From farm gate to dinner plate: Dynamics of agriculture sector

BANGKOK - It was no lazy Sunday afternoon for me when I visited a friend's organic rice farm in Chun, northern Thailand, nearly a week ago.

Shin-deep in mud and water, I bent down repeatedly to rip out the weeds among the rice stalks. It is backbreaking work because herbicides are a no-no in organic farming.

Though I managed to cover only a small portion of the field, my unaccustomed exertions ensured that I slept very well that night, though I woke up with my whole body aching.

Just a few days earlier, I had been in Bali where I spoke about agriculture and the media at a side event organised by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) at the UN Association of Civilisations conference.

Food has always travelled around the world; the best examples are probably tea, coffee and spices. But in recent decades, there has been a more comprehensive globalisation of a near-seamless food supply chain.

But the agricultural sector is in the grip of a serious malaise: The number of people involved in agriculture is declining. Job creation is slower than in other economic sectors. Many farmers belong to the greying generation. Young people these days prefer to work in the city rather than labour under the hot sun or pouring rain for little reward.

Farming is very hard work. Ironically, while food can fetch high prices in cities, very little of the money trickles back to the farmers. Farmers, by and large and especially in developing countries, barely get by on what they earn. Usually, they cannot survive without some form of subsidy.

Still, around one billion people around the planet are engaged in agriculture. Most of them are small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Indeed, 2014 is the United Nations' Year of Family Farming. Across the Asia Pacific, around 80 per cent of farms are run by families and small land owners.

Yet, the main consumers of the farmers' produce, most of whom belong to the urban middle and professional classes, know next to nothing about the food production systems or the lives of farmers. And knowing nothing brings no empathy.

One may ask, do they really need to know who grows the iceberg lettuce in their Caesar salad? Or who grows their rice?

Yes, because there are many example in history of governments rising and falling because of their agricultural policies. And in today's interconnected world, what happens in one food-producing country can have an immediate and direct effect on consumers in another country or continent.

China recently raised questions over the use of pesticide in banana plantations in Laos (ironically, most of the plantations are financed by Chinese investors).

In Thailand, a top rice exporter, many rice farmers wear gloves that reach their elbows to avoid contact with the pesticide, weed killer and chemical fertiliser they use.

As I dug my fingers into the warm, organic mud and water that Sunday, I wondered if consumers know this.

There is another reason why it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the agricultural sector. Climate change is going to impact agriculture in ways that are not yet fully understood, but will almost certainly be drastic.

And as if the current malaise and the uncertainties ahead are not enough to give you a sleepless night, food production will have to be ramped up by some 70 per cent in order to feed 2.3 billion additional people on the planet by 2050, the FAO has estimated.

All these factors make it imperative for the world community to be aware of issues in the agricultural sector, so that they can take informed decisions - from who to vote for, to what product to buy in the supermarket.

But there is a shortage of information, because mainstream media are operating in an increasingly and relentlessly competitive environment preoccupied with wars, disasters, politics and celebrity scandals, and agriculture stories often take a back seat unless a policy decision, price fluctuation or natural disaster affects urban consumers.

There is some hope that the Internet and social media can play a role.

The conversation has already shifted - social media need not be just for sharing pictures of your lunch; it has helped drive debate on the nutritional value of school lunches in the US, for instance. And it is facilitating new initiatives that bypass traditional forms of communication and make full use of the reach of the Internet.

In New York City, a programme called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), for instance, brings together a community and a local farm, which provides members with fresh produce every week during the harvest season. The initiative is propagated not through mainstream media, but through word of mouth and social media. Many of the people in their mid 20s who buy into CSA do not even read or watch mainstream media, but get most of their news from social media.

CSA members pay for a share of the farmer's produce at the beginning of the season. The money provides the farm with a fixed income for the year and insulates it from price fluctuations, bad weather, and capricious consumers. The farmer can invest upfront as he need not worry too much about future uncertainties.

In return, the community gets local, organic produce often harvested just the previous day, at reasonable prices. The produce is packed in boxes made from recycled material. Wasted produce is donated. Consumers must volunteer just four hours of their time in a year, to load and unload trucks for instance, or pack food, clean up, and keep the accounts. Similar programmes are beginning to sprout in other busy cities across the globe.

Though still in minority, they are helping to bridge the gap between the farm gate and the dinner plate.

nirmal@sph.com.sg