Agriculture continues to be the engine of inclusive and accelerated economic growth and livelihood security in the developing Asia-Pacific region, that holds over 55% of world’s total and 70% of world’s agricultural population but in terms of land availability it holds only one-fifth of that in the rest of the world (APAARI, 2009). While agriculture in the Asia-Pacific region is rapidly becoming commercialized with a focus on both domestic and export markets, the region is also experiencing stagnation in agricultural production and productivity. Changing consumer preferences coupled with issues such as food safety, labeling, traceability, and WTO trade regimes are influencing significantly the way food is produced, processed, packaged and transported. At the same time, several megatrends are transforming the landscape of agriculture both in Asia and elsewhere. Recent economic pressure to find alternative fuels has seen the emergence of biofuel crop production, presenting both new economic opportunities, and threats, to sustainable land usage, water usage and forests.
The potential for production is also being transformed by biotechnology and genetic engineering, offering hopes for better agricultural productivity and protection against pests and other environmental impacts. However, biotechnology presents policy dilemmas, and remains politically divisive, in the absence of sound bio-safety mechanisms to ensure compliance with safety standards, especially in developed markets. Avian flu and other livestock-related diseases present new challenges, not least to the institutional capability of developing countries to manage, coordinate, monitor and implement appropriate measures to control current and emerging threats, and avert future ones. Not least of the challenges facing the agricultural sector are those presented by trade subsidies in the developed world, their impact on developing countries, and how these pressures shape the WTO and other global trade fora. Again, standards and certification remain central issues.
On the other hand the challenges of climate change and anthropogenic global warming now transcend national and international political concerns, and are central to the survival of the planet. Indeed, the conflict in Darfur has recently been called the first climate change war, and Lester Brown argues that the number of failed states is a bio-indicator for the health of the planet. Whether or not this is so, it is likely that conflicts over natural resources will increase dramatically in the 21st century, not least in Asia, many of whose three billion citizens aspire to standards of living already attained in developed countries – aspirations that are driving economic growth and now placing intolerable strains on the natural environment, and are fuelling climate change. Tropical rainforests and wetlands are being cleared at an unprecedented rate, for agricultural use and aquaculture development, and increasingly for production of biofuel crops. As this happens, much of the world’s biodiversity is being lost – and with it the hope for solutions to long intractable agricultural and health problems. At sea, largely unregulated commercial fisheries have already destroyed many of our most valuable marine and coastal ecosystems. On land, more than half the world’s population now lives in towns, cities, and mega-cities, creating unprecedented demands for energy, water supply, waste management and transportation.
In both the developed and the developing world, public awareness of what is at stake has never been greater. But how should governments, corporations, NGOs, educational establishments and individuals respond to the challenges we face? The challenges faced in Asia, as in Africa and South America, however, are qualitatively and quantitatively different to those faced in Europe and North America. For example, a congestion charge may work in cities such as London or Singapore, but would be impossible to apply in Dhaka or Phnom Penh, or even in Bangkok. Forests, wetlands and natural resources in Europe are superbly managed and protected in ways that cannot be easily replicated in Southeast and South Asia.
What lessons have we learned in Asia that can be shared with other countries in this region? What are current best practices? AIT’s short courses on Agriculture, Resources and Environment provide opportunities for professionals in all sectors to develop their knowledge on critical issues, learn from experience of peers in other countries, and share best practices and lessons learned from around the region through case studies, and to learn latest technologies for addressing complex issues. The short-term training and study visit programs address the emerging concerns of agriculturists, environmentalists, natural resources managers, food scientists and engineers, researchers, policy makers, project managers, technical supervisors, field and extension officials, development workers, and NGO personnel from developing countries in the region.