Friday, October 10, 2008

Revisiting Agriculture

Malaysia moved from agriculture based economy in the 1970s to he manufacturing and electronics in the 1980s and now is revisiting the agriculture sector. In the last few years the agriculture sector has been accorded prominent emphasis and identified as the third engine of economic growth. Whereas, under the National Biotechnology Policy this sector is listed as the number one thrust. This move by the government is commendable and is certainly a far-sighted one in light of food security problems faced globally. As a nation that has high food import bill and far from being self-sufficient in terms of food production, we need to rethink our strategies in transforming our agriculture sector. All industrial countries were once agriculture-based economies. This is evident as agriculture growth was the precursor to the industrial revolutions that spread across the temperate world from England in the mid-18th century to Japan in the late 19th century. In recent years we are witnessing rapid agricultural growth in China, India and Vietnam and this is going to give a boost to their economy. Agriculture too, has a well-established record as an instrument for poverty reduction.

However, promoting and developing this sector does not come without problems. Agriculture leaves the largest environmental footprint – from reduced biodiversity, mismanaged irrigation water, agrochemical pollution, and health hazards and deaths from pesticide poisoning. On top of this, aging farming population and shortage of labourers are some of the main constraints in the Malaysian agriculture scene. Nevertheless, the answer is not to slow agricultural development, but to seek more sustainable production systems and enhance the productivity of this sector.

The recent report prepared by World Bank entitled “The State of Agriculture Report 2008” has dissected the issues plaguing the agriculture sector especially in the developing world and strategies to eradicate poverty among farmers and increase productivity. Among the strategies recommended were improved access to water and irrigation, well functioning land market that could facilitate transfer of lands, proper education system, improved price incentives and quality and quantity of public investments. The report gave major prominence to promising technology and innovation like the genetic modification (GM) technology that can make agriculture more sustainable with minimum tradeoffs.

Below are excerpts from the World Bank report that will provide an insight of its view on GM technology.

“Countries and farmers that are slow to adopt GM technology may lose their competitiveness as global commodity prices fall with broader adoption in large exporting countries. Further delays in developing and adopting GM technology mean further delays in the substantial economic gains that could accrue to poor producers”.

“GM crops are a powerful tool to help farmers adapt to climate change through the more rapid addition of genes for drought and flood tolerance. Continued and unnecessary delays and skepticism are creating serious opportunity costs for society by preventing Golden Rice and other promising GM food crops from reducing malnutrition and saving millions of lives in many poor countries sooner rather than later”.

The Malaysian agriculture sector will grow to greater heights with the merging of conventional and modern biotechnology applications to develop new varieties of seeds, planting materials, biofertilizers, and biopesticides. We need high yielding varieties of crops with good resistance to pests and diseases. Synchronised ripening in the case of some crops, such as cocoa and pepper can help in reducing labour intensiveness. Some of these challenges can be met by adopting GM technology. It is not denied that any new technology comes with risks, however, with a proper risk-benefit analysis, risk assessment and management strategies, and a balanced and proper regulatory system, this technology could serve as a powerful tool to boost out agriculture sector. Ultimately a strong, transparent, cost-effective regulatory system will not only ensure safety but also boost public confidence and foreign and local investments.

Innovations in the agriculture sector have been driven rapidly by private companies in developed countries. Developing countries will only be able to share the pie if the knowledge divide between industrial and developing countries, and private and public sectors is narrowed. To achieve this, sharply increased investments in research and development activities must be at the top of the policy agenda. China and India are moving in the right direction, with investment in agricultural R&D tripled over the past 20 years. These countries should be emulated. With all other countries racing along this line, Malaysia should not be lagging or left behind. We have all the ingredients to success on our plate – good policy, funding capacity, rich biodiversity, and excellent past record in agriculture. What we need now is proper implementation and execution plans and a far-sighted vision.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

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