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Agrarian Transition and Emerging Challenges in Asian Agriculture: A Critical Assessment

Green revolution technologies and a vigorous smallholder sector have seen Asian agriculture make giant strides in the last five decades. But agricultural transition has not been uniform across Asia and the future of smallholder agriculture faces several challenges arising from a range of socio-economic, demographic, structural and institutional factors that could adversely affect its sustainability. This paper critically reviews the divergent experiences of agricultural transformation in five Asian countries - Bangladesh, India, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam - from a comparative perspective and points to the need for evolving new perspectives and policies towards sustainable and non-disruptive transformation of smallholder agriculture in Asia.


Agrarian Transition and Emerging Challenges in Asian Agriculture: A Critical Assessment

P K Viswanathan, Gopal B Thapa, Jayant K Routray, Mokbul M Ahmad

Green revolution technologies and a vigorous smallholder sector have seen Asian agriculture make giant strides in the last five decades. But agricultural transition has not been uniform across Asia and the future of smallholder agriculture faces several challenges arising from a range of socio-economic, demographic, structural and institutional factors that could adversely affect its sustainability. This paper critically reviews the divergent experiences of agricultural transformation in five Asian countries – Bangladesh, India, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam – from a comparative perspective and points to the need for evolving new perspectives and policies towards sustainable and non-disruptive transformation of smallholder agriculture in Asia.

This paper draws from the study “Understanding the Next Agricultural Transition in Asia” that was carried out by the authors at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The usual disclaimers apply.

P K Viswanathan ( is at the Gujarat Institute of Development Research. Gopal B Thapa (, Jayant K Routray ( and Mokbul M Ahmad ( are with the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, Thailand.

reen revolution (GR) technologies backed by a vigorous smallholder sector has seen Asian agriculture undergoing a major transformation in the last five decades. Smallholders in Asia are a huge chunk, accounting for nearly 87% of the farms with an operational size below 2 hectares in the world (out of a total 525 million farms) (Oksana 2005). The largest concentration of smallholdings in Asia is in China, India, I ndonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam (Chand et al 2011). Thanks to the GR and the smallholder sector, most countries have achieved tremendous growth in agriculture and self-sufficiency in the production of basic staples and other food crops. The s ignificance of the Asian smallholder sector is that it produces 80% of the food consumed in the developing world and feeds one-third of the global population (FAO 2011).

However, agricultural transition in Asia brings out a major contradiction. While a handful of countries, particularly Japan and South Korea, have achieved rapid rural transformation and become advanced industrial economies, a majority of the countries, especially in south and south-east Asia, still remain predominantly agrarian though there has been a perceptible decline in the share of agriculture in their national gross domestic product (GDP) (World Bank 2009). This contradiction apart, a large body of the empirical literature currently shares the concern that the future of smallholder agriculture in Asia faces several challenges arising from a range of socio-economic, demographic, structural and institutional factors that could adversely affect its sustainability. The challenges include (a) the shrinking size of farms; (b) distressinduced rural-urban migration that has led to an increasing number of women and old people in agri culture; (c) persistent technological and institutional constraints; (d) climate change and its adverse impacts; and (e) the emergence of genetically modified (GM) crops and problems to do with their adoption. All these have serious implications for food security and sustainable livelihoods in the smallholder sector of most Asian countries.

The dynamics of rural transformation and the challenges confronting Asian agriculture make it a fascinating subject, one that merits a critical assessment of its major trajectories of growth and transformation from both the historic and contemporary perspectives. Such an assessment is justified as there are very few regional studies that try to understand the complexities of agricultural transformation and their long-term implications for the smallholder sector in Asia. Further, the rapid changes that have taken place in the socio-economic and demographic aspects of smallholder livelihoods call for a detailed review, especially given the emerging global development scenario.

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Review of Rural Affairs

Rural India is witnessing a wide-ranging transformation. The narratives of this transformation range from the stories of “rural resurgence” and the rural as a site of expanding consumption to that of rural distress and suicides of farmers in large numbers. We also hear how rural India is fighting corporate takeover of its land. The contemporary rural situation is vastly complex and does not neatly fit any of these characterisations.

Agriculture still remains central to rural transformation in India as it is the source of livelihood for over half of the rural population. Even then, at a very gradual pace, occupations and livelihoods are getting diversified in rural India. It is well known that the share of agriculture in national income has come down significantly in the last 60 years; besides, the share of agriculture in rural incomes has also fallen sharply in recent years. Animal husbandry, value addition and trading in agricultural commodities have emerged as important sources of income for rural households.

Strong farmer organisations have emerged in different parts of the country, forming powerful interest groups around minimum support prices, public procurement, fertiliser and input subsidies and free power supply to agriculture. The collective impact of these interventions is now being felt on the environment in rural areas, especially on the common pool land resources and on groundwater. While it is true that the irrigation pumps and borewell technology have helped in mitigation of distress of small and marginal farming households, these have also resulted in rapid groundwater depletion. Such negative impacts bring into sharp focus the natural resources context of agricultural development.

There have also been a spate of serious struggles around construction of big dams, sharing of river water, resistance to the inroads made by corporate capital to take over forest and mineral resources, rights-based movements for food and forest rights of tribal communities and left-wing movements articulating the problem of marginalised sections. The combined effect of these movements is to constantly reconfigure the rural landscape in many ways. The role of the state is also being rapidly redefined as a consequence of such struggles. There has been a significant expansion of public spending in rural areas (now over Rs 1 lakh crore a year), with programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Bharat Nirman, National Rural Health Mission, drinking water missions, etc.

