Agricultural Development and Associated Environmental and Ethical Issues in South Asia
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- Khan, M.A. & Shah, S.A.A. J Agric Environ Ethics (2011) 24: 629. doi:10.1007/s10806-010-9280-4
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South Asia is one of the most densely populated regions of the world, where despite a slow growth, agriculture remains the backbone of rural economy as it employs one half to over 90 percent of the labor force. Both extensive and intensive policy measures for agriculture development to feed the massive population of the region have resulted in land degradation and desertification, water scarcity, pollution from agrochemicals, and loss of agricultural biodiversity. The social and ethical aspects portray even a grimmer picture of the region with growing poverty mainly, amongst small farmers, food scarcity, and overall poor quality of life. This article reviews the historical perspective of agriculture development in the region and gives a panoramic view of the policy initiatives and their environmental as well as social and ethical spin-offs. The aim is to explore the environmental and ethical dimensions of the agricultural development in South Asia and recommend a holistic approach in formulating plans and programs to combat environmental degradation, hunger, and poverty resulting from unsustainable agricultural practices.
KeywordsSouth AsiaAgricultureEthical issuesEnvironmentLanduseGreen revolution
South Asia accommodates 23.8 percent of the global population over just 4.8 per cent of the World’s land. Historically to feed its growing population, the region has been changing its agricultural production strategy. Accordingly, agriculture land use pattern in the South Asian region has changed continuously with time manifesting the impacts of the dynamic and complex interplay of socio-economic, political, and technological forces. Historic land use data of South Asia shows three distinct stages in terms of cropland expansion in the region at the expanse of forest and rangeland. During the first stage from 1850 to around 1950, cropland expansion was moderate. It was followed by a period of rapid expansion from the middle of the twentieth century to 1980s. Over 4 million hectares were added every year during this phase. More recently (since 1990s), however, the cropland expansion has reduced. During this phase, while the population growth continues, a commensurate growth in the agricultural land is not visible. This has led to the intensification of agriculture, which started with the advent of the green revolution in the 1960s.
Together, extensification and intensification of agriculture contributed to the increase of production substantially and enabled countries like India and Pakistan in the region to feed a large section of their massively growing population with little or no imports. However, this impressive agricultural development in the region also had environmental footprints, particularly in the course of the green revolution in the form of land degradation (including waterlogging and salinity), desertification, and the addition of agro-chemicals into food chains as well as the social cost in the form of income disparities, landlessness, and under-employment. The problems have intensified in recent years with the waning attention of the governments in the region, compared to industrial and service sectors. This article highlights the changing strategies of production in the agricultural sector and their environmental and ethical implications. Further, it underscores the importance of sustainable development in agriculture. In this context, the article brings out major challenges that have emerged and policy issues that need to be addressed by the planners and decision makers in the region.
This article has been divided into five sections. This introductory part is followed by a section that discusses the approaches and measures that were adopted in agriculture to enhance production in the wake of growing population in the region. The third section highlights the environmental and ethical issues that emerged from the production strategies, particularly in the post-green revolution era. The fourth section discusses the measures to deal with the emerging environmental challenges and ethical issues, the most daunting of which is to formulate and implement an effective and responsive integrated policy frame-work. The concluding section of the article highlights the main findings of the study.
Approaches and Measures for Production Enhancement
Approaches followed for production enhancement in the region have varied in time. The initial extensification approach was based on the enhancement of croplands but with the growing pressure on land, particularly after the green revolution, intensification of agriculture was promoted vigorously as a major means to increase productivity. The two approaches have been discussed in detail below:
Promotion of Agriculture Through Extensification
South Asia: Change in agricultural land (1993–2002)
1993 (000s hectares)
2002 (000s hectares)
This is indicative of the fact that available agricultural land has already been utilized almost fully to feed the burgeoning population of the region. The human pressure on arable land in countries of the region can be witnessed in the average per capita available arable land in South Asia, which is only 0.23 hectares, compared to 0.6 hectares for the world and 0.3 in Asia and the Pacific (FAO 2005).
Currently, expansion in cropland is taking place mainly by encroachment into forest and marginal lands. Paradoxically, the loss of forest and woodlands through encroachment for cropland is being accompanied by a parallel loss of prime agricultural land to settlements, industries, communication lines, (e.g., roads and railways), and other infrastructural expansion. In addition, much of the arable land in the countries is losing its inherent productivity because of poor agricultural practices. Various studies have found that large areas of the region are losing topsoil or undergoing other forms of degradation as a direct result of poor agricultural methods (Oldeman 1998; Eswaran 1999).
