Should we turn away from agriculture and focus our economic growth efforts elsewhere?
If one is to examine the statistics, trends could give the impression that agriculture is a sunset sector, given 1) its declining share in total output and employment, and 2) the way young people are shunning farming in favor of jobs in the cities. Much of the dynamic growth seen by the Southeast Asian economies in the past 25 years was in fact dominated by growth in industry and services. Much of the poverty reduction that has occurred in our part of the world has also been driven more by growing incomes derived from services and manufacturing. Even farm level studies show that the growth in income of farm families has been attributable more to growth in their nonfarm incomes. A simple-minded inference from all this could lead one to believe that there's no future in farming, whether from the perspective of a family or of a nation planning for its people's future.
But instincts would lead us to continue focusing on agriculture in the pursuit of poverty reduction and sustainable and inclusive development. The sector, after all, continues to be prominent in the region's economies. Two attributes inherent to agriculture make this so. One, agriculture remains labor-intensive, employing more workers per unit output, even as greater mechanization in more labor-short economies is making this less so. Jobs are the foremost and durable antidote to poverty, and lack of them is what leads to persistent poverty and social exclusion. Two, agriculture inherently has strong backward and forward linkages in the domestic economy. That is, it buys a variety of manufactured inputs, while in turn providing inputs for a widening array of agri-based industries and other value-adding activities. It thus generates much second-round income and employment elsewhere in the economy. It is, in other words, a sector that is a strong driver of inclusive growth, one whose growth will pull up with it many other domestic industries while creating more jobs in the economy, both directly and indirectly.
Such is the theme of a new book launched by the Los Baños-based South East Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca), aptly titled "Farms, Food and Futures: Toward Inclusive and Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development in Southeast Asia." The volume compiles state-of-the-art knowledge on the agricultural and rural sector in our region, now seen to be the most economically dynamic in the world. It draws from the wealth of studies and papers presented at the international conference on Agricultural and Rural Development 2014 that Searca hosted in Manila two years ago, which attracted hundreds of participants from all over the region. The book also draws on the rich knowledge, experience and insights of the distinguished authors of its four thematic chapters on regional integration, institutions and governance, social inclusion, and sustainability. As Searca director Gil Saguiguit Jr. put it during the book's launch forum, "agricultural and rural development remains a vital cog in the efforts of individual countries and the region as a whole to work for food security and poverty alleviation. And the fact that it is against a backdrop of increasing population, dwindling natural resources, and climate change makes it most challenging."
As to whether we should continue to hang our futures on the seemingly declining agricultural and rural sector, the book points out that once agriculture is more completely defined to encompass the entire agricultural value chain "from field to fork," one finds that rather than declining, the sector has in fact been growing in importance. Far from being a sunset sector, it is one marked by rising productivity driven on the supply side by technological advance, and on the demand side by shifting food demands away from traditional cereals and toward horticultural products, i.e., fruits, vegetables and beverages—higher value crops that promise higher incomes to farmers. Agriculture, broadly defined, is in fact our future—and our young better take note.