Revolutionizing Asian Agriculture

Probably the most effective way to revolutionize Asian agriculture is to send more people to the cities. There is precedent in what happened in the European Union in the 1960s, although it didn't come easily.

In 1968, Sicco Manshold, the EU agriculture minister, sent a memorandum to the Council of Ministers of the European Community that would kick off a storm in the agriculture sector.

Mansholt's plan was called the "Agricultural 1980" program but became more popularly eponymously known as the "Mansholt Plan." It noted that, despite costly policies of price and market support -- that would lead to unsustainable production of surpluses and despite increases in production, the standard of living of farmers was still way behind that of other sectors of society.

At that time, the average European farm size was 11 hectares and two-thirds of the farms were less than 10 ha in size, though it was noted that "with modern techniques, one man can cultivate 30 to 40 hectares of crop land." Labor had steadily been migrating out of agriculture and "half of the persons who run a farm are more than 57 years of age," Mansholt wrote.

Even gender issues were reported and the plight of women recognized: "It must be evident how difficult life is for a woman on such a farm. Elsewhere, every effort has been made...to liberate women from the more onerous and unpleasant forms of work...yet the farmer's wife finds more and more that she has to do a man's full-time job!"

There was a lot of concern whether young people would still be willing to keep farming. In response to these challenges, Mansholt suggested that production methods should be reformed and modernized and that small farms should be increased in size. That latter part was the cornerstone of his plan: "The new structure envisaged rests, essentially, on enterprises of adequate size."

A highly controversial part of the plan was to encourage nearly five million farmers to give up farming between 1970 and 1980 to create room for the remaining farmers to increase their farm size.

Because of angry reactions from the agricultural community, the Mansholt Plan was eventually reduced to three European directives that promoted the modernization of agricultural holdings, the cessation of certain agricultural activity, and the training of farmers. The average farm size in Europe today has risen to 12 hectares and 13.7 million people remain on the farms, although the comparison with the Mansholt plan in 1968 because new countries have been added that were previously behind the Iron Curtain.

In addition, the European Commission spends 70 percent of the annual Common Agricultural Program budget of €58 billion on direct subsidies for farmers. The EC also approved a three year program worth € 71,94 million to promote olive oil, milk and milk products, meat, fresh and processed fruit and vegetables, organic products, eggs, wines and spirits and horticultural products domestically as well as internationally.

Despite its controversial aspects and despite the differences in location and times, there are striking similarities between a number of conditions besetting European farmers then and those besetting rice farmers in Asia today. Asia has about 120 million rice farms with average sizes of mostly 1 to 2 hectares only. Returns to rice cropping are low, with values of US$200–600/ha/season being most common.

So, even with a farm size of 2 ha and two rice crops a year, income from rice farming is only $800–2,400/year. India particular has a problem because of traditions of inheritance that divide assets rather than giving them to the first-born. Thus farms are split into smaller and smaller units with each generation.

So how can any family live off the income from rice farming? The fact is, they don't, and most farming families have additional off-farm income. In recent years, labor migration from rural to urban areas has accelerated tremendously in many rice-growing areas of Asia. Since it's usually the able-bodied young men who migrate, the remaining farming population is aging and "feminizing."

Already, women contribute at least half of the total labor inputs in rice production, and now they increasingly have to take on decision-making and management roles as well as doing tasks that were traditionally men's work (e.g., land preparation, spraying of chemicals, and fertilizer application).

Despite this labor outmigration over the last decades, farm size has kept on decreasing and the number of farms increasing. So, just as in the 1960s in Europe, we have to wonder about the future of farming in Asia—and then specifically in the rice sector. With so few prospects of earning a decent income, who will produce our rice in the (near) future?

So, maybe it's time to develop a Mansholt Plan for the rice sector. Despite some of the gloom outlined above, I believe that the current acceleration in structural transformation we're witnessing in Asia offers tremendous opportunities to transform rice farming into a vibrant and profitable business. Many examples of positive developments already exist, and these need careful nurturing and further support.

The following would be my top three ingredients for a "Rice Mansholt Plan": consolidation, mechanization, and intensification. Like Mansholt at the time, I believe that increases in farm size (consolidation) will have to be the cornerstone of any transformation. Even if yields increase dramatically, nobody will ever be able to obtain a decent livelihood from farming 1 to 2 hectares of rice land.

However, many land markets in Asia are "locked" so that alternative options for acquiring additional land through purchase or rent must be explored. There are several ways of increasing what I call "virtual" farm size. China is experimenting with something called "village farming." Vietnam is exploring a concept of individual farmers managing large tracts of land together in their "small farmers, large farm" program. Mechanized farm operations are increasingly becoming outsourced so that large tracts of land become operated by contractors and, in a sense, economies of scale are realized.

Mechanization needs to increase to increase labor productivity and make it on a par with productivity in other sectors of the economy. The currently increasing labor scarcity, and associated increases in labor costs, in many rural areas of Asia makes it increasingly attractive to invest in mechanization. We are witnessing rapid increases in mechanized transplanting, sowing, land leveling, and harvesting. New business models are being developed within a growing private sector that facilitates the introduction and operation of farm machines.

Finally, yields and resource-use efficiencies simply have to go up. The need for intensification features prominently on the list of recommendations of many organizations and think tanks on agricultural development. With increasing resource scarcity (water, energy, labor), the need to produce "more with less" is paramount. Yields need to increase to meet the rising demand for food without bringing new land into production. Sustainable production methods need to be developed that are environmentally friendly.

All too often, I see too much emphasis on intensification without sufficient attention to consolidation and mechanization. Even if, through intensification, farmers are able to double or triple rice yields, income from 1 to 2 ha of rice land will still never provide them with a decent standard of living. Hence, my plea to urgently look for opportunities to increase farm size and to increase the rate of mechanization.

(Dr. Bas Bouman is the Director of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), which is the CGIAR Research Program on Rice.)

Photo retrieved from http://www.bigstockphoto.com/image-10094165/stock-photo-rice-farmer