Food and Fertilizer Technology Center - publications

Jun. 01, 1998

Asian Agriculture in the 21ST Century

General Trends in Asian Agriculture

Since FFTC was established in 1970, the population of Asia and Oceania has increased by one-third, while the area of arable land per head of population has fallen by half. Farmers need to produce more food from less land than ever before. At the same time, they face long-term threats to productivity with the climatic changes of global warming, as well as the environmental changes which decades of intensive farming have brought to both lowland and upland fields.

Even worse than the problems of productivity are those related to marketing. Already most farmers in Asia have marketing problems and commodity prices are relatively low. This situation is likely to become worse as the world enters an era of global free trade in agricultural products. The small family farms of Asia which the Center was established to serve are thus at a time of crisis and rapid change.

The Food Situation

With regard to future trends in food supply and demand, the outlook is fairly promising in that most projections show that agricultural production will keep pace with population growth and the increases in demand generated by rising incomes. Asian economies are expected to grow at faster than global rates, while trade liberalization should lower food prices in Asia and free funds now used to subsidize domestic production.

The gap found all over the region between experiment station yields and farm yields implies that further increases are possible with current technologies. Some improvement is also expected from new technologies still to be developed, but in general, increased food production in the future will depend on improved management techniques that will enable farmers to achieve high and sustainable yields.

Crop Breeding

Crop breeding is likely to maintain its current importance. Favorable genetic change in crops is likely to become more rapid, as breeders use the new tools of biotechnology and learn more about the role of different genes. In Japan, plant geneticists are developing linkage maps for DNA markers. These are powerful tools for the precise analysis of genotypes of rice plants. Plant breeders are achieving new levels of pest and disease resistance, such as the multilinear rice cultivars in Japan which are resistant to rice blast. These are being widely used by farmers, but must be renewed every year to maintain a high level of resistance. Breeders are also producing crops with new physico-chemical properties which can be processed into new and improved products, or which promote health, or have a better flavor. An example is a new soybean which lacks lipoxygenase, the enzyme which gives soybean its "beany" flavor. Another example is a recently bred sweet potato with bright red flesh rich in anthocyanin and carotenoid.

Higher productivity is still important in the breeding of many crops, especially feed grains. The demand for livestock products in Asia in the 21st century is likely to increase. The key for higher production of feed grains to meet future demand must be higher yields, since Asia cannot increase its planted area. Corn is a C4 plant with a high photosynthetic ability, and has a higher yield per hectare than either rice or wheat. There is good potential for corn grown in the Asian and Pacific region to increase productivity dramatically, by the breeding of excellent hybrids and improved cultivation methods. Gene recombination is becoming an important tool in corn breeding. It was suggested that international cooperation and networking would help plant breeders in Asia to use advanced technology of this kind.

One problem discussed at the Symposium was the issue of proprietary rights of plant breeders over new varieties. The situation is less serious for rice than for most other crops, since germplasm is freely available from IRRI. However, it is a worrying trend that most of the biotechnology research is being done by private commercial firms, who protect their discoveries by patent. Patent rights now even cover life forms such as existing crop varieties, based on a description of the DNA sequence.

Sustainable Management of Soil Resources

Half of Asia's smallholders manage farms which are less than one hectare in size. Sustainable soil management is a serious problem for farmers on slopelands, where most soils are acidic, eroded and poor in nutrients. Although concepts of nutrient recycling and organic farming are now popular, organic farming systems can only recycle the nutrients that exist in the soil. Given a growing population, depleted soils and and a limited land base,

"organic farming will do no more than recycle poverty in poor areas."

The Asian Development Bank has estimated that one-third of the agricultural land has become degraded over the past 30 years. It has also pointed out that low income rather than population growth is the major underlying cause of land degradation. In many upland areas, farmers are mining the plant nutrient resources accumulated in the rain forest system, or trying to deal with the degraded landscape left after deforestation is complete.

One current program in Indonesia increases the fertility of upland areas by applying lime, plus an initial heavy application of phosphate fertilizer and an adequate supply of other essential nutrients. Soil organic matter is built up by the use of green manure or legumes in the initial crop rotations. Fertility traps along contours and improved planting materials also help restore and sustain soil productivity. Similar programs are being carried out in other countries of the region, and the results are promising.

While conservation practices and good nutrient management help make farming sustainable in slopelands, they cannot be used everywhere. Steep slopes with highly erodible soils are unsuitable for agriculture, and should be used for forest or pastures. Impact asessment is needed in parallel with development planning. There may sometimes be a conflict between the needs of the environment and the needs of people in slopeland areas. The solution may be to give people security of land tenure and restrict the areas they are permitted to use, as well as introducing soil conservation methods which give farmers an income and protect the land.

