SEARCA convenes experts from academe, industry and government to strategize for a transformative ARD in Southeast Asia

  • By Leah Lyn D. Domingo
  • 9 November 2020

The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) conducted a Stakeholders Forum on 28 October 2020 to gather experts and thought leaders from the academe, industry, and government to weigh in on the status of agricultural and rural development (ARD) in Southeast Asia and define a forward-looking and transformative ARD in the region from various perspectives.

“Through the years, we have been conducting numerous projects, programs, and policy formations, but one thing that keeps us going is how we can sustain all these activities. Upon closer introspection, it is important to emphasize that the nature of problems that we all face calls for a strategic collective action that is operationalized through strengthened partnerships and collaboration. And so, we are holding this forum to go back to those whom SEARCA is serving for and serving with,” said SEARCA Director Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio.

He added that the agriculture sector is one of the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the most appreciated.

“This gives us more reason to revisit our purpose and our role during this pandemic, and more importantly even post-pandemic as we envision how to build back better. As enablers, SEARCA is committed to uplift the lives of our farmers and farming families,” Dr. Gregorio said.

The forum comprised two plenary sessions that were open to the public and livestreamed via Facebook, as well as four parallel sessions.

Taking stock of ARD in Southeast Asia

Held virtually, the forum discussed the status of ARD in Southeast Asia by showcasing and highlighting strategic lessons from institutional experiences, both in the science and practice of ARD in the region, in the past five years.

“A key outcome of rural transformation is that as household incomes increase, food expenditure decreases (there’s increase in nutritious food instead) and households have increased resilience in catastrophes,” reported Professor Paul Teng of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, in his keynote presentation.

“Southeast Asia still has much food insecurity—the picture of food insecurity has gotten worse in the past years; ASEAN countries are further undergoing a ‘nutrition transition,’ and diets are becoming higher in processed foods,” Professor Teng stressed.

Prof. Dato' Dr. Zulkifli Idrus, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Universiti Putra Malaysia, said “The way forward is to focus on smart agriculture, export-oriented production, and environmental sustainability.”

He added that communities, academe, and industries are encouraged to work together to push forward better policies for agriculture transformation.

This was affirmed by Dr. Fernando Sanchez, Jr., University of the Philippines Los Baños Chancellor, who said “It is high time to move towards a food systems approach. To achieve AEC by 2025, we need to make bold sustainable institutional changes in all ASEAN members.”

During this plenary session, SEARCA also showcased its work on inclusive and sustainable agricultural and rural development (ISARD) in the region in the past six years through a video presentation prefaced by a brief summation of the gains of ISARD given by former SEARCA Director Dr. Gil C. Saguiguit, Jr.

Challenges and opportunities for a transformative ARD

“SEARCA strongly believes that a systemic view, ecosystems thinking, and circular economy are necessary for accelerated transformation in the agricultural sector” said Dr. Gregorio, who keynoted the plenary session with a presentation on “Defining a Forward-looking ARD in Southeast Asia.”

He explained that “For the longest time, we knew what we want and essentially it is about having more with less. It is about continuous increases in productivity and prosperity. The narrative of transformation is related to ensuring that the triple bottom line goals [of social inclusivity, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity] are jointly achieved in a systemic manner…. The inherently wicked problems we are facing in the ARD sector has long necessitated massive and systemic transformation of the agricultural farming systems as integrated and inter-scalar food systems.”

“Fitting for Southeast Asia, this we believe is the kind of scale that our imagination must clearly focus on. And operationally, this is the kind of system that integrated innovative interventions must be set in a programmatic manner both in the immediate and long-term horizons,” Dr. Gregorio said.

This was affirmed by Dr. Jiangfeng Zhang of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) who said “The key to securing the future of Southeast Asia and its agri-food systems is inclusive innovation and interconnectivity. Sustainable agricultural and rural development has substantial and multi-function role in inclusive growth.”

Speaking from an industry perspective, Mr.  Christian Lauron of Sycip Gorres Velayo & Co. (SGV) said “One of the ways to move forward towards a transformative agriculture in Southeast Asia is improve the organization of cooperatives. Such improvement should focus on smallholder farmers by capacitating them on biosecurity measures, financial management and quality standards imposed by the buyer.”

On the other hand, Atty. Allan Barcena of the Energy Development Corporation (EDC), a 100% renewable energy company, said that at EDC “We believe that sustainability is no longer enough. It is not enough to minimize harm to the environment. We need to make things better and we need to elevate the quality of our environment and our community.”

Dr. Leocadio Sebastian, who represented Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary William Dar, said the DA is currently in a transformative mode because of great threats of pests and diseases, including the African swine flu and COVID-19. As such, the DA is harmonizing with other sectors like  health, environment, manufacturing and catalyzing innovation and scaling training, extension, and credit support to farmers.

National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Agricultural Commodities Division Chief Lenard Martin Guevarra, representing NEDA Undersecretary Mercedita Sombilla, discussed the updated Philippine Development Plan (PDP) in response to the new normal brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. He affirmed that the PDP strategies and their corresponding programs and projects did not only mitigate food supply shortages but enabled the agriculture sector to stage a growth rate of 1.6% in the second quarter of 2020.

On the part of the academe, Dr. Seiichi Matsuo, President of Nagoya University, said “Universities must continue to increase and improve research capabilities to use the power of science and technology, humanities, and social sciences to work on issues that humanity faces.”

Moreover, Dr. Sutkhet Nakasathien, Faculty of Agriculture Dean of Kasetsart University, said “We don’t want the farmers to just depend on their own experience; we have to use the big data to visualize the current status [of agriculture], farmers’ practices, the amount of production of each species” and stressed that collaboration is key.

Dr. Fabrizio Bresciani of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said “A new vision, a new paradigm of ARD  is needed whereby new policies, new institutions, and new infrastructure are needed for new technologies and farming practices to be adopted and food systems to become sustainable. At the core of this new paradigm though are farmers and rural communities.”

He also underscored that “In ARD, partnerships with stakeholders are very important. The challenge of development is too big to deal with by an organization on its own.”

Charting priorities and actions

The parallel sessions featured speakers who tackled common priorities, pragmatic actions, and modalities for partnerships and collaboration in the following priority areas: Session 1: Agri-business models for increased productivity and income; Session 2: Resilient farming systems and natural resources for food and nutrition security; Session 3: Transformational leadership and youth engagement in ARD; and Session 4: EcoHealth/One Health applications in ARD. The sessions provided a rich knowledge-sharing and networking opportunity for the representatives of participating selected organizations and institutions.

The speakers in the parallel sessions were Prof. Dr. Datuk Mad Nasir Shamsudin of Universiti Putra Malaysia, Mr. Daniël Jongejan of Kennemer Eco-Solutions, and Ms. Ellen Joyce Suficiencia of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas for Session 1; Dr. Howarth Bouis, World Food Prize Laureate and Emeritus Fellow of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Mr. Pierre Ferrand of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Dr. Anna Korzenszky and Dr. Luiz Claudio Campos of IFAD, Ms. Cynthia Remedios De Guia of the Philippine Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research, and Ms. Clarissa Arida of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) for Session 2; Dr. Jane Curnow of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Ms. Ariana Marnicio and Mr. Christopher Mawhorter of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Dr. Ethel Agnes Valenzuela of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) Secretariat, and Ms. Cherrie Atilano of AGREA Agricultural Systems International, Inc. for Session 3; and Dr. Vicente Belizario Jr. of UP Manila; Dr. Flavie Goutard of the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD); and Dr. Alfredo Mahar Francisco Lagmay of the University of the Philippines Resilience Institute for Session 4.

SEARCA Deputy Director for Administration Joselito G. Florendo moderated the plenary sessions, while the parallel sessions were moderated by former Dr. Cielito Habito of Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), Dr. Doris Capistrano of the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change (ASFCC), Ms. Mai Alagcan of ACIAR, and Dr. Rico C. Ancog of SEARCA and UPLB School of Environmental Science and Management.