The village social life has also seen many changes. The traditional structures of caste and jajmani relations had begun to see changes soon after new agricultural technologies were adopted by farmers. Notwithstanding significant regional variations, the old ties of patronage and clientele have by now disintegrated almost everywhere in the country. This has resulted in new tensions between caste groups, which often erupt in violent clashes. The village has lost its old communitarian framework, if it ever had one. The younger generations no longer seem to identify with the village and its “ethos”. Academic research needs to take a fresh look at these forces of change and develop a critical understanding of rural India. Detailed studies with a multidisciplinary perspective are required to build an integrated view of the facets of these dynamic transformations. It is hoped that the new Review of Rural Affairs (rra), which will incorporate the old Review of Agriculture and will be published twice a year, will bring out the broad contours and the essential character of the process of change in contemporary rural India.

The themes to be covered and articles to be published in the RRA will be decided by an advisory editorial group whose members are Ramesh Chand, Surinder S Jodhka, D Narasimha Reddy and P S Vijayshankar.

Against this backdrop, this paper critically reviews the divergent experiences of agricultural transformation in five Asian countries – Bangladesh, India, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam – from a comparative perspective. A careful scrutiny of agricultural transformation in these countries enables one to understand the underlying contradictions in farm production structures, changing agrarian and labour relations and the challenges to food security and sustainable livelihoods. These five countries best represent the south and south-east Asian region with their distinct trajectories of rural transformation. While South Korea (hereafter Korea) exhibits growth and transformation driven by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, Thailand presents a d ynamic agriculture sector in the post-reform and post-crisis p eriods. India and Bangladesh have almost similar stories of agrarian transformation and face the same challenges, while V ietnam has achieved transformation with aggressive reform policies in its post-Doi Moi (renovation) era.

The rest of the paper is organised into four sections. Section 1 critically reviews the important trajectories of agricultural transformation in the five countries and Section 2 examines the main drivers and outcomes of agricultural transformation. Section 3 outlines the major challenges confronting smallholder agriculture in the larger Asian context. Section 4 concludes the paper by highlighting the need for evolving new perspectives and policies towards sustainable and nondisruptive transformation of smallholder agriculture in Asia.

1 Trajectories of Agricultural Transformation in Asia

Compared to economies in the west, the trajectories of rural transformation have been quite distinct in Asia. While western economies experienced a rapid and complete transition from a gricultural to advanced capitalist or industrial societies, the process of transformation has been slow in most of Asia, barring a few countries. For instance, one can see that apart from Korea, a complete rural transformation has not occurred in any of the other four countries in this study.

The major trajectories of agricultural transformation, driven by the widespread adoption of GR technologies, especially by smallholders, seem similar in the five countries. All of them, except Korea and Thailand, were predominantly agrarian in the 1960s with the largest share of their GDP coming from the agricultural sector, including the sub-sectors of forestry, fishery and livestock. For India and Vietnam, agriculture was also a major provider of employment and export earnings. However, there were notable differences in the way GR technologies and processes interacted with the biophysical and human environments in these countries.

1.1 Spread of Green Revolution: Role of Policies, Technologies and Institutions

The GR was seen as a means of achieving self-sufficiency in food production, infusing dynamism to the economy and propelling rural transformation. All five countries made significant investments in research and development (R&D), extension, technology and infrastructure development to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of food crops, mainly rice, wheat and maize. They also provided substantial input subsidies (for fertilisers, irrigation and energy) and credit to enable farmers to make the most of

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i nnovative practices in farming. Farmers were quickly able to utilise technologies developed at international agriculture research centres such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, the International Maize and Wheat Research Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the AVRDC: The World Vegetable Centre in Taiwan (Kaosa-ard and Rerkasem 2000: 4-5; Chand 2010).

A closer look at the policies as well as technological and institutional interventions in the five countries reveals some striking

Table 1: Trends in Production of Foodgrains (1961 to 2009)

Period Bangladesh India Korea Vietnam Thailand

Average annual production (million tonnes) 1961-75 16.27 100.85 7.59 10.02 14.31

1976-90 22.80 156.57 8.98 14.83 21.74

1991-2009 36.17 228.46 7.21 33.02 29.91

Average annual simple growth in food production (%)* 1961-75 2.54 (0.24) 3.18 (2.80) 2.57 (0.16) 1.15 (0.12) 4.58 (0.44)

1976-90 2.57 (0.61) 3.24 (4.77) 0.38 (-0.07) 4.62 (0.65) 1.71 (0.50)

1991-2009 3.21 (1.25) 1.49 (3.12) -0.44 (-0.04) 4.22 (1.29) 2.90 (0.75)

Average annual per capita food production (kg)* 1961-75 247 (-2.59) 192 (0.86) 249 (-0.20) 244 (-2.47) 405 (0.98)

1976-90 232 (0.39) 212 (1.86) 228 (-4.89) 257 (5.99) 432 (1.80)

1991-2008 252 (4.12) 226 (-0.41) 156 (-2.25) 415 (11.48) 468 (7.50)

* Figures in parentheses indicate linear trends growth rates. Source: Estimated from FAOSTAT (

variations. Bangladesh and India chose a deliberate strategy of intensive agriculture. Bangladesh, which now has one of the most mechanised and labour-intensive agricultural sectors in south Asia (Biggs and Justice 2011), experienced significant changes, particularly in rice cultivation with the widespread adoption of modern rice varieties, mechanisation of tilling and intensive use of inputs. These changes enabled it to achieve food security to a large extent, though at the cost of a diminution of its genetic resources (Asaduzzaman 2010). Through the GR, India eradicated famines and persistent food shortages and attained food self-sufficiency in a short span of 10 to 15 years (Chand 2010).

Thailand’s agriculture underwent significant developments in the years following the First National Economic and Social Development Plan in 1961. Substantial investments were made in i nfrastructure, technology, irrigation, research and extension, besides establishing rural credit support and institutional systems for facilitating market incentives and trade flows. The adoption of GR technologies, including high yielding variety (HYV) seeds, significantly boosted the production of irrigated rice in the central plains and maize in the rainfed uplands (Phrek 2010).

