Asian countries are the major trading nations in food and agricultural products. Countries like Thailand and Vietnam are major rice exporters; Malaysia and Indonesia are rubber exporters and so on. About 26% of the total agricultural output in the East and Southeast Asia are exported mainly to USA, Europe and Japan, of which about 65% originates from Thailand and Malaysia alone. While Asian countries are active international trade partners a whole range of policy issues are to be addressed within the framework of the Uruguay Round and WTO agreements. Asian countries are reluctant to further liberalize trade in agricultural products for two reasons. First, the concept of national food security/food self-reliance is still considered valid to protect the local small scale rice producers. Second, expected mutual efforts towards liberalisation of imports of food and agricultural products by the developed countries like in the European Union and USA have not taken place convincingly. Yet there are major reasons for government institutions to be reformed and strengthened in order to promote agriculture and rural development through trade at regional and international levels. In most countries the customs departments and port authorities are among the most corrupt agencies, leading to the loss of income for the state and lack of adequate control on quality, disease, etc. Agreed quotas in imports and exports of agricultural products can not be monitored also with interstate borders, which totally lack control, transparency or even telecommunication equipment. Yet the greatest challenge for the Asia and Pacific countries lies in the development of highly modern technologies for food safety and quality control either upon demand from importing developed countries or following the emerging importance of imported GMOs, particularly the corn and soy products consumed by the Asian consumers. According to the World Bank, about 50% of the annual development investment funds have to be reserved for meeting the sanitary and phyto-sanitary requirements (SPS) and conditions for protection of property rights (IPS).
Governments will need to build institutional capacities at the national and international levels (country representations, regional collaborative frameworks in collaboration with international agencies including UNCTAD, FAO, ILO and WTO) for research on various trade-offs in the new trade agreements and provisions in the existing agreements, which should provide necessary safety nets in trade, environmental protection and biodiversity conservation. Many developed and developing Asian governments, though often do not subscribe to, remain rather passive towards a wide range of international conventions and codes of conduct, concerning sustainable management of agriculture, fisheries and forestry or related to quality of food and nutrition, environment, food security, etc. The whole body of international agreements affecting food and agriculture has to be taken into account within the framework of globalisation and trade in terms of their impact on food security and sustainable agriculture and rural development. Governmental level meetings in this region, facilitated by FAO for its 26 South and Southeast Asian and 12 Pacific Island member countries, provide a regional platform for a dialogue and joint decision-making on these matters.
Cereal trade liberalisation will have a profound impact the on small-scale rural food producers in both cereal production and processing. The World Bank recognises that there will be large scale changes in the agricultural sector affecting small scale producers which need to diversify their crop and agricultural production and specialise in local food products for urban consumer markets. To meet WTO related requirements in the light of the prevailing low quality of both the social (education and health) and agricultural support services in rural areas, government institutions need to be restructured and decentralised to establish effective partnerships with private institutions, especially with the representative small agricultural producers organisations and agricultural cooperatives.
Agricultural cooperatives, used to mainly distribute agricultural inputs or related purposes, often are not able to respond to the needs of local entrepreneurship development either as agricultural or as off-farm producers. This policy area will become important within the context of WTO as the private sector is unable to fill the gap in the provision of services. Secondary level agricultural cooperatives in agro-processing and marketing will have to be developed and, where necessary, rehabilitated. Producer groups need to be organised and trained as market oriented entrepreneurs, able to develop specific urban market demand driven production capacities based upon diversification of their produce. Export of food and agricultural products through effective agricultural cooperative networks in the Asian countries will be a major policy area in the promotion of agriculture and rural development. To effectively guide this process, the Government needs to develop a policy dialogue. Government institutions need to consult and collaborate in the design and implementation, monitoring and evaluation activities at the local, regional and national levels with the agricultural cooperatives and small farmers based commodity organisations. A major effort in education, training and provision of credit for small and medium enterprise development will be needed.
Finally public investment for rural infrastructure will be needed to improve rural-urban transport and market linkages. Telecommunication networks and a consistent rural energy development policy are needed. Rural electricity production, if based upon fuel wood and biomass, by small farmers and rural poor, will stimulate income generation and rural employment and thus contribute to rural poverty alleviation.
It is evident that governments alone cannot mobilise all the necessary resources for the needed investments. Therefore practical solutions will have to be found at the local community and regional levels. Also large-scale donor support from the developed countries, World Bank and ADB will be needed. The most important factor is the change in attitude among the political leaders and senior level government officials in favour of agriculture and rural sector and the needs of the rural poor. That the road will be long and arduous may be clear from a comment by Mr. Thomas Fuller on the meeting of G8, words most powerful economic countries in Geneva (Herald Tribune of 18 July, year missing?). "For Italy, globalisation had bad aspects during their Long March to modernity: inequality of incomes, concentration of wealth, poor working conditions and exposure to environmental degradation, political corruption and bribery, organised crime -all the social phenomena that crowd around any environment in the middle of radical change. Then comes the final shot: I am sure many Italians wish to be as boringly normal as countries like Switzerland and Sweden. Here is the news they will get their wish WITHIN A CENTURY". In this long-term perspective the major issue in Asia and the Pacific is not to present ambitious agricultural and rural development policies and plans but to allocate adequate resources and to immediately put them in to operation with effective participation of the rural poor.