BANGKOK - The headlines screaming about a global food shortage have not aroused surprise in a leading non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with farming communities across Asia. To its members, warnings of hunger on a biblical scale are hardly news.
After all, the Asia-Pacific arm of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), a global environmental lobby, has been raising the alarm about an impending rice shortage for years. Among its more recent campaigns was one launched to coincide with ''The International Year of Rice,'' which was marked globally in 2004.
But the alarm bells rung by PAN were ignored by governments in the region, home to nine of the world's top 10 producers of the grain. They are China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines and Japan. The only non-Asian in this rice league is Brazil.
''Governments refused to listen to our concerns. In the last five years we have been saying that we are in rice crisis, that food security and food sovereignty were being undermined,'' Clare Westwood, campaign coordinator for PAN's 'Save Our Rice Campaign, said during a telephone interview from Malaysia. ''It was only a matter of time before the warnings became real.''
PAN's primary concern was the push towards rice cultivation on an industrial scale that promoted monoculture, where a few high-yield rice varieties that needed large doses of chemicals were held up as the answer to growing demand. Marginalised, consequently, were the small farmers, who came from rural communities that had used local knowledge over centuries to generate new varieties of paddy seeds that blended with the local environment.
''The high-yielding seeds prompted in the monoculture style of farming are not as hardy as local varieties produced through the ecological style of farming,'' adds Westwood. ''This hybrid rice can only perform well under certain circumstances and they need a lot of fertiliser and pesticides and they are water intensive. These are their inherent weaknesses.''
A recent report by a regional U.N. body lends weight to PAN's view about the high cost Asian governments are currently paying for neglecting the agricultural sector, where a bulk of the poor in Asia and the Pacific -- some 641 million people -- live. ''The rural poor account for 70 percent of the poor in the Asia-Pacific region, and agriculture is their main livelihood,'' states a survey published by the Bangkok-based Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).
''The agriculture sector has been neglected for a long time, nearly four decades, and the Asia-Pacific regions would have run into a food shortage problem and rising food prices sooner or later,'' says Shamika Sirimanne, chief of the socioeconomic section in the poverty and development division of ESCAP. ''Governments used to provide much more public services to the agriculture sector earlier.''
Assistance had ranged from public funds to help farmers improve their Yields, assistance with research and development and with marketing the grain. State funds had also been invested to improve roads and other infrastructure projects to improve the quality of life in rural areas.
''This shift has become marked since the 1980s,'' Sirimanne explained in an interview. ''Everybody began to think of economic growth in that decade and what could be achieved through manufacturing, industry and services. The idea of growth through agriculture was sidelined.''
World Bank figures help to explain why these new avenues for growth in the region were attractive. In China, the emerging Asian economic powerhouse, the gross domestic production (GDP) from agriculture during the 1981-1985 period was 28.7 percent, while industry accounted for 26 percent. But during the 2001-2006 period, agriculture's contribution to China's GDP had dropped to 8.7 percent, while industry rose to 49.1 percent.
In India, during the same period, agriculture went down from 18.4 percent of GDP to 6.2 percent, making way for industry and services. And in Indonesia, agriculture dropped from 18.4 percent of GDP to 11.8 percent, also making way for industry and services.
But what did not follow as a result of this shift away from agriculture was a drop in the number of poor in rural areas. ''Even today, 60 percent of the region's labour force is in the agriculture sector, where a large number live in poverty,'' says Sirimanne. ''The Asian agriculture sector is dominated by very poor people and it is the duty of governments to start re-investing in them to improve productivity.''
And now, even the authors of a major international study on the future of global agriculture have made a strong case to resurrect the role of the small, neglected rural farming communities to improve cereal production, including rice. The final report of the U.N-backed International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which was authored by 400 experts from across the world, was approved in mid-April at a meeting of governments and scientists in Johannesburg.
''The report called for greater participation of small-scale farming and for governments to rethink their prevailing agriculture structures,'' Lim Li Ching, the lead author for the Asia report to IAASTD, told IPS. ''This is because the traditional farming methods in this region were environmentally sustainable.''
The IAASTD report also called into question the Green Revolution, because the production of high yield rice during that period ''came with a huge environment cost,'' she added. ''The social and environmental cost of the Green Revolution in the region cannot be ignored.''
The Green Revolution was masterminded by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Banos, the Philippines. To ensure high yields in rice cultivation at a time when there was an escalating demand for the grain, IRRI introduced high-yield rice seeds to be grown on an industrial scale, changing dramatically the landscape of rice cultivation in Asia.
During the Green Revolution, from 1968-81, high-yield rice varieties resulted in rice output increasing by 42 percent. But now, in retrospect, IRRI admits that the monoculture rice production did come with some costs.
''We are aware of the environmental lessons learnt from the Green Revolution,'' Duncan Macintosh, spokesman for IRRI, said in an IPS interview. ''The first Green Revolution occurred when there was no environmental movement. Back then, there was only one purpose: feeding people.''
Consequently, IRRI welcomes the findings of the IAASTD. ''We have no disagreement with that report,'' adds Macintosh. ''We need rice production systems that are environmentally safe and sound.''
© 2008 Inter Press Service