Vietnam initiated economic reforms (Doi Moi) in 1986 with the goal of creating a “socialist-oriented market economy”. The major reform in the agricultural sector was Resolution No 10 of the Politburo (1988), which abolished the collective farming system and allocated land to individual households on a long-term basis. The price reforms of 1989 liberalised all conventional price controls, including interest and foreign exchange rates. The new exchange rate policy dramatically altered the income of farm households by giving them full control over production and free access to markets. The reforms also greatly contributed to improving the terms of trade in favour of agriculture (Chung and Dang 2010).

In sharp contrast, development policies in Korea were guided by rapid growth through industrial expansion and urbanisation,

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which were considered essential for alleviating poverty and setting right the socio-economic disruptions caused by the Korean War (1950-53). While pursuing such policies, Korea heavily taxed its agriculture sector by maintaining low grain prices (using PL 480 imports from the US) during the 1950s and 1960s (Kim and Lee 2010). However, there was a reversal in this policy in the 1970s and Korea began subsidising agriculture to achieve self-sufficiency (FAORAP 2006). To support its large number of small and poor farmers, productivity-enhancing policies and infrastructure i mprovement programmes were implemented, which included enlarging farms, improving drainage and developing water resources. Korean agriculture greatly changed after the late 1980s when import barriers were removed under strong international pressure, forcing it to be sensitive to changing global markets. Since joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, Korea has made efforts to further strengthen its agricultural sector while sticking to its WTO commitments. Korea has also introduced direct payment programmes, though this is not in full conformity with the Green Box measures of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) (Kim and Lee 2003; Song 2006).

1.2 Food Self-Sufficiency and Commercialisation of Agriculture

The GR significantly increased the production of foodgrains in all the five countries, as is evident from Table 1. All the countries, barring Korea, achieved a consistent increase in food production, as indicated by the average annual production in three subperiods. In Korea, annual average food production considerably declined from 8.98 million tonnes during 1976-90 to 7.21 million tonnes during 1991-2009.

Table 2: Trends in Agricultural Exports, 1989 to 2009 (in million dollars)

Period Bangladesh India Korea Thailand Vietnam
1989-91 157 2,843 1,125 5,760 667
1992-94 122 3,181 1,204 6,594 976
1995-97 130 5,667 1,741 9,077 1,984
1998-2000 125 4,939 1,628 7,176 2,384
2001-03 99 5,753 1,726 8,617 2,210
2004-06 192 9,112 2,258 13,126 3,743
2007-09 270 16,559 2,896 20,716 6,349

Source: FAOSTAT (estimated).

Spectacular growth in the production of wheat and rice made India almost self-sufficient in foodgrains in less than a decade of the GR (Chand 2010). Vietnam attained food self-sufficiency by 1989 and has been a leading rice exporter ever since. Korea witnessed a deceleration and even negative growth in food production during the entire period. Average annual per capita food production in Korea declined from 249 kg during 1961-75 to 228 kg during 1976-90 and further to 156 kg during 1991-2008, mainly due to policies that favoured the conversion of land under staple crops (paddy and barley) to high-value crops (vegetables and fruits) (Lee and Kim 2010). Though Bangladesh experienced a drop in per capita food production from 247 kg (1961-75) to 232 kg (1976-90), the situation improved with an increase to 252 kg during 1991-2008. Though India’s trend growth rates show a significant growth in food production, the growth in per-capita food production was negative (-0.41%) during 1991-2008, indicating worsening food availability.

Much of the contribution to the growth in food production came from a single crop, rice, which also was the major benefactor of the GR in all the countries, except India. The contribution of rice to total food production was as high as 96% in Korea, 95% in Bangladesh, 89% in Vietnam and 88% in Thailand. In India, rice contributed only 56% to total foodgrains production, followed by wheat at 30%. The yield impact of GR technologies was quite significant in the case of rice. Among the five countries, Korea achieved the highest yield levels of 4.0 to 4.8 tonnes per ha over 1961 to 2008. In Vietnam, the rice yield varied between 1.92 and

4.8 tonnes per ha and in Bangladesh, it varied from 1.68 to 3.71 tonnes per ha during the same period. India (1.48 to 3.1 tonnes per ha) and Thailand (1.78 to 2.82 tonnes per ha) had relatively lower levels of rice productivity.

Besides benefiting from the GR, the five countries also made healthy investments in R&D, infrastructure development and extension programmes to increase the production of commercial crops for exports. Vietnam and India were growing tropical cash crops such as rubber, tea and coffee even earlier to boost export earnings and the GR period coincided with the dynamic growth of commercial agriculture in these countries. Nevertheless, the promotion of cash crops did not result in large-scale diversification of agriculture in Bangladesh and Vietnam with food crops (mainly rice and wheat) continuing to dominate the gross cropped area in these countries (86% and 72%, respectively). But India, Korea and Thailand were more successful in crop diversification and the area under non-food/commercial crops was about 44% to 47% of the gross cropped area in 2007. Apart from Bangladesh, the growth in commercial agriculture enabled the other countries to gain significantly from increased exports over a period of time, as Table 2 (p 43) shows (see also Figure 1).

Figure 1: Trends in Agricultural Exports of Major Asian Countries


0 1991 1993 1995 1997 1999 2001 2003 2005 2007 2009

24,000 20,000 16,000 12,000 8,000 4,000 Exports ($ million) Korea India Vietnam Thailand

Thailand had the highest gains between 2004-06 and 2007-08 with its agricultural exports jumping from $13,126 million to $20,716 million. In relative terms, India’s agricultural exports increased by 82%, followed by Vietnam (69%), Thailand (58%), Bangladesh (40%) and Korea (28%) during the period 2004-09. With the exception of Vietnam, the other four countries experienced a drop in exports between 1995-97 and 1998-2000 due to the 1997 financial crisis. By and large, it may be observed that trade liberalisation policies adopted by these countries significantly helped them diversify exports through improved market access and increased engagement in free trade agreements (FTAs).1 However, much of the increase in exports came from the nonfood crop sector. All five countries, especially Bangladesh and K orea, experienced a decline in exports of food and food products, with an unfavourable balance of trade in the food sector.


