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For those whose thinking of Asia is conditioned by the food crises of 1965 and 1966, the news of an agricultural revolution may come as a surprise. But the change and ferment now evident in the Asian countryside stretching from Turkey to the Philippines, and including the pivotal countries of India and Pakistan, cannot be described as anything less. This rural revolution, largely obscured in its early years by the two consecutive failures of the monsoon, is further advanced in some countries-Pakistan, the Philippines and India-than in others, but there is little prospect that it will abort, so powerful and pervasive are the forces behind it.
That the agricultural revolution of the less developed world began in Asia is fortunate, since it is both densely populated and has a rapid rate of population growth. In this respect, Asia is unique among the world's major geographic regions. Western Europe is heavily populated but its population grows slowly; Latin America's population is expanding rapidly but as yet most of the region is sparsely populated. Fifty-six percent of the world's 3.3 billion people live in Asia; one-third of the world's population, an estimated 1.1 billion, live in Asia outside China. It is this part of the world and this third of mankind that this article deals with.
Historically, as Asia's population increased, it was supported by traditional agriculture on an ever-expanding area of cropland. As the postwar population explosion gained momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the supply of new land was used up, but the productivity of land under cultivation increased little. The result was a slowdown in the rate of gain in food production and a growing concern that population growth and food production were on a collision course.
The gravity of the situation came into focus as the monsoon on the Indian subcontinent failed two years running, in 1965 and 1966. The United States responded by shipping the equivalent of nearly one-fifth of its wheat harvest, feeding sixty million Indians for nearly two years. This record shipment, the largest ever between two countries, was sufficient to stave off famine.
As of mid-1968, both the food situation and food production prospects in Asia have changed almost beyond belief. The Philippines is self-sufficient in its staple food, rice, for the first time since 1903. Iran, with a substantial expansion in wheat acreage, is actually a net exporter of wheat this year. Ceylon's rice harvest climbed 13 percent above the previous record, as it both expanded the area under cultivation and raised yields.
Pakistan's wheat crop, harvested in April and May, is estimated to be 30 percent above the previous record. So is India's. The total Indian foodgrain crop, officially estimated at 100 million tons, is up 32 percent from last year's drought-depressed levels and, more importantly, up 12 percent from the previous record. Good weather has helped boost the harvest on the Indian subcontinent this year, but increases above the previous record are largely the results of solid technological progress-more efficient varieties, more fertilizer and better farm practices.
What has caused this remarkable turnabout? One factor is new political commitments at the top in several countries. Shortchanging agriculture is no longer either feasible or fashionable. This new political climate has led to firm allocations of budgetary and foreign-exchange resources. India, for example, increased its budget for agricultural development by one-third in 1966-67; it is now using the equivalent of nearly one-fifth of its foreign-exchange earnings to import fertilizer and raw materials for manufacturing fertilizer. Turkey's imports of fertilizer may make up the largest single item in overall imports this year, exceeding for the first time petroleum and petroleum products. The availability of fertilizer in Pakistan is twice that of two years ago and several times that of 1960; it is expected at least to double again by 1970.
Many governments which heretofore neglected agriculture have been encouraged to give agriculture a higher priority by the "short-tether" policy of the United States, whereby food-aid agreements are of short duration and renewal depends on local effort and performance. The overall scarcity of foodgrains, particularly rice, in many Asian countries increased prices to the point where it suddenly became very profitable for large numbers of farmers to use fertilizer and other modern inputs.
While some factors contributing to the takeoff in agriculture are of recent origin, others have been long in the making. The agricultural infrastructure is capable of supporting current advances because of several years of AID investment in farm-to-market roads, in irrigation projects and in agricultural research and training. Investment in irrigation systems over the years provides a vast acreage of well-watered land, much of it well suited to the intensive use of modern farm technology. Adequate supplies of water and fertilizer are needed to attain high yields. The training of some 4,000 Asian agriculturists over the past decade, sponsored jointly by AID, the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the Land Grant Universities, contributes to a corps of trained professionals capable of adapting and disseminating new technology.
