Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 24, Issue 6, pp 629–644

Agricultural Development and Associated Environmental and Ethical Issues in South Asia


  • Mohammad Aslam Khan
    • Department of Geography, Urban and Regional PlanningUniversity of Peshawar
    • Department of Geography, Urban and Regional PlanningUniversity of Peshawar

DOI: 10.1007/s10806-010-9280-4

Cite this article as:
Khan, M.A. & Shah, S.A.A. J Agric Environ Ethics (2011) 24: 629. doi:10.1007/s10806-010-9280-4


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.


South 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

Historic land use data shows three distinct stages in terms of cropland expansion in the region. 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 1980. Over 4 million hectares were added every year during this phase (FAO 2005). More recently, however, the cropland expansion has been reduced and its share in agricultural growth has been overshadowed by the contribution from increased intensification. In absolute terms though, the area under crop is still increasing in the region with about 2 million hectare added between 1992 and 2002; the maximum increase was in Nepal, followed by Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (Table 1). However a comparison of current land use pattern in South Asia with the world shows a very high share of croplands in the region (Fig. 1).
Table 1

South Asia: Change in agricultural land (1993–2002)


1993 (000s hectares)

2002 (000s hectares)


000s hectares





































Sri Lanka





South Asia





Asia Pacific










Data source FAO (2005)
Fig. 1

Percentage Share of Land Use in the World, Asia–Pacific and South Asia. Data source FAO (2005)

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).

The above analysis shows that despite minor addition to the existing land under plough, pressure on land resources in the region has increased enormously. Historically there has been an increase in person to arable land ratio resulting from the faster growth of the population than of agricultural land (Fig. 2). The problem has been compounded in some countries of the region, such as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan by land fragmentation, which has reduced the size of landholdings. This has contributed to reduced agricultural efficiency and hence the overall productivity of the land. Therefore, besides expansion of agricultural land, other avenues had to be explored and adopted. A major means that has been employed to increase productivity particularly during the green revolution has been enhanced use of agrochemicals and other inputs. In fact, the green revolution brought major structural transformations in agriculture within the region, as discussed in the next section.
Fig. 2

South Asia: percentage change in agricultural land vs. agricultural population 1992–2002. Data source FAO (2005)

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).

Irrigation is by far the largest consumer of water in the region accounting for over two-thirds of water abstracted from the rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Irrigated area constitutes some 39 per cent of the cropland compared to about 10 per cent in the world and 32 per cent in Asia and the Pacific. Amongst countries, 80 per cent of cropland in Pakistan is irrigated, while in Bangladesh about half of the cropland is under irrigation (Fig. 3). Three countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh account for about 95% irrigated area of the region (FAO 2005).
Fig. 3

South Asia: Ratio of Irrigated to Cultivated Land 2002. Data source FAO (2005)

On a regional basis, irrigated area in the region expanded by an average of 1.1 per cent per year compared to 0.9 percent in the world and 1.2 per cent in Asia and the Pacific. Among countries, largest growth in irrigated area was in Bangladesh followed by Sri Lanka and India respectively. In the majority of other countries, annual growth rate of irrigated area was 0.6 per cent or less (Table 2). In fact, water is becoming a limiting factor in agriculture due to increased intensity of cropping as well as diversion of water to non-agricultural uses. Another contributing factor is transmission losses, primarily as a result of seepage from the canals and distributaries and wastage due to lack of appropriate and realistic price mechanisms. Subsidies to irrigation in six Asian countries accounted for as much as 90 per cent of the total operating and maintenance costs in 1980s (Repetto 1986). This kind of market distortion, no doubt leads to wastage of a very big chunk of water diverted or pumped for irrigation. While reducing the quantity of water available for irrigation, transmission losses through seepage have created the problem of water-logging and salinity, which have affected a vast tract of land in the region.
Table 2

South Asia: Expansion in irrigated land 1993–2002


Irrigated land 1993 (000s hectares)

Irrigated land 2002 (000s hectares)

Annual growth (%)





























Sri Lanka




South Asia




Asia Pacific








Data source FAO (2005)

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

Environmental issues include the effects of extensification and intensification of agriculture on the soil, water, and biodiversity of the local and downstream environment.