1.3 Structural Changes and Contraction of Agriculture Sector

A closer look at the sectoral composition of GDP is appropriate to see if the structural transformation in the five countries resulted in a progressive shift from agriculture to other sectors. Broad trends suggest that the economies witnessed a phenomenal i ncrease in the value of agricultural GDP, though with a drastic fall in the relative share of the agricultural sector in GDP (Table 3).

Table 3: Trends in Agricultural GDP and the Sectoral Composition of GDP (1980 to 2010)

Bangladesh India Korea Thailand Vietnam

Agricultural GDP (current $ million)
1985-89 7,531 80,351 16,899 8,344 8,994
1990-99 9,974 (32.4) 94,445 (17.5) 26,236 (55.2) 13,183 (58.0) 5,186 (-42.3)
2000-08 12,213 (22.4) 146,735 (55.4) 25,844 (-1.5) 18,184 (37.9) 11,029 (112.7)
Agriculture value added (%)
1980-89 31.6 32.0 13.4 17.4 41.6
1990-99 27.1 27.6 6.6 10.4 30.2
2000-10 21.0 19.5 3.5 10.5 21.8
% change -33.5 -39.1 -73.9 -39.7 -47.6
Manufacturing value added (%)
1980-89 21.2 26.0 39.5 32.5 25.9
1990-99 24.1 26.5 41.4 40.0 29.3
2000-10 27.2 27.7 37.1 43.5 39.7
% change 28.3 6.5 -6.1 33.8 53.3
Services value added (%)
1980-89 47.2 42.0 47.1 50.1 32.5
1990-99 48.8 45.9 52.0 49.6 40.5
2000-10 51.8 52.8 59.4 46.0 38.5
% change 9.7 25.7 26.1 -8.2 18.5

Figures in parentheses indicate the percentage change between periods. Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators, 2010 (compiled).

India’s agricultural GDP increased from $80,351 million (1985-89) to $94,445 million (1990-99) and further to $1,46,735 million in the last decade (2000-08). The period 1996-2000 witnessed a significant reduction in agricultural GDP in Thailand and Korea due to the Asian financial crisis. Notably, all countries (except Korea) experienced a significant rise in agricultural GDP in the last decade with the maximum growth realised by Vietnam (113%), followed by India (55%), Thailand (38%) and Bangladesh (22%).

Despite the significant increase in the value of agricultural GDP and the rise in agricultural exports, the relative importance of agriculture declined in all countries, which was clearly an indication of sectoral transformation (Table 3). The decline in the share of agricultural GDP was more pronounced in Korea (74%) and V ietnam (48%). In Korea, the share of agricultural GDP declined from 13.4% (1980s) to 3.6% (2000s). If this trend continues, K orea may soon join Japan and the US, where the share of agriculture in the national GDP is hardly 2%. Thailand also experienced a decline in the share of agriculture from 17.4% to 10.2%. The pattern of sectoral transformation looks somewhat different across the five countries. For instance, the services sector grew dynamically in all the countries except Vietnam, where manufacturing growth was more pronounced.

2 Drivers and Outcomes of Agricultural Transformation

The structural transformation characterised by the decline of the agricultural sector influenced the socio-economic and demographic profiles of farm households in all the five countries. These socio-economic and demographic changes, in turn, affected

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the performance of the agricultural sector and agrarian relations. By and large, these changes may be broadly described as

  • (a) demographic pressure and the fragmentation of holdings;
  • (b) migration and its effects on agriculture and farm families;
  • (c) the feminisation of agriculture and an ageing farm population; and (d) a changing technological paradigm. We briefly e xamine how these factors have influenced the process of agricultural transformation in the five countries.
  • 2.1 Demographic Pressure and Fragmentation of Landholdings

    The structural transformation brings out the important paradox of the decline of agriculture as a source of growth even while farming remains the mainstay of rural livelihoods in Asia. The proportion of the rural population is as high as 72% in Bangladesh and Vietnam, 70% in India and 66% in Thailand (FAO 2010). The dependence on agriculture is very high at 63% in Vietnam, 49% in India, 46% in Bangladesh and 41% in Thailand. This shows that the dramatic growth of the manufacturing and service sectors has not yet created enough employment opportunities to absorb the excess rural population. However, Korea is an exception, with its farming population falling sharply from 45% (14.4 million) of the total population in 1971 to 28% (10.8 million) in 1981 and 7.4% (3.5 million) in 2003. Further, the labour force employed in agriculture declined by about 22% from 2.55 million to 2 million between 1992 and 2002 (Song 2006, as cited in FAORAP 2006; Lee and Kim 2010).

    Mounting demographic pressure on farmlands resulted in the fragmentation of holdings in all the five countries, something that happened all over Asia. The problem was aggravated by a decrease in the area of arable land due to land degradation and agricultural land being diverted to urban and industrial use. Small and marginal holdings now constitute 87% of the farmland in Bangladesh, 85.2% in Korea, 84.2% in Thailand and 82% in Vietnam and India. The fragmentation of farmlands has reduced the size of operational holdings in all five countries. For instance, the average farm size is a low 0.57 ha in Vietnam and 0.73 ha in Bangladesh. It is slightly more than 1 ha in Korea (1.37 ha) and India (1.33 ha) (FAO 2009). Thailand is an exception with an average farm size of 3.65 ha at the national level though more than 30% of its households own farmlands less than 1.6 ha (Phrek 2010).The situation is much worse if per capita landholding is considered. As of 2007, average farm size per capita was the lowest in Bangladesh at 0.07 ha. It was slightly better in the other four countries, 0.42 ha in Thailand, 0.21 ha in India, 0.18 ha in Korea and 0.15 ha in Vietnam. Land fragmentation affects farm management decisions, particularly in a country like Vietnam where a farm household may have to manage five to eight scattered plots of land (Chung and Dang 2010).