The availability of fertilizer has increased severalfold over the past decade, partly as a result of expanding indigenous production and partly because of steadily rising imports. The financing of fertilizer imports is now a major AID activity, requiring a sizable portion of the agency's budget. Investment by fertilizer manufacturers and other supporting industries has helped to fuel the takeoff in agricultural production. Countries in which U.S. firms have built or are building fertilizer plants include South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, India, Iran and Malaysia. Fertilizer produced in these plants could increase the region's annual food- producing capability by an estimated 25 million tons of grain. Other agrobusiness activities such as the manufacture of pesticides and farm equipment are also contributing to the rapid growth in food production.
Perhaps the most exciting development is the rapid spread of new, high- yielding varieties of cereals. The Mexican wheats now proving so adaptable throughout Asia are the product of more than twenty years of work by the Rockefeller Foundation. Efficient new rice varieties are coming principally from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, an institution founded jointly by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in 1962 and devoted solely to the improvement of rice production in the tropics and subtropics. Work on high-yielding varieties of corn, sorghum and millet is concentrated in India, where the Rockefeller Foundation is providing leadership for the program. Areas planted to the new varieties went from a few hundred acres in 1964-65 to about 23,000 acres in 1965-66, nearly four million acres in 1966-67 and over twenty million acres during 1967-68, the crop year just ended. Plans and expectations indicate a further expansion of up to forty million acres in the coming year.
Several factors are responsible for this rapid gain in acreage. The new varieties often double yields of traditional varieties; their superiority is so obvious that farmers are quickly persuaded of their merits. This contrasts sharply with improved varieties made available in the past, which were only marginally superior to varieties being used. Another reason is the degree to which the high yields attained on the experimental plots are transferable to field conditions. There are reports of instances in which farmers actually attained higher yields under field conditions with large acreages than researchers did on experimental plots.
The availability of these new seeds has enabled many Asian countries to shorten materially the agricultural development process. The importing of numerous varieties in small quantities for testing purposes was in itself an effort to achieve a shortcut; food-deficit countries availed themselves of the results of plant-breeding work undertaken elsewhere. But they did not stop there. Once it was demonstrated that a given high-yielding variety was adapted to local growing conditions, large tonnages of seed were imported, thus eliminating the several years required to multiply and accumulate sufficient supplies of seed locally.
Pakistan imported 42,000 tons of seed wheat from Mexico during 1967, enough to plant 1.5 million acres. As a result, Pakistan now has enough seed to plant its entire wheat acreage to Mexican wheats. India imported 18,000 tons of Mexican wheats in 1966. This, coupled with indigenous multiplication of seed from the initial introduction of the same varieties, enabled Indian farmers to plant 8 million acres this year-the target acreage for 1970-71, and more than double the target of 3.5 million acres for the current year. Turkey, starting later than India or Pakistan but determined to catch up, imported 21,000 tons of high-yielding wheat, including some U.S. varieties, for use on a much smaller acreage. Both the import of samples of the new varieties initially, and the larger shipments later, represent a massive infusion of a new technology at a nominal cost, with potentially widespread application. They constitute a windfall gain in food production for many of the less developed countries.
The new varieties possess several distinctive characteristics. They are almost all short-stemmed, so they can absorb large quantities of fertilizer without lodging (becoming top-heavy and falling down); they are much more responsive to fertilizer at all levels of application. A given amount of fertilizer produces a much greater increase in yield than with the older varieties of grain. And unlike high-yielding varieties of cereals developed in the United States or Japan for rather specific growing conditions, these varieties are adapted to a much broader range of latitudes. The new varieties of rice are early maturing, ripening in 120 to 125 days compared with 150 to 180 days for the older varieties. They are also rather insensitive to the length of daylight and thus can be planted at any time of the year if the prevailing temperature and water supply permit. With adequate water, some farmers in the Philippines and India are harvesting two or even three crops each year. Where water supplies are not sufficient to grow rice during the dry season, farmers grow high-yielding hybrid grain sorghums or hybrid corn. Triple-cropping of rice, or rice in combination with sorghum or corn, is resulting in yields under field conditions as high as 8 tons of grain per acre per calendar year. This contrasts with average yearly rice yields in Japan of just over 2 tons per acre and wheat yields in Europe of less than 2 tons per acre. The introduction of the early- maturing Mexican wheats in northern India and Pakistan is permitting the double-cropping of wheat and corn, with wheat grown during the rabi (winter) season and corn during the kharif (summer) season.
