Rural Training Center, Thailand (RTC-Thailand)

Sustainable Agriculture: Fundamental to Economic Development

Mar 30, 2008

A recent UN study in Southeast Asia pointedly remarked that nations in the region need to pay more attention and money to agriculture in their national development plans.

The current economic crisis spun off from the US sub-prime collapse. This was due to crafty paper transactions. The pursuit of short-term high profits had exposure to extreme financial risks. Ultimately, lost jobs and inflation combined with rising energy costs brought hardship to the common workers.

The oil crisis was bad enough. The reality of ?“Peak Oil?” created a very real shortage of supply. Exploding populations jumping onto the petroleum bandwagon increased demand. And all the time the supplies are shrinking. This made it ripe for speculation. Today?’s rising fuel costs are driven largely by speculation in the commodities market.

Much of the developing world is in poverty. The current global economic conditions make for gloomy forecasts ahead. But fundamentally, what is poverty? The symptoms and causes have been studied. At the risk of over simplification, poverty is most easily measured and categorized by a lack of money. Each nation picks a specific amount as the defining classifier.

The solution to fighting poverty is simple. Get more money into the hands of the poor. Then they won?’t be impoverished.

How best to do this? Again, at the risk of being overly simplistic, it seems there are two fundamental ways to do this: 1) give the poor more money (e.g. cash disbursements, public welfare, subsidies, debt forgiveness, easy loan access, etc.); 2) empower them to earn more via job training / educational programs.

Best is a relative term. It is important ask, ?“Best for whom??”] It seems obvious which approach produces faster results, makes headlines, and gets votes for political success. The RTC-TH believes in the longer term benefits of training and education. This route is longer, slower, and has no guarantees of success. But the results can be much longer lasting. Populist politics tends to favor the cash / money infusion approach due to immediacy of the results. However, the fast track method is not sustainable and can lead to an economic slow down when the cash runs out. At worst, it can end in a severe economic down turn or an outright collapse. This situation is very much like the story of the race between tortoise and the hare.

The tortoise moves slowly but steadily. The hare races forward with gusto. Then the hare becomes over confident and stops for a rest. But as the hare dozes off, the slow, plodding tortoise inches by and wins the race.

The recent UN report cited the fact that in many developing countries, the population distribution was often 60% rural. Yet the majority of development were centered on urban infrastructure and industrial / manufacturing projects. The ?“value added?” profit margins are greater as is the export market for earning foreign currency. Yet no matter how urbanized and industrial a country, all the people need to eat food.

Combined with global climate change, food security is an issue. The recent rice situation in Asia is a good case in point. India, China, Vietnam and others are placing limits on rice exports due to crop failures that can impact supplies. These export limits / curtailments have already sent rice prices skyrocketing more than 3-4 times more than last year.

The quest for higher yields has increase synthetic agro-chemical use. This has threatened water and soil quality. It also causes the public health problems and damages the ecosystem. The extensive loss of pollinators has been alarming. It is hard to imagine increase crop yields in the absence of pollinators. Genetically modified crops are on the rise while the quantity of natural seed stocks decline. This loss of natural seed resources is a significant loss of original plant genetic material that is a precious resource for the future.

The UN report pointed to Thailand as an example for other SE Asian nations to follow. From our perspective, the King?’s Theory calling for sustainable agriculture is the centerpiece. The UN report makes the point that nations need to commit more funding and resources to agricultural research. It also encourages nations to include agricultural production in their economic development plans.

While many farmers strive to earn more money and become successful, the reality is they are under capitalized for doing ?“big business?”. This leads to a very high failure rate. The RTC-TH encourages farmers to shift their focus away from money as the measure of success. A successful small rural family farm should revolve around a quality of life. It should be a sustainable quality of life for all parts of the family farm. This includes the people, the animals and plants, and the community (both human and ecosystem).

It is hard to imagine living in the modern world without money. But it is quite possible to have an enjoyable and comfortable life without being overly obsessed about money.

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