    2.2 Migration and Its Effects on Agriculture and Farm Families

    Rural-urban migration is high in most Asian countries due to lack of employment opportunities both within agriculture and outside it and the low profitability of agriculture. About 66% of the rural migration in Bangladesh is towards the main urban centres of Dhaka and Chittagong (Black et al 2008: 28). Dhaka now has

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    almost 13 million inhabitants with an annual addition of 5,00,000 (UN-Habitat 2008). In Vietnam, declining employment opportunities in agriculture has resulted in both intra- and interprovincial migrations. According to 2004-05 estimates, the total number of migrants in Vietnam was 10.8 million, of whom 62% were intraprovincial migrants (Chung and Dang 2010).

    In Korea, urbanisation has triggered several patterns of migration that have had a definite impact on the performance of agriculture. During the 1980s, more than 50% of the total migrations were rural-urban, induced by better living conditions in the cities and educational, medical and cultural opportunities. But ruralurban migrations decreased in the 1990s with the absorptive capacities of cities reaching a saturation point. In turn, urbanurban migrations increased from 51% during the late 1980s to 74% during the early 2000s, mostly fuelled by a growing demand for labour in the rapidly expanding manufacturing and services sectors. Further, when Korea faced a shortage of labour with about 7,60,000 Koreans immigrating to the US between 1965 and 1995 (Massey 2003), a large part of it was met by importing l abour from neighbouring countries (Lee and Kim 2010).

    Thailand exhibits three major patterns of seasonal labour migrations – the movement of agricultural labourers to work in sugar cane farms; the migration of rice and maize farm workers to Bangkok or other fast-growing urban centres and industrial locations; and cross-country labour migrations. However, Thailand has the lowest rate of permanent rural-urban migrations among the five countries. Since villages are well connected with urban centres, rural households get opportunities to take part in several non-agricultural activities. Besides, remittances received from family members or relatives working in urban areas or abroad enable rural families to continue living in villages as cultivators (Thaiprasert 2006; Almeida 2006; Phrek 2010).

    Migration in the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana is somewhat different from that observed in other countries. These two states, which were the heartlands of the GR, see a huge influx of labourers from neighbouring states for seasonal employment at higher wages. The high rate of agricultural growth achieved under the GR improved the living standards of even small and marginal farmers in these states. So large segments of their farmers have either become “farm managers” or ceased to work on their farms. This has created employment opportunities for labourers from other states and the situation has reached such a stage that without outside labour, the agricultural sector in Punjab and Haryana will collapse2 (Chand 2010). However, regions outside the GR belts tell a story of distress migration. Migrations are quite frequent from the drylands in the country, mostly driven by poverty and lack of access to water (Agoramoorthy et al 2009).

    An interesting paradox of increasing rural-urban migrations is that it has not led to poverty alleviation in these countries. Many of the migrants end up earning little and leading miserable lives in urban areas because they lack education, technical skills and knowledge. Thus, rural-urban migration has only aggravated u rban poverty (Rasul et al 2004; Mendola 2008). For instance, in Bangladesh, though rural poverty decreased from 55% to 53% between 1996 and 2004, urban poverty increased by 8% from 29% to 37% (Herrman and David 2009).

    2.3 Feminisation of Agriculture and Ageing Farm Population

    The feminisation of agriculture has been one of the major aspects of rural transformation in most parts of Asia, though its degree varies across countries. Besides attending to household chores, women make up 60% to 80% of agricultural labourers in Asia and Africa against 40% in Latin America. The increase of women in agriculture is attributed to a variety of factors such as male outmigration, the growing number of women-headed households, the increase in labour-intensive cash crops and persistent poverty in rural areas (UNIFEM 2008).

    Other than Korea, where women in agriculture were hardly 9% of the total working female population (World Bank 2009), it has been on the rise in all the other four countries. In Bangladesh, the number of women in agriculture more than doubled from 3.76 million in 1996 to 7.71 million in 2006 and the share of women agricultural workers increased to almost 68% of the total female workforce (Asaduzzaman 2010). In India, about 33% of cultivators and 47% of agricultural workers were women (Vepa 2005). Further, almost 65% of all women workers and 83% of r ural female workers in India were in agriculture (NSSO 2004-05). Moreover, an estimated 35% of households in India were de facto female-headed because of death of the husband, marital breakdown or male outmigration (Rawal 2008; Agarwal 2010). While the share of women workers in agriculture was about 61% in Vietnam, it was a relatively lower 44% in Thailand (Phrek 2010).

    The increasing rural-urban migration of youngsters exerts pressure on older people to actively take part in farming operations. This trend is seen in most of Asia, particularly in Korea and Thailand. In Korea, the rural population above 65 years increased by almost three times from 3.7% to 10.4% between 1960 and 2008, while Thailand reported a twofold increase from 3.2% to 7.4% during the same period. Besides, the growing rural population in the four countries other than Korea (ranging from 66% to 72%) suggests that larger proportions of the elderly will crowd rural living and agricultural spaces in the years to come. The challenges posed by the increasing number of women and the elderly in agriculture in Asia will be discussed in Section 3.

    2.4 Changing Technological Paradigm

    Though GR technologies have enabled many Asian countries to achieve agricultural growth, their benefits have been mostly confined to specific crops and resource-endowed regions.3 Further, the large adoption of GR technologies resulted in indiscriminate exploitation of land and water resources along with intensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. These trends, called the second-generation problems of the GR, have raised several issues related to the growth model based on GR technologies and the future of agricultural sectors in the region (Chand 2010).

    It was because of this that GM/biotech crops began receiving greater attention in many parts of Asia. It is pointed out that millions of large, small and resource-poor farmers around the world have begun growing GM crops as a result of consistent and substantial economic, environmental and welfare benefits offered by these crops. The increased adoption of GM food crops, such as biotech rice, is expected to benefit 250 million poor rice households in Asia

    46 (James 2010) thereby helping to mitigate the problems of food insecurity, malnutrition and a bject poverty.

