The Asia-Pacific region is facing a challenge to make the agricultural sector attractive to its younger population as well as to provide food for millions of poor children, panellists said yesterday at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Bangkok.
Robert Berendes, head of business development of Syngenta International, Switzerland, said Asia and other parts of the world had been facing a similar issue of ageing farmers while younger people are dropping out of farm jobs to work in the manufacturing or service sectors.
The challenge is how to turn agricultural activity into a professional career by which farmers with small holdings can make profits from it, he said.
More investment is also needed in agriculture as the Asian Development Bank has estimated that the region needs to invest about US$80 billion (Bt2.5 trillion) in the sector, he said during a discussion on “Planting Seeds for a Sustainable Future”.
He also said Asean countries should not try to become self-sufficient in all crops, but each country should plant the crop that is most feasible.
Rusman Heriawan, Indonesia’s vice minister of agriculture, said his country faced a challenge on how to feed its 245-million population, the world’s fourth-largest.
The government plans to achieve self-sufficiency in five farm products – rice, milk, corn, soybean and sugar cane – by 2040.
He said the government had introduced mechanical farming, was improving the irrigation system and had a price-support policy.
As Indonesian people are preoccupied with uniforms, the government also designs uniforms for farmers to make them feel better about their careers. “Farmers usually wear simple clothes such as short trousers, while others working in other sectors have uniforms,” he said.
Meanwhile, Estrella Penunia, secretary-general of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development, said the average farmer in East Asia had 1-2 hectares of land, while many did not own land. About 70 per cent of world food production comes from farmers with small holdings. But there are problems in distribution and access to food.
She proposed that smallholding farmers should be allowed to sit at the policy-making table, as the policies would affect them.
“They should be involved in decision-making at the local, government and regional level like Asean,” she said.
This would allow them to articulate their needs, and they are the ones would have to make a commitment to implement the policies, she said.
Kenro Oshidari, regional director for Asia at the United Nations World Food Programme, raised concerns about access to food.
He said millions of people in the region were still hungry. While food should be affordable for the poor, he said about 60 million people in Bangladesh did not have enough to eat.
The problem is more pronounced for children, as many of them face malnutrition. He said the challenge was how to provide adequate food to children in their first 1,000 days, a critical period for their healthy development. If they face malnutrition during the first 1,000 days, the damage to their physical and mental development cannot be undone by feeding them later, he warned. He said his agency was working with the private sector to provide food to poor children.
Petipong Pungbun na Ayudhya, president of the Biodiversity-Based Economy Office, said Thai farmers faced difficulty in obtaining bank loans as these institutions demand collateral.
He said private companies might lend a helping hand by giving long-term credit to farmers, who can then undertake sustainable farming such as planting trees.
Panellists also agreed that climate change was a major worry for agriculture.