South Asia is a paradox. The region enjoys high economic growth but suffers from extreme poverty, undernourishment, and the deterioration of its natural resources. It houses more than 42 percent of the world’s poor earning less than US$ 1.25 per day. Undernourishment is widespread, especially among women and children. Nearly 21 percent of the population is undernourished. Astonishingly, more than 41 percent of children are underweight and 8 percent die before reaching the age of 5.
The larger challenge of an increasing population and rising economic growth is putting tremendous pressure on both the agriculture sector and the natural resources that are needed to meet the present and future demand for food and nutritional security. Policymakers in South Asia are realizing that the solution to these problems lies in a green economy: that is, a thriving economy that reinforces sustainable development and poverty eradication while protecting natural resources.
Delegates are meeting in Rio de Janeiro this June for the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development to agree on the parameters of a green world economy. As part of this process, they must include ways to enhance agricultural growth while ensuring environmental protection. Achieving this goal in South Asia is complicated by the region’s numerous inherited challenges. Inefficient use of inputs such as water and fertilizer and deteriorating natural resources have led to stagnating crop yields and declining profitability. Rising food prices, inconsistent domestic and trade policies, and weakened agricultural institutions are further aggravating this agrarian crisis.
Climate change is also exacerbating the problem, hindering efforts to raise agricultural production. IFPRI research shows that, in some cases, the probability of lower crop yields increases considerably with climate change—especially in South Asia, and that smallholders are the most vulnerable in the face of climate change, as their ability to bear risk is extremely low. It is therefore important for delegates in Rio to minimize the impact of climate change by including appropriate policies such as subsidies; technologies such as conservation agriculture and improved seed varieties; and institutional innovations such as farmer cooperatives and companies in their plans for a sustainable green economy that alleviates poverty.
Fortunately, they can tap into an array of technological and policy interventions that are already available for transforming unsustainable agriculture into a green economic sector through enhanced agricultural growth, improved social equity, and ensured environmental protection. Before these technologies can be implemented, however, policymakers must first develop an inventory of interventions, assess their technological and economic feasibility at different scales, and examine how they can be adopted or scaled up in a “green” way in different socioeconomic environments.
Since resources are limited, policymakers must prioritize interventions for their highest impact. Rio+20 leaders must consider options that are pro-poor and mitigate risk to vulnerable rural and smallholder farmers in a variety of agroecological and socioeconomic environments.