    The five countries show disparate trends in the adoption of GM crops due to various reasons. For instance, Bangladesh is yet to establish RD and institutional systems for regulating GM technology and so far no GM crop has been approved for commercial cultivation (Asaduzzaman 2010). In India, only Bt cotton has had remarkable success in terms of a rapid expansion in area from a mere 50,000 ha in 2002 to more than 9.4 million ha in the last 10 years (Viswanathan and Lalitha 2010; Choudhary and Gaur 2010). India follows a very cautious approach in promoting other GM crops, in particular Bt brinjal, in view of growing environmental as well as health-related concerns (Chand 2010).

    Thailand has been promoting GM crops such as Bt cotton, Bt corn, roundup ready soybean, Bt maize and GM papaya owing to the vigorous marketing strategies of multinational seed company Monsanto. At the same time, the promotion of the GM crops has been opposed by national (headed by Biothai) and international (Greenpeace Thailand) agencies (Phrek 2010). Vietnam has also been promoting GM crops, mainly rice, cassava, maize and soybean, livestock feed and tilapia, a fish. But wider promotion of GM crops in Vietnam is constrained by policy and regulatory systems (Chung and Dang 2010). Korea promotes GM technology mainly to meet the growing domestic demand for foods and feed and has enacted laws and regulations to enable consumers to make informed choices. As of December 2008, the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) had approved 54 varieties of GM crops (Hae-Yeong et al 2010).

    3 Critical Challenges Facing Asian Agriculture

    The trajectories of agrarian transition in the five countries reflect the larger Asian context. The future of their smallholder agriculture faces serious challenges and the potential threat of climate change exerts pressure to adopt more sustainable ways of farming. A critical assessment of agricultural transformation in Asia reveals that the benefits of the GR did not reach millions of small farmers in marginal regions with a rough topography and complex, rainfed agriculture (WCED 1987). Moreover, agricultural growth in regions that adopted GR practices has become saturated with stagnant yields (in Korea and Thailand). There are also the problems of depletion and degradation of natural resources (India, Bangladesh) as well as intensive use of energy, fertilisers and pesticides (Korea and Vietnam).

    The challenges confronting Asian agriculture are multidimensional and involve almost all aspects of farming right from seed choice to marketing of farm produce at the end of the supply chain. Nevertheless, for the sake of brevity, we classify them into

    (a) socio-economic and demographic challenges; (b) challenges of dwindling institutional support and trade reforms; (c) biotechnology and environmental challenges; and (d) climate change and food security challenges. In what follows, we briefly discuss some of these challenges and their implications for the agricultural sectors in the five countries.

    3.1 Socio-economic and Demographic Challenges

    The dwindling share of agriculture in GDP alongside increasing demographic pressure on land is a pressing concern in most of

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    Asia, especially India, Bangladesh and Vietnam. The lack of alternative employment opportunities has made the situation worse. Though all the five countries have been implementing programmes to create employment opportunities in the farm and non-farm sectors and industries and encourage land consolidation, their achievements have been slow and inadequate. While economic transformation in the west led to more land consolidation (Chand et al 2011), this has not happened in most of Asia. However, Korea and Vietnam report some progress in consolidation of farm lands. In general, fragmentation of holdings has pushed up production and farm management costs, thereby jeopardising the future of farming as a viable pursuit.

    3.1.1 Growing Landlessness

    Besides fragmentation of holdings, there is now a high incidence of rural landlessness in Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Thailand. In Bangladesh, about 4.5 million households (15.63%) were landless in 2008, a majority of whom (73%) lived in rural areas (BBS 2008). Landlessness has been caused by poverty or natural disasters (floods, cyclones and riverbank erosion) or land-grabbing (Rahman and Manprasert 2006). Landlessness is also acute in India, as National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) surveys show. More than 40% of rural households are landless and inequality in landownership worsened between the 48th (1992) and 59th (2003-04) NSS rounds (Rawal 2008). Landless households in V ietnam increased from 1.15% in 1994 to 4.05% in 2006 (Chung and Dang 2010). The problem is very severe in the Mekong River Delta, where the proportion of the landless increased from 17% in 1993 to 29% in 2002. Landlessness has been caused by increasing urbanisation and industrialisation as well as sale of land due to increased outmigration (Thanh et al 2008).

    ,Q7KDLODQGmarket-driven agriculture has resulted in landlessness increasing at an annual rate of 4%. The rising costs of farming and depressed prices have pushed millions of farmers into perennial indebtedness. Many who used their land as collateral for borrowing have lost it after being unable to repay their loans (Leonard and Ayutthaya 2003; Phrek 2010). A majority of rural households become marginalised and are deprived of credit facilities and state support when they lose the collateral of land. In Vietnam, lack of access to credit among the landless poor has been reported to be jeopardising anti-poverty programmes (Ravallion and Van de Walle 2008). In India, the severity of landlessness has grown drastically because households whose lands were acquired for industries, mining, dams and other projects have been neglected by land distribution programmes (Dogra 2007).

    3.1.2 Growing Number of Women and Elderly in Agriculture

    As mentioned, increasing rural-urban migration and a dislike for farming among youngsters poses a serious problem for Asian agriculture because it pressures women and the elderly to take up farming responsibilities. Feminisation of agriculture opens up several operational-level issues, given the existing organisation and relations of production in agriculture. Compared to men, women have poor access to land and other productive assets as well as services such as training, extension and credit4 (Agarwal

    Economic Political Weekly

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    1994, 2010; Vepa 2005; Kelkar 2009). In addition, farm technologies are often designed to suit the physical abilities of male workers and female workers lack appropriate technologies. The wage disparity between genders is yet another major issue.5

    The increasing presence of the elderly in farming operations is also a major challenge. In Korea, the increase of farmers and farm labourers more than 60 years old has reportedly affected growth of the agricultural sector with it showing symptoms of “growth fatigue” (Kim and Lee 2003). India and Bangladesh also report high work participation rates (55%) among those more than 60 years old in rural areas (Rajan 2009). A high proportion of elderly males (42%) and females (41%) are economically active in the Red River Delta in Vietnam (Friedman et al 2003). Micro-level evidence from Thailand indicates that almost 40% of the elderly work in agriculture (Darawuthimaprakorn and Punpuing 2010).