Promotion of Agriculture Through Intensification
With the growing pressure on land resources, attention in the region was diverted to produce more from the existing land through intensification of agriculture, which led to major structural transformations of the past 50 years. Beginning after the middle of last century, the accelerated use of agrochemicals has been the engine powering the growth in the region’s agricultural outputs. The contribution of irrigation has been no less important in reclaiming land for agriculture. The input of improved seeds (high yielding varieties) and mechanization has also boosted the agricultural productivity. This transformation and the new management practices, particularly during the green revolution and its aftermath, have no doubt helped in alleviating hunger from many countries of the region. Nevertheless they have also had adverse impact on the ecological and genetic resources base in the process (Hazell 2003).
In the South Asian Region, high yielding seed varieties along with chemical fertilizers, and intensive agricultural practices, were the principal factors, which brought the “green revolution.” With growing intensification, the application of chemical fertilizer increased dramatically in the region. However, in recent years only three countries in the region exceeded the average consumption of fertilizer in the world, namely, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka and the same also exceeded Asia–Pacific. Bangladesh uses the most fertilizer per hectare in the region, exceeding 169 kg/ha, followed by Sri Lanka with about 148 kg/ha. Pakistan trails next with 134 kg/ha (FAO 2005).
South Asia: Expansion in irrigated land 1993–2002
Irrigated land 1993 (000s hectares)
Irrigated land 2002 (000s hectares)
Annual growth (%)
Among other inputs, high yielding varieties (HYV) of crops were the prime movers of the green revolution. They spread very quickly and “by 1970, about 20 percent of the wheat area and 30 percent of the rice area in developing countries of the world were planted to HYVs and by 1990, the share had increased to about 70 percent for both crops” (IFPRI 2002).
Environmental and Ethical Issues
Both the extensification and the intensification of agriculture had their positive and negative impacts. No doubt they helped transform South Asia, enabling the region to enhance food production on a large scale. The intensification of agriculture soon after the green revolution, in particular, helped many people move out of poverty, contributed to economic growth, and, more importantly, saved large tracts of forest, wetlands, and other fragile ecosystems from conversion to cropland. However, while making these important contributions, the intensification agenda also brought new problems and challenges, particularly increasing the regional and income disparities and increasing the gaps between rich and poor and the difference between prosperous and backward regions. Further, it generated environmental problems of its own, which related to the overuse and mismanagement of modern inputs to the detriment of land and water resources, unsustainable use of irrigation water, and the loss of genetic diversity (FAO 2008), as well as off-site externalities such as water pollution, siltation of rivers and water courses, and loss of biodiversity. The issues that emerged from negative impacts are discussed below under environmental, economic, and social issues.
Environmental issues include the effects of extensification and intensification of agriculture on the soil, water, and biodiversity of the local and downstream environment.
A very serious threat to agriculture is from the growing scarcity of fresh water in much of South Asia. Many countries have reached a point where they can no longer afford to allocate two-thirds or more of their fresh water supplies to agriculture (ibid.). Excessive diversion of water from surface and underground sources is resulting in serious problems. Groundwater withdrawals have surged from less than 20 cubic kilometers to more than 250 cubic kilometers per year since the 1950s on the Indian Subcontinent (World Bank 2008). Over 20 percent of the aquifers of groundwater have been overexploited in the four states of India, which are, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu, resulting in the fall of groundwater levels (Postel 1993). Large scale expansion of tube well irrigation and overdrawing of water in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan has created the problem of falling water tables. In Baluchistan (Pakistan), it has led to drying of underground channels (named as Karez) (op cit).
Agrochemicals and Pollution
Use of agrochemicals, especially nitrogen based fertilizer, considerably increased during the green revolution. The intensification of fertilizer use was also accompanied by extensive use of pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides). While contributing to enhanced production, they have also posed risks to human health by contaminating water and entering the food chain. Agrochemicals application was encouraged through subsidies, tax incentives, and agricultural extension programs during the green revolution. The problem intensified in the wake of a shift to higher cropping intensities, monocropping, and the planting of large areas of similar varieties with a common susceptibility. Initially, pest control was based on prophylactic chemical applications that were driven by the calendar rather than incidence of pest attack (Gopal 2004). This resulted in the disruption of natural pest–predator balance and a resurgence of pest populations, which required not only increased applications but use of even stronger pesticides. This led to the, enhancement of environmental and health problems to such a degree that the health costs of pesticide use in rice marginalized the net economic gains (Rola and Pingali 1993).
