New Delhi: The eight countries that make up the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or Saarc—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka—need to focus more on the farm sector, according to India’s agriculture minister Sharad Pawar.
He also pointed out that the region does not correspond to the so-called natural trading partner hypothesis, and that the relevance of South Asia Free Trade Agreement, or Safta, was being questioned.
“As regards regional trade, South Asia is the least integrated when measured as a share of GDP (gross domestic product),” Pawar said at the first Saarc conference on “Science-based agricultural transformation towards alleviation of hunger and poverty”.
Pawar, however, noted that the bilateral trade is still significantly large and rising in smaller countries, but said “we need to not only encourage this but should try to strengthen Safta also.”
For joint action: Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar addressing the first Saarc conference on agricultural transformation towards alleviation of hunger and poverty in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Outlining the challenges for agriculture in the region, Pawar said the non-availability of quality and cost-effective inputs, low efficiency of use of inputs and fast deteriorating soil health and water resources are the critical concerns.
One of the major priorities of the governments of the Saarc countries is to give agriculture a big push and realize high growth rate, Pawar said.
Pawar said investment and regional cooperation in research and development must top the policy agenda of Saarc countries.
According to him, agriculture in the region could become a dynamic sector with rapid technological innovation and suggested that the region should strive to harness science for rendering agriculture much more productive, efficient, competitive and remunerative.
The minister, however, said the real challenges that come in the way of agriculture becoming the instrument of development lie outside of agriculture. “These are managing political economy of agricultural policies and strengthening governance for implementation of these policies.”
Speaking at the conference, renowned farm scientist M.S. Swaminathan raised concerns over dwindling global food stocks and rising prices. “We are entering a difficult stage globally and nationally in agriculture and therefore sharing of ideas and experiences among Saarc countries would be beneficial,” he said.
He listed factors such as overcoming unacceptable levels of hunger and poverty, giving the power and economy of scale to small farmers, creation of multiple livelihood opportunities, climate change, managing trans-boundary pests and fair trade as the the major challenges facing the region.
Swaminathan suggested that Saarc countries jointly develop a surveillance and early warning system for managing trans-boundary pests.
In his speech, Afghanistan agriculture minister Obaidullah Ramin stressed on working together to face the challenges and proposed to set up a common seed bank, joint research centre and a common credit fund for the region.
Bhutan’s minister of agriculture Sherub Gyaltshen, too, focused on a common approach: “The need to build partnership with the scientists and research councils and research institutes in the Saarc region has become more essential then ever before.”
Sri Lankan minister of agriculture development Malthripala Sirisena’s thrust was on self-sufficiency. He said nearly 32% of his country’s food requirements is imported from foreign countries.
Pakistan’s former agriculture minister Amir Mohammad said the two problems that his country needs to deal with in the short term are reducing yield gaps and tackling the threat of climate change.
“As 80% of agriculture is irrigated in Pakistan, it is now threatened because of climate change. For us, the very important issue is climate change and its impact on water resources,”
The major problem of Saarc region is poverty and hunger and the challenge is to eradicate it. “In Pakistan, this can be achieved through agriculture,” Mohammad said.