    3.2 Challenges of Trade Reforms and Dwindling State Support

    Large sections of Asian agriculture were governed by technology, policies and institutional support regimes developed during the early phase of the GR, which are either dormant or redundant now. Trade reforms under the WTO have further aggravated the crisis in many countries because several state-support schemes have been withdrawn (Ellis 2005).6 The decline in investment in agriculture is all the more worrying as it has happened in the face of rising rural poverty in Asia (World Bank 2008).

    Proponents of trade liberalisation claim that tariff reductions will benefit developing countries by enhancing market access for their agricultural products, but these claims are highly contested. This call for detailed studies at disaggregate levels to d etermine which countries, what type of farm products and which segment of the farmers benefit from such tariff reduction. Preliminary evidence suggests that there are obstacles to exportled agricultural growth in many countries because of (a) rising production costs due to increasing wages and input costs;

    (b) technical barriers to trade and new barriers linked to intellectual property rights, animal welfare, and sanitary and phytosanitary measures; and (c) inertia and inflexibility of subsistence-oriented production systems that are typical of many farming communities (FAORAP 2009).

    It is likely that tariff reduction commitments under the WTO may increase the vulnerability of smallholders by creating new threats to agriculture from cheap imports that adversely affect prices and farm incomes. Though countries such as Vietnam and India have been somewhat successful in accessing international markets under liberalised policy regimes, a major share of their exports comprise commercial crops such as coffee, rubber, tea and pepper, the prices of which are highly volatile. Similarly, the export of fresh fruits and vegetables from Thailand and Vietnam face stringent food safety and quality regulations in export markets, especially on maximum residue levels of pesticides in the European Union (EU) (Wannamolee 2008; GTZ 2008). It is also relevant to note that the emerging trend of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements or regional trade agreements (FTAs/RTAs) in the Asian region and across other regions such as the EU may affect the comparative and competitive advantages historically enjoyed by these countries in the production and export of agricultural products.

    3.3 Biotechnology and Environmental Challenges

    Though empirical literature on the economic benefits of growing GM crops is available, very little is known from the food and ecological security perspectives about the risks of growing more and more of them. There has been relatively little biosafety research on the health and environmental effects of GM crops (UNESCAP 2009). The problems in the adoption of GM crops7 are also a matter of serious debate, needing systematic and long-term studies specific to these crops across countries. The greatest challenge posed by GM technology is that unlike the GR, RD and technological innovations are largely owned and exploited by multinational companies (Lipton 2010). Not surprisingly, many countries do not have strong regulatory systems and rural institutions that facilitate an informed choice of GM crops by resource-poor farmers (Tripp 2009).

    3.4 Climate Change and Food Security Challenges

    The future prospects of agriculture in Asia are threatened by climate change and food security challenges. Changes in average temperature, shifting patterns of rainfall and changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events can affect agriculture in ways that are unpredictable. It is likely that water availability for agriculture and other uses, including drinking and ecosystem services, will considerably decrease in semi-arid and arid areas, thus affecting food security and rural livelihoods (Fraiture et al 2010).

    Unfortunately, we are yet to generate meaningful information on the various effects of climate change on agriculture, food security and livelihoods in Asia. Among the five countries, Bangladesh will be the most affected by a rise in sea level because about 32% of its total land area, where 29% of its total population lives, is close to the coast (Bala and Hossain 2010). Further, more than 35% of the arable land on the coast is already affected by varying degrees of salinity and left fallow in the dry season (Karim et al 1990). More than 60% of Bangladesh’s land is six metres below sea level, with a large part of it experiencing regular floods (Mirza 2002). Thus, the effects of climate change, including f requent natural calamities, will have serious implications for food security in Bangladesh (Herrmann and Svarin 2009).

    Vietnam also faces climate change issues such as a rise in temperature, a rise in sea level, and frequent and intense rainfall causing floods in some regions while others reel under drought. Its vulnerable regions include coastal zones, deltas affected by storms and storm-induced floods and mountainous areas susceptible to flash floods and landslides (Chung and Dang 2010). A study in Korea shows that the rising temperatures result in the emergence of new harmful pests that cause massive damage to apples, peaches, grapes and beans. Rice yields are reported to be stagnating, mainly because of weather-related factors rather than technology-related ones (Kim et al 2009).

    The threats from climate change are a double-edged sword for most parts of Asia, where agriculture is the mainstay and rice production the dominant agricultural activity. This raises two important challenges. First, being large sources of greenhouse

    48 gas emissions, the agricultural sectors in these countries will have to be reoriented through climate-resilient farming practices. Trends as of 2005 reveal that agricultural methane (CH4) emissions contributed about 76% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Thailand, 69% in Bangladesh, 67% in Vietnam and 65% in India. Korea is an exception to this, as its level of CH4 emissions is quite low, declining from 38% in 1990 to 31% in 2005 due to a drastic decrease in the area under rice and emission reduction commitments. Second, rice cultivation in these countries accounts for 30% to 50% of their CH4 emissions, along with emissions from other farming activities such as manure handling, livestock production, burning of crop residues/biomass, slash and burn practices, and so on (Wreford and Moran 2009; Golub et al 2009). It has also been reported that seasonal methane emissions from rice cultivation were 49 kg/ha in Thailand and 45 kg/ha in India, while it was 367 kg/ha in Korea due to intensive agricultural practices (Malla 2008).

