The important role of technology to promote sustainable agriculture and rural development cannot be underestimated in view of the needs within the agriculture sector often dominated by the highly differentiated small holder farming systems. There is need for generation of sustainable labour intensive agricultural production and large scale off-farm employment for a large number of landless and other rural poor. In view of the limits reached in the expansion of agricultural land, any productivity increase has to come from intensification and or diversification of agricultural production to meet the need for both increased yields in food products per unit of land and also the requirement for increased rural employment opportunities.
Agricultural research and development budgets are very low in most developing countries within the region except in China and India (with R & D expenditures of US $ 330 million in 1997 and US $ 500 million in 1994 respectively). Yet there is high return on public investment in agricultural research which contributed to an estimated 20% of Chinas agricultural output growth from 1993 to 1996. According to a recent international study published in 1999 the marginal internal rate of return of public agricultural research is estimated at over 50%. Agricultural research enhances the capacities of the small farmer to increase their production and productivity. Yet the full benefits in terms of employment and income from agricultural research for small scale agricultural producers depend equally upon complementary capacity building for improved post harvest and marketing skills. The rural poor which depend upon off farm employment will benefit from increased income opportunities from growing demand for non-farm products, tools and consumer goods in rural areas and the community in general through lower food prices.
Yet, the reality is in most developing countries that, small holder agriculture is largely bypassed in the development and dissemination of new technologies. While agricultural productivity enhancement starts at local farm level most small farmers still lack adequate access to credit, extension, improved high-yielding and drought resistant varieties, chemical fertilizers, appropriate farm tools and equipment. This is especially so in the case of women, who represent the majority of the agricultural producers in the region.
The daunting tasks of the developing countries in the field of research and extension in agriculture cannot be fulfilled by the public sector alone. Certainly not by the traditional departments concerned with agriculture, fisheries and forestry and their education and research institutions. Yet the private sector by itself is not keen on agricultural research related to low level technologies in response to local farming practices and constraints faced by the small farmers, small scale fishermen, local water users and women etc. At the high end of agricultural research such as in biotechnology and plant genetic engineering (GMOs), the new technology development by the private sector is dominated by the international companies often acting as monopolies world-wide and unconcerned with small farmer related food and export crops produced in the region.
Natural resources management technologies are rapidly increasing for promotion of sustainable agriculture, forest, water and fisheries development. Following the trend towards liberalisation of trade in agricultural products within the framework of Uruguay Round/WTO, there is increasing need in the region to promote agricultural exports which are consumer friendly in European, Japanese and US markets. Thus, new technology development will need to meet export requirements of food safety and quality of agricultural products. On a broader scale not only the products but the entire physical environment needs to be consumer friendly in terms of the standards set for environmental conservation, biodiversity and bio-safety, involving all stages including handling of agricultural products from farm to agro- industries and to the market.
Government institutions need a major shift in attitude in favour of use of local knowledge for improved productivity in local food crop production, water conservation, soil improvement, etc and develop demand driven new farm technologies in partnership with the local communities and small farmers. Government facilitation of small farmers participation in decision-making on priorities and budget allocation for agricultural research and extension activities is of equal importance as collaboration with the private enterprises in high-end biotechnology research.
Of equal importance is research on sustainable and labour intensive agricultural production systems and on rural off-farm production and enterprise development. On this topic, APO organised in Iran a successful regional seminar in 1998. The outcome of this seminar was indeed recognition that government policies should give more priority to investment in public research on technologies to promote agro-industries based on local resources and to the establishment of institutional linkages between them and small farmers and rural workers, through their own self reliant, representative and self managed organisations, including the agricultural cooperatives.
An emerging area of research and technology development for enhancement of agricultural productivity, value added production, processing and marketing within the small holder agricultural sector is the development of rural telecom systems and related information technology and dissemination in rural areas. Rural universities, market information centres, schools, community centres, NGOs and farmers groups become directly and independently interlinked in the exchange of information, education, extension and marketing activities. Such interactions enhance local opportunities for market oriented production as well as access to new technologies which better guarantee sustainable small farming systems development, natural resources management and off-farm enterprise development. Information technology will also enhance transparency and efficiency in government decision-making on promotion of agricultural and rural development programs and delivery of related public services. Yet while some villages or village clusters could become virtual rural service centres, in most cases the development of telecom based virtual market roads between the small farms and the urban markets cannot replace the need for real development of rural infrastructure, in particular farm to market roads and improved urban-rural people and goods transport linkages.
It will be obvious that research and technology development in these areas requires a well defined policy framework to incorporate new paradigms which respond to the ecological challenges in this sector. The paradigm should shift from "green revolution" to "evergreen revolution" and incorporate effectively the concept of pro-poor and gender sensitive small scale farmer participation and extension. The broader trade and ecological dimension of agriculture and rural development will demand a strong effort in human resources development as part of the needed institutional capacity building for management and coordination. Government needs to establish effective interactive frameworks of activities through a broad range of government institutions. Agriculture and other relevant ministries need to be restructured to facilitate effective participation of small farmer led private sector and rural organisations in the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the programs and activity mechanisms at decentralised levels between government agencies, private sector agro -enterprises and institutions including representative small farmers, producer and marketing organisations, agricultural cooperatives and community level NGOs.
A policy framework for increased regional networking and collaboration among Asia- Pacific countries is needed to collectively meet international trade related research and technology development demands. International research and development efforts need to be focussed on promotion of national capacity building for agricultural research on productivity improvements in local food and agricultural crops and livestock produced in humid and semi arid areas within the region.