Empowering Asia's rural poor

Posted: 11 July 2002

Inadequate farm technology and poor government support are preventing small farmers in Asia and the Pacific from unleashing their full productive capacities that boost food output and reduce poverty.

That was the message from FAO's 26th Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific in May 2002.

They underlined the need to increase the productivity of small farmers who make up the bulk of agricultural households in Asia and the Pacific. The Asia-Pacific region is home to 75 percent of the world's farm families and two-thirds of the 777 million hungry people in the developing world. Three-fourths of the region's under-nourished people live in villages and depend on agriculture, fisheries and related rural industries for their livelihood.

Asia-Pacific countries will have to step up agricultural production by 80 percent by the year 2030 to meet the growing food needs in the region, according to FAO. But there is very little room for expanding the area under farm cultivation and most of this increase will have to be obtained from improved farm yields. Most of the production gains will have to come from small cultivators.

Contrary to general belief, farmers cultivating less than 2 hectares of land account for a more than proportionate share of national food grain and livestock production. Their total output has increased even as that of large farms has declined.

Yet small cultivators in the region, were largely bypassed by the green revolution technologies introduced on the country's farms in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequent years have seen persistent reductions in public investment in agricultural research and infrastructure. This is a major reason for the decline in agricultural productivity since the 1990s, with latest estimates projecting that during 2002-04, the growth rates in the index of total agricultural production would fall below the annual population growth rate.

Lasting reductions in rural poverty and hunger are not possible without increases in agricultural productivity. "Unleashing the potential inherent in the vast majority of the rural poor who rely on agriculture for employment and incomes can accelerate poverty reduction. Productivity in agriculture is still low despite the recent advances in technology," says FAO.

It cites the example of Indian provinces where substantial increases in farm yields between the late 1950s to the early 1990s resulted in faster rural poverty reduction than in provinces with sluggish growth in farm productivity. Agriculture-led rural economic growth has been the main engine for the dramatic economic transformation in China since the late 1970s. This in turn was stimulated by extensive state support to agriculture research, infrastructure and institutional reforms in agricultural markets.

The Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s has also led to a 'rediscovery' of agriculture, which helped absorb significant numbers of displaced urban workers.

An effective anti-hunger and anti-poverty strategy for Asia-Pacific countries must ensure that rural poor have access to basic agricultural production resources such as land, water, farm technology, credit, other farm inputs and markets. Addressing social imbalances and promoting human resource development are also vital. The removal of inequities along with access to public utilities, health, education and other social services are essential prerequisites for sustainable rural development.