Introduction of the new varieties is changing not only the technology of production but also the economics. The potentially far-reaching economic implications of the agricultural revolution are only now becoming clear. Projected demand for agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, water and irrigation equipment must be recalculated. Many of the assumptions underlying current strategies of agricultural development must also be reëxamined. For example, in the short run, the profitability of using fertilizer will increase demand above what it would otherwise have been. Over the longer run, however, the demand for fertilizer may be lower than would otherwise be the case since a smaller amount of fertilizer will be required on the more responsive varieties to reach a given level of production.
High rates of return on investments in production inputs, reflecting a more favorable economic climate due to better prices for farm products and more efficient new technologies, are mobilizing rural savings not previously available for production purposes. Investment is on the rise not only in those things which increase output in the short run, such as fertilizer, but also in those which boost food-producing capability over the long run, such as tubewells and irrigation pumps. Over the course of five years, Pakistani farmers in the cotton and rice-growing areas of the former Punjab, where the water table is quite near the surface, have installed some 32,000 private tubewells, costing from $1,000 to $2,500 each. The value of the supplementary irrigation made possible by these wells is such that farmers characteristically have paid for them in two years. A large proportion were installed without government assistance or subsidy of any kind. The number of low-lift pumps installed in East Pakistan, totaling 2,200 in 1965, is expected to increase to 14,000 by 1969, greatly increasing the potential for double-cropping rice during the dry season. Similar high rates of return on small-scale irrigation investments are reported in India, where the number of wells is also climbing at an astronomical rate.
Early-maturing varieties of rice which ripen during the monsoon require mechanical drying before storage, since the time-honored method of spreading rice in the roadside to dry is not feasible. The demand for grain- drying equipment, now climbing rapidly, was not anticipated. Similarly, the use of pesticides, often uneconomic when average rice yields were 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of milled rice per acre, is suddenly very profitable on the new varieties, averaging 3,000 to 4,000 pounds. Growth in demand for both pesticides and application equipment such as knapsack sprayers and dusters will be closely associated with the spread of the improved seed.
The new varieties, with their potential for multiple-cropping, place a premium on fast preparation of the seedbed. Farmers planning to double-crop or triple-crop their land may no longer have several weeks to prepare the ground with bullocks or water buffalo; they may have to use power-driven farm equipment to prepare the seedbed quickly and plant the next crop. Even in some countries where new varieties are not yet widely spread, the profitability and feasibility of farm mechanization are being increasingly recognized. In Thailand, where the movement of goods from farm to market is largely by canal or river, rice fields are prepared principally by water buffalo. Under these circumstances, farmers are discovering it is more economical to hire someone with a tractor to plow the rice fields for a few dollars per acre than to feed and care for a team of water buffalo all year just to use them during a few weeks at plowing time. Some 20,000 to 25,000 imported tractors plowed an estimated one-fourth of the rice acreage this past year, mostly on a custom-hire basis-not unlike the way in which wheat is harvested in the Great Plains of the United States.
The more intensive farming methods associated with the new technology require more farm labor. The new varieties will not respond to the traditional practice of planting the crop and then virtually forgetting it until harvest time. Substantial amounts of additional labor must be invested in applying fertilizer, weeding and the like. Expansion of the area that can be multiple-cropped is also resulting in a more effective use of the rural labor supply, particularly during the dry season. In Asia, where underemployed labor constitutes one of the world's largest underutilized resources, this promises a major economic gain. For the first time, there is the possibility of significant labor scarcities in localized rural areas.