Economic and Social Issues
It has been pointed out that agricultural intensification during the green revolution also had economic and social impacts in terms of increased income inequality, inequitable asset distribution, and regional disparities. Literature on how agricultural technological change affected poor farmers has been reviewed elsewhere (Evenson and Gollin 2003). The critics of the green revolution argued that the main adopters of new technologies were the owners of large farms; who being rich, had better access to irrigation water, fertilizers, seeds, and credit. Small farmers, on the other hand, had to compete with lower product prices of the green revolution beneficiaries. Besides, higher input prices and increase in rents of the lands from the landlords forced them off the land. A number of village and household studies conducted soon after the release of the green revolution technologies portray the dismal scenario for the small farmers (Hazell 2003). Nevertheless these studies and their results led to the recognition by development agencies, including FAO, of the need to formulate a more equitable and sustainable green revolution, aimed at improving food security for the hard-core poor in rural areas” (FAO no date). No doubt, some of the adverse outcomes of the green revolution were inevitable in the wake of millions of farmers using modern inputs for the first time without a sound knowledge of their application and side effects. However, inadequate extension and training, flaws in government policies, absence of effective regulation of water quality, and input pricing as well as subsidy policies were also responsible for these outcomes. Despite many shortcomings, the green revolution had full government support and did manage to enhance agricultural production and had the largest impact on poverty reduction in Asia during 1970s and 1980s.
Agricultural and non agricultural sectors growth rates in South Asia
With the continuation of economic transformation, it is important to note that many more workers will have to exit from agriculture in the region. This exit is a normal process in the economic transformation of a country and is often accompanied by increasing opportunities for work in other faster growing sectors of economy like manufacturing and services. In this context, investments for promoting non agricultural sectors employment in rural areas is imperative. Investments in large numbers of marginal farmers alone could simply end up delaying the inevitable, much as happened in Europe during the twentieth century (Hazell 2008).
In order to deal with the environmental, economic, and social issues, the governments in the region have taken numerous actions. However, in formulating strategies to deal with these issues, the policy makers in South Asia often get themselves trapped into a dichotomy of “short term or immediate” and “long term or sustainable” solutions. The immediate needs of increasing production have to be met through intensification while the agenda for sustainable land use practices call for a careful husbandry. In the face of inadequate resources as well as institutional capacity, South Asian countries are finding the task of balancing these two objectives extremely difficult. Nevertheless, over the past few years, efforts have been made for sustainable management of resources in the countries of the region.
Response to Environmental Issues
In terms of land management such measures included watershed management, reclamation of waterlogged and saline land, forest and range management, as well as replenishment of soil fertility by integrated nutritional management. Measures that are being taken to meet the growing demands for good quality water included ensuring efficient use through land leveling and on farm water management, water reuse, demand-side management and interbasin transfers, as well as maintenance of irrigation systems.
In terms of agrochemicals, attention is being given to integrated nutritional management to reduce total dependence on chemical fertilizers. Regarding pest control, greater attention is being given to the development of crop varieties that have better resistance to pests. Integrated pest management using both biological and ecological pest control methods is also encouraged. Further, the integrated pest management (IPM) approach that integrates pest-resistant varieties, natural control mechanisms, and the judicious use of pesticides is also being promoted. Although in South Asia it has not lead to any significant yield gains but has certainly helped in reducing pesticide costs and farmers’ exposure to harmful pesticides along with better protected biodiversity.
However, both land management as well as IPM in the region have remained primarily confined to project level, while the nature, scale, and magnitude of the problems and associated policy issues demand action at a much higher level of policy-making hierarchy. Further, the majority of actions taken so far are to a large extent guided by a reactive approach, which is employed only when problems have occurred. There is a need to adopt preventive and holistic approaches in formulating plans and programs to combat environmental degradation resulting from unsustainable agricultural practices. Further, the need of farmers’ training in this respect is also imperative along with the development of farmers’ organization to promote judicious water use and for the success of IPM. Effective implementation of IPM would require farmers’ training. For example, a study (Waibel 1999) revealed that in Sri Lanka, knowledge-intensive methods like IPM can not be easily transferred from one farmer to another. Success in this regard has been achieved through the establishment of farmer field schools (ibid.). Nevertheless, it is a slow and expensive process. More importantly IPM methodology can not succeed at an individual plot or farm level. It demands adoption at larger landscape level, which can only be made possible with the development of effective farmers organizations.
