Inequality is a threat to economic growth and social stability, globally as well as in Asia-Pacific. In spite of solid GDP growth in the region of around 7-8%, we haven’t seen a corresponding reduction in poverty. It is therefore not surprising that the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum on East Asia is Leveraging Growth for Equitable Progress.

Meanwhile, agriculture and food value chains are a major focus of the Grow Asia Agriculture Forum; 35-40% of the workforce in most ASEAN countries are involved in agriculture. Unless the growth of the agriculture sector in East Asia accelerates and keeps pace with overall growth, we are likely to see even greater inequality in the region.

It is imperative that the agriculture and rural sector improves its performance in terms or productivity, profitability and sustainability.

It is now thought that growth generated by the agriculture sector is four times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other areas. However, due to persistent underinvestment in agriculture infrastructure (research and development in particular), we are seeing slower growth in productivity and, in many cases, declining profitability and transfer of benefits to the producers.

One main group that is at risk are smallholders (those farming less than two hectares of land), who dominate the agriculture landscape in East Asia. Smallholders have been the backbone of Asian agricultural growth, including in the ASEAN region, and their participation is critical to delivering the New Vision for Agriculture’s priorities for food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity.

Because of poor management practices of natural capital, such as land and water, we are seeing new food security and safety challenges which threaten the livelihoods of millions of small farmers. We continue to see declining soil fertility and moisture-retention capacities, farm lands are losing carbon content, and crops are shedding micronutrients and protein. This is a clear indicator of reduced water/moisture-retention capacity, and reduced soil carbon stock and sequestration – the latter further complicating the problems related to climate change.

We are also seeing arsenic accumulation in many rice-growing areas, and bacterial diseases threatening rice yields and production in many important areas of ASEAN.

The need for an integrated approach to agriculture is now more critical than ever. This includes: enhancing climate-resilient production systems; reducing reliance on fossil fuels; and improving resource efficiency at the processing, storage, marketing and logistics level to ensure the delivery of safe, nutritious food.

The public sector cannot do it alone. We need the private sector to take on a more proactive role.

We need to view the agricultural sector from a systems perspective, and look at how we can make improvements to the production and post-harvest stages. For example, post-harvest losses in the rice sector are typically 15-20% in terms of weight loss and an additional 10-30% loss in terms of market value due to quality deterioration, part of which is associated with climate. Water and energy loss also occurs along the way.

We need integrated planning across energy, water, logistics, trade and finance. Similarly, modern tools can provide assessments of land use and suggest alternatives.

Managing food, energy and water resources in an integrated and cooperative way is a critical challenge for policy-makers. We need to share insights without succumbing to institutional inertia.

Projects which promote sustainable agricultural innovations must reach smallholder farmers. Platforms such as ASEAN, and initiatives such as those in the Greater Mekong Subregion and the Coral Triangle Initiative, supported by the Asian Development Bank and other development partners, can facilitate this sharing of knowledge.

There is much work for all of us to do if agriculture in ASEAN is to deliver on its promise.

Author: Javed Hussain Mir, Director of Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Division, Southeast Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

Image: A farmer harvests corn in Jember, East Java province, September 29, 2011. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungka