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Accelerating sustainable agriculture in the Mekong

To provide for the world in a sustainable way, current agricultural and food systems need transformative action, in which family farmers, as the major investors in agriculture and backbone of the rural economic structure, are at the heart.

Woman farmer in a rice field in Myanmar. Photo: G.Smith / CIAT

Phuong Nguyen / Published on 20 April 2020

A strong agricultural sector in the Mekong region, as elsewhere, will make it possible to address not only food security and hunger, but also many other development challenges, including poverty, lack of access to water and energy, climate change, gender inequality and unemployment.

Investing in small farms brings big gains

In 2017, the UN proclaimed the Decade of Family Farming (2019–2028), which aims to address family farming in a holistic way, and to help transform the global food system in pursuit of the 2030 Agenda.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are more than 500 million family farms globally, making up over 98% of farming holdings. These small agricultural players often receive little support and very few benefits from new policies, simply because they are considered to have an insignificant role in the national decision-making processes.

The irony of this is that these men and women farmers produce over 80% of the food supply in  Asia and sub-Saharan Africa,  making them major players in sustaining human life.

Still, many family farmers throughout these regions are threatened by the activities of some industries, such as unsustainable mining practices and unjust land grabbing. Instead, small family farms need support, so they can improve sustainability by helping to preserve and restore biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration.

Agriculture is the backbone of livelihoods

Agriculture provides livelihoods for about 60% of the Mekong region’s population. The sector accounts for 70% of total employment in Lao PDR, 40% in Cambodia, and in Vietnam, about 35% in Thailand, and about 61% in Myanmar.

Yet more than 20% of the population in the Mekong region are still living below the poverty line, with 15% considered undernourished.

Agriculture is thus vital to both the livelihoods of people and to the economies of the region and needs continuous support to become truly sustainable and green.

The region’s agricultural production systems are further undermined by environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change at national and international levels, from changing weather patterns to soil and groundwater salinity, droughts and floods.

More capacity for green agriculture

But, if the region invests in building capacity for green agriculture, climate impacts can be mitigated, further degradation can be prevented and the number of people going hungry can be reduced.

Also, The Mekong region is endowed with advantages that could turn it into a leader in sustainable agri-food production and trade, as well as make it the “food boutique” of Asia. These include its strategic geographical location, the continuity of its landmass, the rapid development of economic corridors and the diversity of its agro-ecological environments.

Developing sound national policies

So, it makes sense for sustainable agriculture to be at the centre of national agriculture policy, with regional support and integration.

For example, the Government of Laos considers it to be a key priority for the upcoming 9th National Socio-Economic Development Plan, and has started developing the country’s Green and Sustainable Agriculture Framework. The strategic framework aims to guide Laos’s green and sustainable agricultural development, while taking account of ongoing initiatives in the country and lessons and experience from the Mekong countries.

And recently, with support from SEI Asia and FAO, the Laos Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry organized a regional workshop on sustainable and green agriculture. Participants at the event from countries in the region made recommendations to improve the strategic framework, including through a stronger focus on benefits for smallholder farmers, regional integration, and performance indicators.

The workshop also emphasized that commitment to regional collaboration among governments, the private sector, civil society organizations and smallholders is key to developing and promoting sustainable green agriculture in the region.

The event was supported by SEI Asia’s Strategic Collaborative Fund, which aims to foster regional cooperation and policy dialogue for sustainable development and environmental sustainability, through capacity building, knowledge sharing and increased collaboration.

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