Plant Protection

IPM is now accepted all over the world as the best way to protect crops with reduced pesticide use. It is likely to be a mainstay of pest management in the 21st Century. However, in spite of its advantages, IPM can be very difficult to implement, and there are many problems still to overcome. One paper presented at the Symposium discussed a number of successful IPM programs, and what features they had in common. All of them clearly defined the objective of the program and its problems, and were successful in coordinating policy, research and extension for implementation. In developing IPM programs for the 21st Century, having clear objectives and purpose in research and extension may be more important than the development of new technology.

Reduced use of pesticide is generally seen as desirable. To achieve this, it helps to have an efficient monitoring system which regularly tests food items for pesticide residues. This gives farmers an incentive to use chemicals wisely, especially if there is some way of identifying offenders. A good monitoring system also informs the government about problems with particular pesticides or crops, so that it can take remedial action. As the the 21st Century approaches, we are becoming much better informed about the need to monitor for pesticide residues and the best way to do this. Other important problems we are only now beginning to solve are how to minimize pest resistance, how to assess risk to farmers from pesticides, and how to combine chemical pesticide use with the protection of natural enemies.

Unless there is an unexpected technical breakthrough, virus diseases of crops are likely to be as damaging in the 21st Century as they are today. They are particularly serious in perennial crops, since once a plant has virus disease it will remain infected until it dies. Integrated control measures are seen as the best way to protect perennial crops from virus diseases. Establishing a pathogen-free nursery system is an indispensable first step, with constant monitoring and indexing to ensure that the mother stock remains free of disease. This has been greatly helped by the recent development of molecular diagnostic probes for the detection and indexing of virus pathogens. After the seedlings are planted out in the field, control measures focus on minimizing attacks by insect vectors, and early detection and eradication of infected trees.

Reducing Postharvest Losses

To increase the food supply in the 21st Century, reducing postharvest losses is likely to be a much cheaper and easier path than trying to increase yields by the same amount. Postharvest losses in the region at present are generally high. Loss assessment studies for rice show large postharvest losses of rice of up to 30-40%. In most countries, the postproduction system for the storage, processing and distribution of rice has not kept pace with production. The main reason for this is because most agricultural research in Asia is carried out by governments, while most postharvest operations are handled by private companies.

Postharvest losses of fruit and vegetables, especially in the tropics, can be even higher than those of grain. A number of sophisticated technologies have been developed for postharvest handling of horticultural crops, but many Asian countries have been unable to use them, owing to cost or adaptability problems. Concern of consumers about the use of chemicals is also a constraint. In successful programs to raise the level of postharvest handling in Taiwan, a key element has been an integrated approach which included researchers, shippers, extension staff and government officials.

Impact of Wto on Small-Scale Farmers

Under the World Trade Organization (WTO), tariffs will be substantially lowered, and quotas can no longer be used as a protection. In earlier rounds of GATT, agriculture had been treated as an exception in trade regulations, but has now been included under the Uruguay Round. The main beneficiaries are likely to be agricultural exporters such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Chile. The countries which will be hardest hit will be those in Asia with small farms.

Will small family farms in Asia under the WTO system? Is it possible, or even desirable? Should the goal be fewer and larger farms using the best technology available? What should be done with the farmers who are unable to adapt to the new economic situation?

Do Asian governments wish to retain them on their lands by continued subsidies, or should the aim be to move them into other sectors?

To what extent can we expect low-income slopeland farmers to become integrated into the world of global agribusiness? What possibilty of development will they have if they are left outside it?


A number of trends are apparent. One is the likely importance of biotechnology in the agriculture of the future. Another is the value of the integrated approach to technological development. This interest is more practical than philosophical, and is based on the many successful programs of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and other types of technology. Its development will be promoted in Asia by the strong cultural identity and social cohesion of Asian farmers.

In general terms, the agricultural outlook in the region for the 21st Century seems fairly postive as far as food production goes. However, it is not reassuring for farmers. In the past, improved technology and infrastructure improvements were enough to raise farm incomes and yields. Now, it is mainly the terms of global trade and the world economic situation which determine whether small farms in Asia will be profitable or not. Agricultural marketing in the 21st Century will be more competitive, as Asian farmers compete with overseas producers.

FFTC International Seminar on Asian Agriculture in the 21ST Century

Taipei, Taiwan ROC

:June 9-12 1998

No. Papers:

No. Participants:

Council of Agriculture, Executive Yuan, Taiwan ROC

Index of Images

Figure 1 Field Testing of New Rice Varieties

Figure 1 Field Testing of New Rice Varieties

Figure 2 The Performance of New Rice Lines and Varieties Is Tested in an Environmentally Controlled Greenhouse

Figure 2 The Performance of New Rice Lines and Varieties Is Tested in an Environmentally Controlled Greenhouse

Figure 3 Improved Packaging Reduces the Postharvest Losses of Fruit

Figure 3 Improved Packaging Reduces the Postharvest Losses of Fruit

Read more

Postharvest Losses of Fruit and Vegetables in Asia
Postharvest Losses of Fruit and Vegetables in Asia
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