Dr. Fernando C. Sanchez, Jr., SEARCA Governing Board Chair and University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) Chancellor, underscored in his welcome remarks the need for development organizations to keep abreast of the changing development landscape of agriculture and development in Southeast Asia and to continue asserting their relevance in helping their various stakeholders, particularly smallholder farmers.
Singaporean expert Dr. Paul P.S. Teng, Managing Director of the National Institute of Education International Pte. Ltd. at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), asserted in setting the context of the forum, "You cannot transform unless you understand where you stand at the moment. At the end of the day, you should have a clear idea of how to transform or reshape the current (agricultural) situation and how to move forward." He then emphasized the need for vivid assessment of the Southeast Asian region's agricultural situation across all levels – taking micro, meso, and macro perspectives – and for drastic steps to reshape the scenario at its roots to address the looming relevant problems of prevalent malnutrition in rural areas and the emerging overnutrition in urban settings, among other changing demographics and contexts of agriculture and development in the region. Dr. Teng concurrently serves as Senior Fellow of the NTU Centre for Non-traditional Security Studies, Adjunct Senior Fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies also at NTU, SEARCA Senior Fellow, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotechnology Applications (ISAAA).
Dr. Cielito F. Habito, former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary of former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos' Cabinet, explained in his forum overview that among the dominant concerns toward resiliency, inclusiveness, and sustainability in the region's agriculture and development are climate uncertainties and water scarcity, the promise of information technology, agro-industrial value chains and their integration of smallholders, and farm tourism and family farming. Dr. Habito is Economics Professor at the Ateneo de Manila; Chair of Brain Trust - Knowledge and Options for Sustainable Development Inc.; and SEARCA Senior Fellow.
From this context, the discussion progressed to how agricultural problems are often addressed from and by the national government or regional organizations, and the primacy of initiatives emanating from the local government, smallholder farmers, and other groups/sectors closer to the ground. The forum also tackled the potential of IoT or the Internet of Things, and experts pointed out that technology is not the solution per se as it is only a tool – it is how stakeholders use it and developing a healthier attitude towards its adoption is the best way to wield the power of technology in agricultural development.
Such modern technologies can also empower small-scale farmers to link to global agricultural value chains in terms of trade and market access, among other relevant sub-topics on value chain integration. Another hot topic was how to attract the youth to agricultural activities and entice them to build enterprises in the rural areas. The Pink Economy, farm tourism, and technologies such as mobile apps to aid farming activities were highlighted in this regard, seeing that millennials are adventurous travelers and live on connectivity. Lastly, local and regional integration of development initiatives were also encouraged in the forum, such as cross-country cooperation and strengthening local-national-international programs that encourage knowledge and resource-sharing.
Taking centerstage in the forum were a total of 24 experts and specialists, led by Dr. Doris Capistrano, Senior Advisor to the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change and a SEARCA Senior Fellow, for the panel on managing climate uncertainties and water scarcity; Dr. Karen Eloisa T. Barroga, Acting Deputy Executive Director for Development of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), on the promise of information technology; Dr. Teng on agro-industrial value chains and integration of smallholders; Mr. Tomas A. Cabuenos, Jr., Senior Advisor and National Project Manager of the Development Partnership Project (AGRI-DPP), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Philippines, on-farm tourism and family farming; and Dr. Habito on arriving at an integrated agenda for agriculture and development in Southeast Asia.
The high-level expert panelists in the forum included Mr. Grahame Dixie, Executive Director of Grow Asia; Dr. Mina T. Gabor, Founder and President of the International School of Sustainable Tourism and former Philippine Tourism Secretary; Dr. Wei Fang, Professor of Bio-industrial Mechatronics Engineering at the National Taiwan University; Dr. Larry C.Y. Wong, Malaysian thought leader in agricultural economics and adviser to Myanmar; Dr. Sudhir Yadav, Outcome Thought Leader on Environmental Sustainability and Water Management Scientist at the International Rice Research Institute; Dr. Maria Victoria O. Espaldon, Professor of Environmental Science and Management at UPLB; Dr. Rolando T. Dy, Professor at the University of Asia and the Pacific; Dean Larry N. Digal of the UP Mindanao School of Management; Mr. John Garrity, Senior Connectivity Advisor of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); Dr. Bessie M. Burgos, Program Head for Research and Development at SEARCA; Engr. Samuel M. Contreras, Chief Agriculturist and Soil Conservation Division Head at the Bureau of Soils and Water Management of the Department of Agriculture; Dr. Nerlita M. Manalili, CEO of NEXUS Agribusiness Solutions; Mr. Roger F. Barroga, PhilRice Manager of the FutureRice Project; and Dr. Bui Tan Yen, Science Officer of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security based in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Equally valuable were the perspectives asserted as experts in their own right representing millennials, farmers, and the private sector and civil society, by Mr. Vicente A. Roxas, Director at the Roxas-Kalaw Foundation for the Eradication of Poverty; Farmer JonJon Sarmiento of the Sustainable Agriculture Program Manager of the Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (PAKISAMA); Ms. Gigi Pontejos-Morris, Farm School Director of the MoCA Family Farm RLearning Center in Padre Garcia, Batangas; Mr. Sven Yeo, Co-Founder, Business Development of Archisen Pte. Ltd. In Singapore; and Ms. Tan Thi Shu, Founder and Director of The Sapa O'Chau in Northern Vietnam. (May Gordoncillo-Payabyab and Maria Celeste H. Cadiz)