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'Same ills challenge agriculture in South Asia, Africa'

Posted on Feb 21, 02:19PM | IANS

By Arvind Padmanabhan, Washington, Feb 21 : One solution may not fit all, but challenges to agriculture and food security are similar in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa requiring action by governments to grassroots, experts said here Thursday.

An outcome of intensive research by 41 experts across 10 countries in the two regions including India, the outcome papers revealed similar problems in all the five areas looked into -- farm produce pricing, irrigation, fertiliser use, marketing and sustainability of rural livelihoods.

The research -- which has resulted in 10 policy research papers and an equal number of documentaries -- was commissioned by the Global Development Network, a research institution based out of New Delhi, Cairo and Washington D.C., with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In fertiliser-use, problems were seen in effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability in both regions, even as the solutions needed to address the issues differed not just among countries, but also across areas.

In India, research said, the fertiliser subsidy had grown more than 30 times in 25 years since 1976 to around Rs.80 billion, and when measured as a share of gross domestic product, from 0.07 percent to 0.61 percent.

"Not all government budget support for fertiliser goes to farmers in India with a large share ending up with the domestic fertiliser industry," said one of the papers, assessing what goes to companies at around 50 percent.

The paper said overuse of subsidised urea has had devastating social and ecological impacts in South Asia, and such doles, in India at least, have made little contribution to agriculture growth and poverty reduction.

"Along with unbalanced use of other fertilisers, it has led to serious depletion of organic matter, deterioration of soil fertility, nutrient deficiencies, increase in soil acidity and degradation of soil's physical and chemical properties."

In water, too, if Sub-Saharan Africa was confronted with the failure of many irrigation projects, South Asia's problem was inefficient management of this vital resource, despite having the highest rates of irrigation.

In the case of India, one of the problems seen was that governments were following policies of extracting water - like use of tube wells - rather than promoting efficient use of this scarce resource.

"This creates a risk of groundwater depletion and, if crops fail, of food shortage and the subsequent abandonment of whole clusters of villages, as has been seen in southern Rajasthan, coastal Saurashtra, Tamil Nadu and northern Gujarat."

Similar problems were seen in the two regions in a host of areas such as procurement and pricing policies, food distribution systems, investments to ensure food security, safety nets and support services.

Explaining the rationale behind the intensive research, George Mavrotas, chief economist of GDN, said the intention was to help share the North-South and South-South debates on agriculture policies.

"The crux of the project is to bridge research-policy gap in connection with agricultural policies in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia," he told IANS on the margins of an experts' roundtable.

"In a large measure, we want to bring forth policy issues relevant to the regions in question. Over and above, it is to look at development through a 'southern' lens and add developing country perspectives."

(Arvind Padmanabhan can be reached at arvind.p@ians.in)