Changes associated with the new farm technology have a social as well as an economic impact. The exciting new cereal varieties are so superior to the traditional varieties and so dramatic in their impact that they are becoming "engines of change" wherever used. They may be to the agricultural revolution in Asia what the steam engine was to the industrial revolution in Europe.
Successful adoption of the new seed requires the simultaneous adoption of new cultural practices and the use of modern inputs. The seasonal rhythm of rural activity, once determined largely by the monsoon, is changing as farmers begin to double-crop and to introduce new combinations of crops. Farmers taking advantage of the new technology must enter the market; they cannot remain subsistence farmers. Rural Asians will change and innovate- when it is to their advantage to do so. Significantly, there may be some spin-off from this breakthrough in agriculture, this initial break with tradition. Family planners should take heart. As farmers learn that they can indeed influence their destiny, they may become much more susceptible to family planning and other equally "radical" departures.
Not all changes wrought by the new technology are desirable. In some areas, tenants are being reduced to farm laborers as landowners discover the profitability of the new technology in the current economic setting. Even though income to the landless may rise, the socioeconomic gap between the landowners and the landless may widen. Dissidents among the landless group in some states in India now form the nucleus of the opposition parties. Among those who own land, the income gap between those owning fertile, well- watered land and those with marginal land is also likely to widen. While many of the former may easily triple or quadruple output, the latter may not be able to employ the new technology at all. Those who can, and are thus permitted to enter the market, are likely to become more vocal and more interested in influencing the economic policies affecting their fortunes in the marketplace. Political activization of rural populations is an expected concomitant of the agricultural revolution now under way.
The leadership in most Asian countries is not unaware of the political implications of recent changes in rural areas. Prime Minister Demirel of Turkey feels strongly enough about the crash program in wheat production, initiated at his behest less than two years ago, to have it directed and monitored from his office. Some observers think President Marcos of the Philippines, who has brought his country to self-sufficiency in rice by emphasizing rural development, may be the first President of the Philippines ever to be reëlected to office. Former Prime Minister Maiwandwal of Afghanistan was so impressed with the production potential of the Mexican wheats and with the urgent need to arrest Afghanistan's growing dependence on imported wheat that he assessed each of the Ministries 2.5 percent of its current year's development budget to create a fund to launch an accelerated wheat-production program. Two years later, the Afghans appear to be progressing toward their goal of self-sufficiency in wheat. President Ayub of Pakistan shows a deep personal interest in the agricultural programs under way in his country and follows their progress on an almost daily basis. India's progressive C. Subramaniam, former Food and Agriculture Minister, took advantage of the food crisis to mobilize support for and launch the accelerated food-production effort responsible for much of India's gains.
Recent agricultural progress should not give cause for complacency. Many difficult problems lie ahead, especially in the fields of farm credit, water development, plant disease, foreign-exchange availability, marketing and price incentives.
Purchases of farm inputs are often concentrated initially among the larger farmers who are able to finance their own purchases. The rate at which small farmers adopt new technologies is frequently determined by the availability of farm credit on reasonable terms. If, like the great majority of Asian farmers, they are dependent on the local moneylender for credit, often at interest rates ranging from 20 to 100 percent per year, they may not find it profitable to use modern inputs such as fertilizer. Available evidence indicates that fertilizer distribution in some parts of India and West Pakistan is beginning to slow because of a lack of credit.
Intensive cultivation of the new high-yielding varieties requires, in addition to an adequate supply of water, a far more sophisticated system of water control and management. At present not more than one-third of Asia's rice land is considered suitable for the new, short-stemmed rice varieties. Excessive and erratic flooding during the monsoon or rainy season is not conducive to the intensive cultivation of rice, which requires hand-weeding and the use of fertilizer and pesticides. Either too little or too much water can be damaging.
Associated with the massive introduction of exogenous varieties is the risk that some local insect or disease could suddenly wipe out the entire acreage, thus creating possible famine not unlike that occurring in Ireland more than a century ago. The worst of this threat may have passed, however, for the number of new varieties has already reduced dependence on any single one. Each year that passes should make the threat less dangerous.
