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Making farming ‘sexy’ again

Publication Date : 09-06-2014

 

About seven billion people live on this planet and the population is expected to increase to 9.5 billion by 2050, putting pressure on the global community to raise food production by 50 per cent over the following decades.

It is against this backdrop that “Grow Asia”— a new initiative focusing on the agriculture space under the World Economic Forum (WEF) and fully backed by the agriculture ministers of Southeast Asia— was launched during the East Asia Summit meetings hosted by the Philippines in late May.

Nandu Nandkishore, executive vice president for Asia, Oceania Africa and Middle East at global food and beverage giant Nestle SA and co-chair of the Grow Asia initiative, said this was a platform to bring together the government, the private sector, farmers, the academe and civil society in a partnership to identify key issues in and seek solutions to the often-neglected farm sector.

“Alongside the rise in population, as people emerge out of poverty and gain consumer affluence, they all want to consume more animal protein because they want to get away from the carbohydrate-rich diets, which are the staple of the poor,” Nandkishore said in an interview with the Inquirer.

Around 150 government, business and thought leaders— including agriculture ministers from other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia— explored ways to accelerate sustainable agricultural growth and achieve food security through market-based multistakeholder initiatives, under WEF’s New Vision for Agriculture framework.

Nandkishore said “Grow Asia”, which President Aquino himself said he fully supported, was inspired by the “Grow Africa” initiative, a program born out of this new vision for agriculture that started in Davos, Switzerland, where the WEF holds its annual members’ meetings. He noted that Grow Africa was successful in mobilizing investments into the agricultural sector in African countries like Tanzania.

Grow Asia, on the other hand, is initially focused on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region but is expected to expand to other parts of Asia. “It is an important initiative to focus attention and investment and public policy into the agriculture sector to revitalize it,” Nandkishore said.

“We each face the emerging challenge of globalization of markets, climate change, dwindling natural resources and growing population in our march toward sustainable prosperity and a food-secure future,” Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said.

“To prevail over this challenge, we must respond with greater synergy to the realities they present. And we must do so in a manner that benefits our smallholder food producers through innovative approaches and strategies,” he said.

Grim reality

In a bid to double food production between now and 2050, the world needs four things—land, sunshine, water and people.

In the case of land, Nandkishore said this finite resource was fast decreasing because of urbanization and land degradation. The same was true for water, which was decreasing because the world was using 10 per cent more fresh water than the renewable sources could replenish every year, Nandkishore said.

About 70 per cent of all fresh water used by mankind was used for agriculture but the bad news was that 70 per cent of that water was actually wasted through evaporation, transpiration, runoff and other kinds of losses, he said. He noted that the current usage patterns in irrigation tended to be quite inefficient.

The fourth factor in food production, people, is likewise seen as a big challenge with the trends in urbanization. In the year 2010—for the first time in the history of mankind—one in every two human beings now lives in the city.

“This means a huge demand for food and food supply chains. And that’s the second problem with people, because farmers are aging and their children want to move to the cities. They don’t want to be farmers,” Nandkishore said.

“Why do they not want to be farmers? Well, life on a farm is hard. You’re working out in the sun, it’s physically uncomfortable. Second, it can be unremunerative because small farmers are exposed to the weather, to market forces, to climate change, or a typhoon, or whatever that comes, and suddenly they have no safety net. So it’s very precarious—and they have no access to technology, to productivity gains and improvements. It’s a tough existence. No wonder their children are seeking to move to the cities,” he said.

Way forward

For Nandkishore, the good news is in fact hidden inside the bad news. For instance, if 25 to 30 per cent of food production gets wasted in the supply chain—whether through spoilage or pest attacks—he said it was possible that the same quantity could be preserved using modern and efficient practices.

The second upside is seen in productivity levels, which tend to be quite low. “So if we can improve productivity levels to best-in-class worldwide, between these two, even with the reduced availability of land, we can in fact double food production between now and 2050. So it is possible to do,” he said.

What the initiatives must focus on should thus be water and people, Nandkishore said.

“The first thing to do is to make sure that agriculture prices are stable and remunerative and that there is some kind of financial instrument that provides a safety net for small farmers, whether through insurance schemes or financing schemes,” he said.

In real terms throughout the 20th century, Nandkishore noted that agricultural prices had fallen from 1900 to 2000, declining every single year such that farming became “progressively unremunerative.”

But since 2000 to 2010, farming prices have been trending higher and will likely continue in this trajectory for the next 30 years, especially as speculators join the fray.

“So that creates already a definitive market price outlook that can make agriculture interesting once again for agricultural entrepreneurs. But of course you would need to put in technology to raise productivity, and to improve the working conditions of people who are enthused to go back,” Nandkishore said.

In a recent research, British banking giant HSBC shared the upbeat view on investment opportunities in agriculture. “We expect the global commodity prices ‘super-cycle’ to be more ‘super’ and less ‘cycle,’ leaving commodity prices structurally high.  As emerging economies continue to grow faster than Western economies and remain in the ‘commodity-intensive’ stage of their development, we expect demand for commodities to continue to rise, supporting prices,” the HSBC research said.

He said technology could also help minimize and control the water usage in agriculture to have more efficient productivity.

In boosting efforts for agriculture, he said a multistakeholder approach is needed to tackle issues and drive solutions. There had been success stories, Nandkishore said, citing Vietnam, which in the last two decades had become the world’s biggest producer of Robusta coffee beans today.

Success stories

In 2013, Vietnam produced about 1.5 million metric tonnes of Robusta coffee beans, generating $3.5 billion in export receipts. The Philippines, formerly a net exporter of coffee, produced only 25,000 metric tonnes in the same year.

Another success story is that of Indonesia where a private-public partnership on the production of cocoa, coconut, dairy and palm oil is creating what Nandkishore describes as a “sustainable revolution in agriculture.” Sustainable meant one could not burn forests or degrade the land in farming, he said.

“Why is this important to the Philippines? Why is this important to Asean? Because today, across Asean, something like 37 per cent of people earn their livelihood from the farm center, directly or indirectly. It’s also true in the Philippines and unless we address the issue of farm productivity, remuneration and attractiveness of the sector, you aren’t going to be able to revitalize the sector,” he said.

Nandkishore could not agree more with Gawad Kalinga founder and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Tony Meloto, who believes in supporting agriculture through social entrepreneurs who can make farming attractive again, economically as well as in terms of imagery.

Gawad Kalinga’s 14-hectare Enchanted Farm located in Pandi Angat Road, Angat, Bulacan, for instance, is a platform to raise social entrepreneurs, help local farmers and create wealth in the countryside.

It is envisioned to be a farm village university, a Silicon Valley for social entrepreneurship and a Disneyland for social tourism rolled into one. In the words of Cherrie Atilano, the young co-founder of GK Enchanted Farm Agricool (who is part of WEF’s community of Young Global Shapers),

It’s all about “making farming sexy again.”

 

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