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No Free Lunch

Wanted: an ‘Asean Agricultural Community’

/ 12:10 AM November 11, 2014

For the Southeast Asian economies, the agricultural and rural sector remains prominent in the overall development agenda. In all but two (Singapore and Brunei) of the Asean member economies, agriculture remains a dominant contributor to total output, and in some of them, is still the most prominent direct provider of jobs. Moreover, much of the manufacturing and services industries in the region are actually linked closely to agriculture, making the total significance of the sector far greater than its direct output and employment shares would suggest.

But notwithstanding the important contributions of the agriculture sector and rural economy, it is also the sector wherein poverty is most prevalent and persistent. It also tends to be most vulnerable to damage caused by natural disasters, environmental degradation and climate change; persistent rural poverty can in fact be partly attributable to this. But persistent and prevalent rural poverty is also an outcome of technological, institutional, political and socioeconomic forces that put agriculture and the rural economy, particularly the small players therein, at a relative disadvantage compared to the other sectors of the economy and society.


The challenge of promoting agricultural and rural development (ARD) and reducing, if not eliminating, poverty in the agriculture and rural sector is indeed a complex one. Finding appropriate strategies and solutions requires an approach that recognizes the complexity of the challenge, whose full understanding requires perspectives from a wide range of academic disciplines and fields of study. Apart from the obvious contributions from the natural and physical sciences, solutions to problems in the sector must also draw on the social sciences, liberal arts, cultural studies and other scholarly areas of inquiry. Thus, ARD would be best pursued with a multidisciplinary and holistic systems approach. It is also best examined from the multiple perspectives of the whole array of stakeholders in the ARD community, namely: farmers and landless farm workers and their families; academic experts, comprising natural and social scientists and other relevant disciplines; civil society organizations, including nongovernmental organizations, sectoral associations and community groups; business entities, including input suppliers, farm product processors, financial institutions, logistics providers and traders; government policymakers, officials and workers at various levels of governance; and international development agencies.

Through the years, countless forums, conferences and workshops have gathered experts, usually belonging to similar disciplines—plant breeders, agronomists, economists, and other specialists—to tackle the challenges of the sector. To be sure, there is great value in deepening the knowledge base within the various disciplines and fields of study involved in ARD, through constant research and innovation, and periodic expert gatherings. But no single discipline or stakeholder group can claim to have all the answers. Unless we adopt a more holistic, systems-based perspective that encourages cross-fertilization in the multidisciplinary knowledge marketplace, effective and lasting solutions are likely to remain elusive. This is perhaps one reason why agricultural challenges remain formidable across the region.

The Los Baños-based Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca), being the only knowledge center focused on ARD in Southeast Asia, is logically positioned to facilitate such an approach to addressing ARD in Asean. With this in mind, Searca has organized a forum for a wide-ranging discussion of ARD challenges confronting the Asean region under the holistic, systems-oriented, multidisciplinary and multistakeholder perspective described above. On Nov. 12-14, Searca, in collaboration with numerous institutional partners, will hold the 2nd International Conference on Agricultural and Rural Development in Southeast Asia (ARD 2014) at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel. Around 400 foreigners and Filipinos are expected to attend, representing the wide array of disciplines and stakeholder groups listed above.

With the theme “Strengthening Resilience, Equity and Integration in Asean Food and Agriculture Systems,” the conference will feature plenary discussions and 24 breakout sessions under six parallel themes spanning productivity improvement, inclusive value chains, sustainability and poverty reduction, food security and food safety, institutions and governance, and regional cooperation and integration. Through ARD 2014, Searca seeks to provide a comprehensive and inclusive knowledge exchange benefiting from the multiple perspectives of the various disciplines and stakeholder groups represented. Participants to the forum would thus not only expand their knowledge; more importantly, they would benefit from a broadened perspective in the way they perceive and analyze the challenges of the ARD sector, and conceive the approaches and strategies to address them.

The conference comes at an opportune time, when the impending culmination of the Asean Economic Community next year poses the most questions, and the most fears, for the agricultural sector. The answers could very well lie in identifying modes of cooperation and complementation in agriculture across Asean, rather than defaulting to outright competition, thereby building an Asean Agricultural Community as well. ARD 2014 hopes to start the conversation that could eventually make this happen.

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