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1. Introduction

1.1    The context

The Asian region is undergoing rapid socio-economic, geopolitical and even cultural transformation; this has been stimulated by structural reforms, macroeconomic stabilization and concomitant disciplinary measures, effectively capitalizing on opportunities arising out of globalization, market liberalization and the capture of important trade opportunities (e.g. the World Trade Organization [WTO] and regional treaties). In the late 1990s, the region underwent an unprecedented economic crisis but many now believe that it has not only survived but has emerged stronger and better equipped to weather potential upheaval in the future. Many countries have been making steady headway and a few have regained and even surpassed the very high economic growth rates of earlier times.

The significant changes that continue to unfold result not only from external influences, but are also largely due to internal dynamics, particularly the nature and effective application of public instruments for governing the economies as a whole and the agriculture sector in particular. Enabling policy and economic environments, including unique rural development models, have led to many success stories.

Asian countries have the potential for tremendous achievements in agriculture and food security. Crafting policies and strategies to achieve this will, however, require recognition that Asia has great diversity in many aspects, including agricultural trade and food security situations as well as in the structure of the agricultural economies. A shared and positive development is that almost all the countries of the region have become self-sufficient (or nearly so) in food and many have emerged from being heavy importers to exporters. In South Asia, agricultural imports as a share of total export declined to 11 percent in 2002 from 24 percent in 1980; the corresponding change for Southeast Asia is from 10 to 6 percent.

With respect to food security, despite the impressive gains made in food production and overall development, the Asian region still has the largest absolute number of undernourished people in the world. Yet the region has major net food exporters — although they still suffer from food insecurity in places. Other countries are net food importers but a number are relatively food secure. Between these extremes are food-insecure countries that do not trade in food, food-insecure importers, self-sufficient countries that are relatively food secure and food-secure exporters.

In the face of rapid transformation, past conventional strategies may be inadequate to address persistent pockets of poverty, inequity and food insecurity. There is a need for fresh perspectives, taking into account domestic changes as well as the phenomenal growth of some countries in the region. The diagnostic case studies summarized in this report, address an important recent phenomenon, the rapid growth of China and India — the world's most populous countries — and the implications of this growth for policies and strategies for agriculture and food security (both domestic and external), particularly in Asia but with attention also to the greater Pacific region. In addition, the case studies cover the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Viet Nam. With differing historical contexts and economic systems, the experiences of these countries present interesting examples of major success in economic transition and of associated progress and agricultural development.

1.2    Organization of this report

This synthesis report summarizes the main findings and conclusions of the aforesaid five country studies, supplemented by additional information from various published sources.

Section 2 below deals with the two giants, China and India — achievements, prospects for future growth, challenges, domestic and external policy implications and lessons learned. Section 3 presents the experiences of the smaller countries, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and Viet Nam — achievements, challenges and lessons learned. The report concludes with an overview of policy implications for sustainable agricultural and rural development, both for the countries themselves and for other countries in Asia and further afield, and lessons learned from the agricultural and rural development strategies and policies pursued by these countries for poverty and hunger reduction.

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