture (in South Asian democracies compared to western democracies). Also, South Asian governments commonly resist foreigners influencing government policies (partially because of colonization). This paper provides a neat introduction to fertilizer subsidies and their politicization in South Asia

Cheers Helene! I've been researching rice fertilizer management in Myanmar and India (both the farm and farmer sides) for the last five years (pretty well full-time). So I'm excited to see your post and I reckon you've identified a lot of key points (impressed you put this together in just 12 hours)

Highest priority points I'd add:

  1. Fertilizer subsidies cost governments a lot - taking public resources away from other pressing causes. For example, the Indian government budgeted ~21 billion USD for fertilizer subsidies for 2023-24 (p.27 of linked doc). (Also worth noting fertilizer subsidy issues are commonly politicized in South Asian countries)
  2. Fertilizer investments increase risk for farmers: purchasing, transporting and applying fertilizer has uncertain returns (see figure below). This is particularly concerning for poor farmers, who commonly hold debts with interest >3% per month.
  3. Many farmers understandably don't prioritize yield increases (and thus fertilizer increases): many farmers in low- and middle-income countries have insufficient scale and/or market access to benefit much from increased yields. Farmers often value their farms as a backup money source, backup food source and/or cultural/lifestyle thing (rather than a profit-maximizing business). I'd highly recommend this global analysis from Oxford researchers showing we can't expect much food supply (for urban populations) or income growth from small farms - while noting small farms play other important roles.
  4. Excess fertilizers can reduce crop yields: for example, too much fertilizer can cause crops to grow too much and fall over (called 'lodging'). Also, excess fertilizers (over long periods) can make soils unhelpfully acidic.

I wouldn't frame the cause around "interventions to raise crop yields and increase fertilizer use" in view of the above points and the negative environmental impacts you identified. An alternative framing might be 'increasing returns from fertilizer' (such as seasonal weather forecasting, improving post-harvest storage, improving market access etc). This sort of framing can (sometimes) harmonize multiple priorities (including food security, poverty alleviation, subsidy savings, emissions reductions)

For my PhD, I'm analyzing the scale and tractability of increasing Nitrogen use efficiency of rice farms across different regions in South Asia (analyzing the data in the below figure), as well as testing approaches for scalable farmer communication (to help realize these opportunities). I'd be very happy to informally support you or any other impact-oriented people working on agricultural cause areas where helpful (e.g. share useful papers/datasets, introductions to other researchers and practitioners - including people from the One Acre Fund NGO you mentioned). Thanks again for the great post

Pretty striking that "those who prioritize neartermist causes more reported being more concerned across all questions"

Also that mildly EA-engaged people more agreed the community should look very different in response to the FTX crisis, while more EA-engaged people more disagreed

Suggests community will shift away from 'big tent' effective altruism and towards a more longtermist and hardcore community if it avoids reform?

Systematic scoping review that might support further investigation on impact of mobile networks in low- and middle-income countries:

In case helpful, we recently published a Gates-funded systematic scoping review synthesizing 315 articles evidencing use and/or impacts of digital farming services in low- and middle-income countries. (We interpreted digital farming services as any agriculture-related information service , market linkage service, farming tool or financial service with a digital user interface). Potentially relevant findings include:

- Importance of mobile networks for digitizing farming services (for good and bad): Use of digital farming services was influenced by mobile network availability (according to 51 empirical studies) and mobile network affordability (according to 19 empirical studies)

- Impact evidence of digital farming services: We found 173 empirical studies reporting digital farming services outcomes (e.g. increased social inclusion, reduced income) with variable levels of rigor (which we coarsely categorized). Only a handful of studies directly analysed how mobile network access influenced these outcomes (e.g. Jensen 2007)

- Leverage of mobile networks: numerous reviewed studies found farmers creating informal digital farming services using mobile networks (e.g. pastoralists in Tanzania using their mobile phones to reduce human-wildlife conflict - Lewis et al., 2016, and farmers in Cambodia using mobile phones to get better rice prices - Shimamoto et al., 2015)

Linked here is a database of reviewed studies (filtered by country, reported outcome type etc) and linked here is the journal paper documenting the review itself. I personally read almost all of the 315 articles and would be very happy to informally help you (or anyone else reading this) navigate the resources or support in whatever other way (spent ages on this work and would love to help make it useful for OpenPhil or any other impact-oriented people) - samcoggins55 at gmail dot com

Thanks for your great work on this investigation in any case

I think I'd find this post a bit jarring if I was a Latin American person because Latin America is a big and diverse place (and I'm guessing Latin American EA-engaged students are highly diverse as well). At the risk of being finicky, I'd suggest softening the generalisations (e.g. reword "Latin American students seem..." to "Latin American students at the conference seemed...") . All the same, I really do appreciate the intent of this post as well as the thoughtful interpretations and ideas