Land Degradation

Intensification to produce more from existing lands had caused degradation of land quality by compaction, waterlogging and salinity, declining soil organic matter, and soil fertility loss. A study (Oldeman et al. 1991) reported over two-fifth (43%) while another, (Young 1993) gives an account that nearly three quarters of the agricultural land was degraded to some extent, while as much as 40% was moderately or severely degraded (Fig. 4). Degradation associated with irrigation was estimated at 23% of the total degraded land and 25% of the moderately or severely degraded area. In terms of waterlogging and salinization, it is noted that 33% of the irrigated area in Pakistan is subject to waterlogging, 14% is saline and that agricultural output is 25% lower than the actual land potentials. In India, salinization has affected nearly 4.5 million hectares of irrigated land while a further 6 million hectares are reduced by waterlogging (Chakravorty 1998). Long term decline in farm production has also been attributed to the formation of hard pans in the sub-soil and soil toxicity buildups.
Fig. 4

Extent of degradation of agriculture land in South Asia. Source (Hazell 2008)

Water Scarcity

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).

Biodiversity Loss

In South Asia, as elsewhere in the world, the propagation and heavy reliance on a few major high yielding cereal varieties promoted monoculture and led to loss of biodiversity on farms (Fig. 5). For example one single variety of wheat blanketed 67 per cent of wheat acreage in Bangladesh in 1983 and 30 per cent of wheat acreage in India in 1984 (Ryan 1992). Likewise, in India, according to one study ten rice varieties were expected to cover an area that at one time had been growing over 30,000 (Fowler and Mooney 1990). Such drastic reduction of agricultural biodiversity means fewer options for ensuring more diverse nutrition, enhancing food production, raising incomes, coping with environmental constraints, and sustainable management of ecosystems (FAO 2008). Another serious aspect of this problem is that along with the loss of agricultural biodiversity, the erosion of traditional knowledge and skills of indigenous peoples has occurred. This indeed is a very significant loss of a depository of knowledge because these people selected, bred, and cultivated the diverse varieties of crops over thousands of years.
Fig. 5

Harvested areas under modern varieties in South Asia 1965–2000 (in percent). Data source (Hazell 2008)

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.

Since 1990s, low investment in agriculture together with structural changes in economic production as a result of growing opportunities in non agricultural sectors due to globalization contributed not only to a declining growth of the agricultural sector (Table 3) but also to its reduced share in gross domestic product. However, the size of the population, the livelihood of which depended on agriculture, did not decline commensurately. Therefore, less income in agriculture had to be shared by the same and in some countries by more people whose dependence was on this sector. This is being reflected in wide gaps in per capita income between agricultural and nonagricultural workers and between rural and urban areas. Further, although agriculture sector is still the largest employer, its capacity to generate new employment also plunged recently (ibid.). Together they have serious negative consequences for poverty alleviation in South Asia.
Table 3

Agricultural and non agricultural sectors growth rates in South Asia

Time period

Agriculture sector

Non-agricultural sectors
















Data source Christiaensen et al. (2006)

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).

Policy Response

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.

During intensification, indiscriminate use of agrochemicals and water to increase yield resulted in substantial environmental damages and social disruption. It is clear that the long-term mitigation of the environmental and ethical impacts of farming in the region will only be achieved by a substantial review of prevailing agricultural practices that favors more to the large farmers. Sustainable and ethical agriculture practices offer a window of opportunity in the wake of growing resource scarcity, looming threat of climate change and dwindling biodiversity in the region. An integrated policy framework is needed that should be most suited to each country’s economic and social conditions. Some of the key initiatives are listed below:
  • 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

The critical shortage of land and water for further agricultural expansion in South Asia region can be witnessed from very limited expansion in total crop and irrigated land during the last 15 years. The pressure on land is acute in the wake of limited cultivated land per capita. With increasing resource constraints, a major challenge for the countries in the region is to explore the potential of new technologies to support their growing population. The advent of “gene revolution” provides an opportunity for the same. The region has already entered the third phase of agricultural development with the introduction of transgenic cotton. Reaping the full benefits of the gene revolution in biotechnology can help the region in increasing agricultural yields with better resistance to diseases. It would also help, in meeting the exigencies of climate change and reducing the costs of production for the poor farmers. However, unlike the green revolution, the gene revolution associated new technology is not freely available to end-users due to intellectual property rights as well as monopolization of transgenic by multilateral firms. This demand:
  • 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.

Institutional reforms, involving reform of land tenure systems and provision of credit facilities to small farmers are key actions that are required in the agriculture sector to offset the social and ethical issues. Secure tenureship encourages farmers to practice sustainable land management, whereas the absence of any land rights only promotes short-term exploitation and subsequent land degradation. In order to improve the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of small farm holders, the World Bank (2008) recommended a broad array of actions that need serious attention as follows:
  • 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.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010