    4 Future of Smallholder Agriculture in Asia: Evolving Perspectives and Policies

    A larger issue that emerges from the foregoing analysis on the various facets of agricultural transformation is whether it is possible to sustain smallholder dynamism, which was instrumental in driving agricultural growth in Asia in the GR era. It is important to ponder ways and means by which the smallholder sector in Asia can overcome the multiple challenges facing agriculture. One argument is that the future of smallholders may not lie in farming alone. Rather, it calls for measures to stimulate rural non-farm sectors and create more employment oppor tunities while investing in the provision of public goods (Wiggins et al 2010).

    It may be observed that agricultural development policies and programmes as well as technological and institutional developments in Asia have so far heavily focused on planning from macroperspectives without understanding the importance of micro environments and the socio-ecological systems that shape smallholder livelihoods. Hence, a major challenge that all the five countries have is evolving new policies, investing in RD, and implementing technological and institutional development strategies for agriculture from the perspective of regional “agro-socio-eco-systems”. That said, evolving policies and strategic interventions may be difficult because there is a clear lack of empirical understanding about the micro-level implications of many of the challenges discussed above. Cross-country empirical investigations become critical in the context of trade reforms and growing market uncertainties on the one hand and climate change-induced risks on the other.

    This analysis provided the broad patterns of rural-urban m igrations based on aggregate data, which do not adequately capture all the various factors causing migrations and labour shortages in agriculture, especially agrarian distress and the e ffect of extreme climatic events. This makes it important to understand the various adjustment mechanisms, including changes in cropping systems and farming methods, being adopted by farmers to overcome such adversities; and the existing interventions or policies/programmes (if any) to check migrations, and their success. Similarly, the increasing incidence of landlessness calls for understanding whether it is caused by contingencies such as

    january 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 4

    natural hazards or distress-induced factors, including loss of land smallholders in Asia in the context of neo-liberal trade reforms. caused by urban and industrial expansion. While little effort is made in Asia to recognise the multiple func-

    As is evident now, the future strength and dynamism of Asian tions of agriculture, including the sociocultural roles and the ecagriculture will be undermined by the large-scale retreat of young osystem services provided by rice production systems, the protecpeople from the farming sector. Given this, there is a need for re-tionist policies being adopted by the EU as well as Japan and Kovisiting this issue to understand local policy responses and inter-rea may provide useful indicators. ventions made by the state and other development agencies to The time is ripe to establish in what ways GM technology in address this issue. In the absence of any such interventions, it food and commercial crop production could lead to sustainable needs to be examined what type of incentive structures and profit-livelihoods and increased welfare gains for farmers, especially in able farm enterprises would help prevent the large-scale exodus of regions with poor resource endowments. The need for wellyoungsters from agriculture. Alongside, attention has to be paid to founded research on the social effects of GM crops stems from the various challenges faced by women and the elderly in farm that some parts of India that adopted Bt cotton when it was intromanagement. A critical aspect should be the development of gen-duced in 2001 have been in the throes of an agrarian crisis, even der-specific and elderly-specific technological innovations and in-leading to farmers’ suicides.8 It is also important to consider how stitutional support mechanisms so that their hardships are mini-public sector RD institutions of the GR era can be revamped to mised and they are adequately rewarded for their contributions. sustain smallholder dynamism through a GM revolution. This

    Critical studies are also required to understand the multifunc-would enable achieving a smooth rural transformation without tional nature of agriculture and its significance in protecting disruptive consequences.


    1 India’s agricultural exports increased due to diversification of exports as well as consolidation of export markets in the OPEC, the EU, APEC countries, the US and the UAE (GOI 2010; European Commission 2007). Thailand’s gain in exports was facilitated by favourable trade policies with an emphasis on integration within the Asian region and increased engagement in FTAs with the ASEAN and the EU (Zamroni 2006).

    2 Between 1981 and 2001, the total number of migrant labourers in Punjab more than doubled from 0.87 million to 1.75 million, with an annual average growth rate of 3.55% (Singh et al 2007).

    3 For instance, GR policies in India mostly benefited the three major crops of wheat, rice and maize in the Indo-Gangetic plain, comprising the northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana and the western part of Uttar Pradesh. An extensive irrigation infrastructure has been developed in these areas (Chand 2010).

    4 A report of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) observes that the lack of title to land makes it difficult for women to access institutional credit. For example, hardly 5% of women have access to Kisan credit cards. Extension and input supply services also do not reach women at the right time and place (Swaminathan 2005).

    5 In Bangladesh, the female-male wage ratio is 0.75 (Kelkar 2009). Indian states show greater gender wage disparity, in the range 0.51 to 0.81. The few exceptions are in the green revolution tracts of Haryana and Punjab (Vepa 2005).

    6 The share of agriculture in official development assistance (ODA) declined sharply from 18% in 1979 to 3.5% in 2004. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the bulk of agricultural ODA went to Asia as support for the green revolution. It declined dramatically thereafter. This decline in state support for agriculture has been attributed to competing demands from sectors such as health, education, social welfare and industry, and structural adjustment programmes, which significantly reduced agricultural subsidies and other supports (FAORAP 2009).

    7 Despite the growing importance of GM crops, their uptake has been confined to a few crops and countries, mainly due to environmental and biosafety concerns. While GM crops are accepted in the US, Canada, Argentina, China, India, Columbia and South Africa, several EU countries have not accorded regulatory approval for the commercial release of many GM crops.

    8 Ever since 2006, a serious agrarian crisis has been deepening in large parts of India. By the end of

    Economic Political Weekly january 28, 2012


    2008, there had been more than 1,83,000 suicides by farmers (P Sainath, The Hindu, 12 December 2008), mostly in Maharashtra (72%), Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh. A large number of these suicides occurred in low-rainfall, low-irrigation parts of these states, especially the Bt cotton growing tracts in Maharashtra and Punjab. Studies show that compared to other households, suicide-prone households are highly indebted and depend on traders and moneylenders in a big way (Vaidyanathan 2006). For a detailed review of the major causes and outcomes of the agrarian crisis in India, see Reddy and Mishra (2009), Padhi (2009), Barah and Sirohi (2011).


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    vol xlviI no 4

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