Rice production during the dry season, once limited by the lack of varieties adapted to the off season, is now limited by a lack of water. This can be remedied either by developing underground water resources, which are quite abundant in some areas, or by using pumps to lift water from the numerous rivers and canals that flow through many of the rice- growing areas during the dry season. The exploitation of unused water resources will expand the acreage suitable for planting the high-yielding rices. Few, if any, developing countries are endowed with all the raw materials needed for manufacture of chemical fertilizers-phosphate rock, potash, sulfur and natural gas or naphtha. As the use of fertilizer expands, many countries, chronically faced with a scarcity of foreign exchange, are hard pressed to find enough hard currency for the required imports. For some individual countries, such as India, this scarcity of foreign exchange could effectively reduce the rate of agricultural progress.
Frustrating though these problems may be, the dominant constraint on agricultural growth is likely to be inadequate marketing systems and an overall lack of markets. The recent emphasis on agricultural development has been concentrated on the expansion of production; marketing has been largely neglected, with the result that some of the promising gains made in production may be negated. Over the past decade many of Asia's large coastal cities-Karachi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Colombo and Djakarta-have become increasingly dependent on imported foodgrains. To become self- sufficient requires not only producing a surplus in the countryside sufficient to feed these cities, but also having a marketing system capable of moving rural surpluses to the cities when needed. This means farm-to- market roads, storage facilities and a market-intelligence system to rationalize the movement of commodities.
Several Asian countries, such as Pakistan, the Philippines and Turkey, could produce exportable surpluses of grain within the next few years, joining Thailand and Burma. If they do, they must develop the transport and storage facilities needed to move potentially large surpluses of grain from often remote rural areas into world markets. If exportable surpluses develop, there will be mounting pressure on Japan and the EEC countries- where cereal production is often subsidized at prices double the world market price-to reduce subsidies and permit imports.
Problem areas notwithstanding, an agricultural revolution is under way in Asia. The new cereal varieties provide a means for tapping some of the vast, but as yet largely unrealized, food-producing potential of the tropics and subtropics, putting them on a more competitive footing with the temperate-zone cereal producers. The agricultural breakthrough occurring in several major Asian countries can be repeated in Latin America and Africa. Mexico, which once depended on imports for nearly half its wheat needs, is now exporting small quantities of both wheat and corn. Kenya, until recently a food-aid recipient, has produced an exportable surplus of corn, its food staple. Tunisia and Morocco are introducing the Mexican wheats. Much of the technology now being applied in Asia will also be applied in both Latin America and Africa, if the necessary top-level political support and proper combination of economic policies are forthcoming.
The farm sector now constitutes from one-third to one-half of most Asian economies. It is conceivable that the 2 percent rate of increase in food production prevailing during the early and mid-1960s could accelerate to 4 or 5 percent yearly over the next few years, provided markets can absorb the additional output. The additional purchasing power thus generated for both production and consumer goods will stimulate a more rapid rate of growth in the non-farm sector. The net effect should be a much more rapid rate of overall economic growth than would otherwise have prevailed. If the Asian agricultural revolution continues, it could well become the most significant world economic development since the economic rebirth of Europe following World War II.
This agricultural revolution is not the ultimate solution to the food- population problem, but it does buy some much needed additional time in which to mount effective family-planning programs. If food scarcity lessens as anticipated in some of the major food-deficit countries, governments recently preoccupied with real or impending food crises can again turn their attention to the business of development. Although the need for food aid is likely to lessen sharply within the next few years, capital needed for investment in the agricultural infrastructure is certain to increase. The need for technical assistance seems likely to rise as the problems generated by dynamic movement in agriculture increase. The need for foreign private investment in agrobusiness will also rise sharply as farmers clamor for the inputs they need to take full advantage of the new genetic potentials available to them.
The positive economic effects of an agricultural takeoff in Asian countries are quite evident. What is not so readily realized is that it will bolster the confidence of national leaders in their ability to handle other seemingly insoluble problems. It may also strengthen their faith in modern technology and its potential for improving the well-being of their people.