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FAO paper says high time for Asia-Pacific’s agricultural workers to become prime beneficiaries in the transition to sustainable agriculture and management of natural resources

14/03/2014 1:00 - 

Initiatives being adopted in the Asia-Pacific region to improve the environmental sustainability of agricultural activity must include ways and means to reduce the gap between wealthy urban areas and the poorer countryside, the FAO has stressed.

In many cases, the failure to address the question of lower farm incomes is at the heart of a decline in smaller farms and may results in increased urbanization and social upheaval.

As countries attempt to consolidate some of the least efficient, small farms into bigger, more viable farms, policy makers should ensure that these bigger farms will comply with tougher environmental regulations that the smaller farms were unable to meet due to the relative higher costs of implementation.

The connection between income gaps and the move toward greener farms is made in an FAO paper prepared for the Thirty-Second FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 10-14 March. The Conference is FAO’s regional governing body. The APRC brought together Ministers of Agriculture as well as other government officials and representatives from civil society concerned with agriculture, fisheries and forestry from 41 countries in the region.

The paper, Meeting farmers’ aspirations in the context of green development, was presented to the APRC delegates. It examines current efforts by some countries in the Asia-Pacific region to address the widening income gap between farm and non-farm incomes. The gap is seen as a motivating factor for workers leaving farming for non-farm employment or for higher-paying jobs in urban areas.

Green Development and the urban–rural income gap

Countries in the region are experimenting with Green Development concepts called Sustainable Production Intensification (SPI) and Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA), two powerful and complementary approaches that FAO has developed to address the challenges facing traditional labour-intensive agriculture. SDI calls for better use of ecosystem services in agricultural production, including crop genetic diversity, healthy soils and the adoption of precision intensive technologies.

The CSA approach is a way of prioritizing SPI options and focuses on building the needed institutional, policy and financing frameworks to support their effective implementation. While these approaches help sustain agricultural output and reduce environmental degradation, the costs of implementation can be a burden on smaller family farms that make up the majority of agricultural output in most countries of the region. Therefore, ways and means need to be found to help smallholders become more profitable and greener at the same time.

And action is needed soon, the paper warns, because smallholder farming has become an occupation of last resort. “Rural areas have experienced sustained and massive migration of young and middle-aged farmers,” the paper explains.

“Invariably when we ask farmers what they would like their children to do, they say that their children will not be farmers,” said Thierry Facon, an FAO Senior Water Management Officer and the paper’s author. “They tell us that their children are being education, they have opportunities, and, as parents, they want their children to escape farming in its present condition.”

Indeed, from a broader macro-economic view, FAO recognizes that agriculture’s share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Asia-Pacific region has been rapidly declining for a number of years. In response, many countries have used agricultural price supports and other farm policies to keep people in the agriculture sector. This has meant that the sector remains the dominant source of employment in developing countries despite its low pay. Still, many farming households are increasingly relying on non-agricultural work just to make ends meet.

Facing up to the challenges ahead

The FAO paper says the Asia-Pacific region and its agriculture sector are facing two “momentous and complex transitions,” a structural transformation linked to fast, if uneven, economic growth, which leaves agricultural incomes stagnant, and a transition to sustainable agriculture aimed at reversing the unsustainable use and degradation of the region’s limited base of natural resources and increasing its resilience.

Ultimately, the paper warns that the search for green development must look at more than just agriculture and natural resource management. It must tackle urbanization policies, patterns of public investment in infrastructure services, as well as education and development of economic sectors in rural areas not related to agriculture.

The paper suggests that the International Year of Family Farming — which aims to raise the profile and importance of family and smallholder farms — should also focus on how to manage transitions in the region to include green development based on wider environmental values, while advocating increased farm incomes to levels similar to other sectors, so the poorest and most vulnerable people in rural areas will not be disadvantaged.

Submitted by: Allan Dow
FAO Office: FAO RAP
Country: Mongolia