Agri sector in Southeast Asia faces challenges

THE agriculture sector in Southeast Asia (SEA) has a pivotal role in the socioeconomic transformation of the region but faces perils and challenges, various studies published in the December 2023 issue of the Asian Journal of Agriculture and Development (AJAD) showed.

AJAD is an international-refereed journal published by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) based in Los Banos, Laguna.

SEARCA Director Glenn Gregorio said the authors' collective optimism "provides a glimpse of hope for the continuing role of the region as a major global producer and exporter."

In his paper "Back in the Soup: Now What?," renowned food security expert and Harvard University emeritus C. Peter Timmer presents the outlook for the world rice market as of early September 2023. Timmer built on his AJAD article published a year earlier on managing an impending world food crisis, post-pandemic presenting a "series of steps designed to build confidence in the availability of supplies."

This time, Timmer's new paper analyzes the current concern about an impending rice crisis resulting from the attacks on the infrastructure of Ukrainian's food export ecosystem and the advent of a vigorous El Niño in Asian rice bowls.

Noting that an impending spike in rice prices will cause widespread hunger commonly caused by immense hoarding, Timmer suggests that governments should stabilize expectations to prevent a rice crisis with a reasonable interface with market players.

With an in-depth historical perspective, Timmer also analyzes past rice crises and how various states managed these, emphasizing that "the concern should be over the impact of higher rice prices on food security of the poor, not aggregate inflation."

Jose Ma Luis Montesclaros and Paul Teng of Nanyang Technological University Singapore, in their paper "Digital Technology Adoption and Potential in Southeast Asian Agriculture," gave a positive answer to a query about whether digital technologies can play a more prominent role in addressing the ongoing challenges faced by SEA's agriculture in serving as a key sector for food security, income, trade and employment in the region.

Montesclaros and Teng proposed a common framework to understand the nascent digital technology in agriculture, drawing insights on the state of adoption in the region, key challenges and policy opportunities for scaling up.

The authors found that the challenges commonly experienced across the region requiring path-breaking solutions arise from "climate change, degrading and declining land and freshwater resources, pests and diseases, declining crop productivity, high cost of inputs, declining rural labor force and aging farmers."

Role of youth in farming

In "Feeding the Future: Knowledge and Perceptions of the Filipino Youth Toward Agriculture," Kringle Marie Mercado and Henny Osbahr determine the Filipino youth's intention to enroll in agricultural degree programs.

Mercado and Osbahr said the youth has a critical role in sustaining, developing and building a sustainable, resilient and inclusive agriculture industry. Their case study of General Santos City in the Philippines revealed that "while the youth report high exposure to agricultural information, these have not been translated into inherent know-how."

"[The youths have] limited knowledge or familiarity with agricultural professions," the authors said expressing reservations in considering "if employment opportunities in the sector are profitable, if the society will hold them in high regard once they engage in the sector, and if they have the suitable skills and know-how to engage in the sector."

Mercado and Osbahr also noted that "intervention programs, starting early in the curriculums of the youth, along with social programs that highlight capacity building, are necessary to pique their interest toward the industry and entice them to engage in its professions."

Meanwhile, the paper "Transition from Agriculture to Non-Agriculture Occupations in West Bengal, India: Causes and Way Forward" by Apurba Kumar Chattopadhyay and Raj Kumar Kundu shows that agriculture in West Bengal in India is "nonviable as a primary source of occupation for most agricultural households."

The authors said this leads people in the region to find jobs in the nonfarm sector, that is, outside of agriculture. However, the limited opportunities in rural areas leave them clinging to agriculture and that farm size makes "agriculture viable and sustainable."

They noted that the "average operational landholdings need to increase through reverse tenancy and/or cooperative farming, and through creating gainful employment opportunities in the rural nonfarm sector."

"This will help farm-households to transition from agricultural to nonagricultural occupations," the authors said.

Labor-intensive agriculture and crop conversion

Fayaz Ahmad Lone and co-authors' study titled "Economic and Profitability Analysis of Walnut Production in Kashmir Valley, India" shows that "walnut cultivation is highly labor-intensive as it incurs 80 percent of total production costs."

For Kashmir Valley, the cost-benefit ratio of 1:5.35 per hectare indicates better economic prospects.

The study's statistical analyses indicate ample scope for expanding walnut cultivation in the area. To boost walnut production in the region, the study called for policy intervention to improve access to extension services, credit and farmer training programs.

The paper by Jordan Calura and his co-authors titled "A Soil Analysis Approach to Assessing Potential Loss of Productive Lands Under Agricultural Land Conversion" assessed the "degree of productivity of the agricultural lands in Pura, Tarlac, in the Philippines, which are predisposed to agricultural land conversion."

Their soil surveys and composite soil sampling show that "the soil is only marginally suitable for producing rice and other crops but can be highly suitable for crop production with appropriate soil management."

They noted that Pura's entire tract of land has an index rating that corresponds to soil suitable for planting several crops with expected good results.

The authors also said that the results of the land suitability evaluation and soil productivity assessment further show that the land in Pura is productive and can benefit both agricultural production and agricultural land conversion.

Lastly, the commentary by Colorado State University professor emeritus Robert Zimdahl titled "Institutionalizing Agricultural Ethics," stated that the agricultural science curriculum lacks consideration and study of the effects of agriculture's ethical dilemmas on society.

"Agriculture, the essential human activity and the most widespread human interaction with the environment, needs a defined moral foundation," Zimdahl said, cautioning that if all elements of the agricultural enterprise do not begin to recognize and address agriculture's ethical dilemmas, three unwelcome outcomes may follow.

Firstly, agriculture practitioners may find their justifications for their technology and production practices ignored; secondly, public unease and dissatisfaction with the known or perceived effects of agricultural technology and its adverse implications will result in increasing societal unrest and pressure for political action; and thirdly, the increasing concentration of food production in the hands of agribusiness companies will continue.

Zimdahl also warned that small farms, farmers and rural communities will gradually disappear.

With the editorial board headed by Cielito Habito, SEARCA said AJAD publishes articles resulting from empirical, policy-oriented or institutional development studies, as well as articles of perspectives on agriculture and development, political economy of rural development and trade issues.

Habito is a professor of economics at the Ateneo de Manila University and director of the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development.

A former Cabinet member of the Philippine government, he served as socioeconomic planning secretary and director general of the National Economic and Development Authority of the Philippines.

SEARCA said submissions are welcome all year round through, adding that all the new and past papers published in AJAD are available from the same site for free, while print copies are also available through subscription.