Policies Related to Economic and Social Issues
Economic and social issues compounded after 1990s with a major shift in agricultural policies in South Asia, when the state started withdrawing from an actual involvement in agriculture production and distribution. It was evident in the decreasing public investment in R&D and infrastructure. In India, public investment in agriculture had fallen by six percent in real terms between 1992–1995 and 1999–2000 (ICT 2008a). Although separate data is not available for South Asia, public spending on agricultural research and development averaged 0.4 percent of Asia’s agriculture gross domestic product in 2000, compared with 2.36 percent in high-income countries (ICT 2008b). International development agencies such as the World Bank are also partly to blame for the recent drought in public investments for boosting South Asia’s agricultural productivity. According to the United Nations (2007), official development assistance for agriculture fell by 57 percent in Asia between 1983 and 2000. The World Bank (2008) reported that compared to investment for the development of agricultural sector, politicians generally prefer support price initiatives like subsidies as “the benefits from public investments in agricultural productivity, such as agricultural research and development and rural infrastructure, are less immediate, less visible and thus less appealing to policymakers”(ibid.). For example in India, out of the total public expenditure in agriculture, subsidies took up as much as 75 percent, while investments accounted for only 25 per cent. This is pathetic in the backdrop of the findings of the international food policy research institute (IFPRI) that says “the return on investment is 5–10 times more than the return on subsidies” (DPA 2008).
A shift in macro- economic policies also had other direct and indirect impacts on agricultural growth by affecting credit markets, inflation, and investments. For example, high interest rates and structural adjustment programs (SAP) had serious impacts on the borrowing capacity of small farmers, which predominate in South Asia. Reducing and phasing out subsidized credit schemes under SAP aggravated small farmers’ plight, whose access to loan through institutional credit was already very low. With limited commercial bank lending available for agriculture, it enhanced their dependence on money lenders, who were charging exorbitant interests. Burdened with borrowed money for the purchase of seeds and other farm inputs, any drop in income due to crop failures has been leading not only to their continued but enhanced indebtedness. The magnitude of the problem can be assessed from the case of India, where about half of the 89.3 million farm households are indebted and the average outstanding debt amounts to some 26,000 rupees per indebted farm household (Government of India 2005). A more recent report (Government of India 2007) portrays the gravity of the situation. It points out that Indian agriculture has had debt crises since the mid nineties, as evidenced in large number of farmers’ suicide in some regions. Farm debts and suicide have also been reported in Sri Lanka (MONLAR 2005).
Discussion and Recommendations
Agricultural growth and development in South Asia can be traced in three phases. In the first phase, the growth was attained primarily by the expansion of croplands into forest and other land uses. Thus, between 1850 and 1960, over 60 million hectare forest area was lost to croplands. The next phase starts with the dawn of the green revolution, when the expansion of agricultural land continued with the intensification of farming. Present agricultural policies in most countries of the region are geared towards the goals of increasing yields through optimization of resources and wherever possible providing support to farmers.
Adoption of preventive and holistic approaches in formulating plans and programs to combat ethical problems as well as environmental degradation-such as development and implementation of national land use plans and policies
Investments in research and development to disseminate alternative techniques for natural resource conservation
Development of coordination between R&D agencies and their applications
Integrated watershed management
Farmers’ training in knowledge intensive approaches such as IPM, INM, on farm water management, etc. to check unbalanced use of inputs and agrochemicals
Building awareness and local capacity on environmental and ethical aspects related to agricultural practices
Intensification of research in the public sector and
Encouragement of the private sector in the region to move into this promising field.
Research and development to introduce indigenous and cost effective solution for the consumption of poor farmers. It is also important for the public sector to ensure that small and disadvantaged farmers and resource poor areas, that lagged behind in the green revolution are not left further behind during the upcoming gene revolution. In the economic and social backdrop, the role of agriculture as a provider of livelihood can hardly be overemphasized in the region. Coupled with the apparent ethical problems such as recent food crisis, the governments across the region as well as donors have realized that agriculture still constitutes a very significant part of the development agenda. Moreover, studies have shown that agriculture has a very important role in reducing rural poverty and hence in providing high dividend towards achieving the target of halving the number of poor under the millennium development goals. South Asia, which contains 600 million poor of the region, arguably has the most to gain by improving its agricultural productivity.
Make improvements through price incentives
Increase the quality and quantity of public investment;
Provide access to markets and make them work better;
Enhance the performance of producer organizations;
Promote innovation through science and technology
Improve access to financial services and
Reduce exposure to uninsured risks
Finally, realizing the potential of agriculture for development agenda in the region requires the prominent role of the state in term of improving the investment climate, regulating natural resource management, providing core public goods, and securing ethically desirable social outcomes.
We acknowledge the assistance from the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, Islamabad as well as the Department of Geography, Urban and Regional Planning, University of Peshawar, Pakistan. We would also thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. We also offer our sincere gratitude towards Dr Nasreen Aslam Khan for her timely suggestions for the improvement of this work.