Food Security in the BIMSTEC Region: Lessons from Sri Lanka’s Smart Agriculture

By Dr. Manoj Thibbotuwawa

Sri Lanka successfully concluded the fifth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) on March 30, 2022. Established in 1997, BIMSTEC is a seven-member regional organization comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

BIMSTEC pays particular attention to agriculture and food security, with agriculture being included as a stand-alone sector in 2005 in recognition of its importance. Sri Lanka, the lead country for coordinating activities in the science, technology and innovation sector, is in the midst of a food crisis even as it hosts it. Against this background, this blog discusses food security challenges in the BIMSTEC region, Sri Lanka’s experiences with smart agriculture and its expectations for the summit.

Food security challenges in the BIMSTEC region

BIMSTEC’s growing population puts enormous pressure on the agricultural sector and food security. The need is to find ways to improve agricultural growth to meet current and future food demand, but achieving this goal is complicated by the region’s many inherited challenges. These include inefficient use of inputs such as water and fertilizers, poor technology, a lack of market integration leading to stagnant crop yields, declining profitability and deterioration in the value of food production in these countries.

The BIMSTEC region remains among the poorest in the world, with lower GDP per capita and higher poverty rates. Nepal, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh have a GDP per capita of less than $2,000 and a poverty rate of over 21%. Climate change, inconsistent domestic and trade policies and weakened agricultural institutions further compound the above challenges to food availability and access primarily for vulnerable populations, including smallholder farmers and poor households.

Food utilization is also not optimal, as shown by FAO nutrition indicators for the region. For example, the stunting rate is highest in India (30.9%), followed by Bangladesh (30.4%) and Nepal (30.2%). Even Myanmar (25.2%) and Bhutan (22.4%) have stunting rates above the global average of 22%. Another indicator of malnutrition, wasting, is highest in India (17.3%), followed by Sri Lanka (15%) and Bangladesh (10%), and these figures have not improved much over time. years.

In addition, a significant portion of the population suffers from other indicators of malnutrition such as low birth weight and undernourishment. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cause a reversal of all the achievements made so far by BIMSTEC countries in terms of food security. Most importantly, further implementation of smart farming in agriculture can help alleviate some of these food security challenges faced in the region.

Smart Agriculture: Lessons from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka began its gradual push towards smart agriculture with its e-Agriculture Strategy in 2016, the first in Asia-Pacific. This was driven primarily by the belief that several opportunities exist through innovative information and communication technology (ICT) solutions to address many food security challenges. In particular, access to the right information at the right time enables farmers to make informed decisions and improve their livelihoods, thus playing a major role in ensuring food security. The country also has a vibrant ICT sector with wide adoption and awareness of ICT in other critical areas such as telecommunications and banking, which has provided transformational potential for agriculture stakeholders. The rapid growth of mobile voice and the Internet in Sri Lanka has also provided new avenues for sharing and accessing information.

A public-private-producer partnership has been identified as one of the key areas for strategic development to realize the e-agriculture strategy in Sri Lanka. With content support from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health, Dialog’s private telecommunications service provider Govi ​​Mithuru offers personalized and timely advice to farmers on land preparation, cultivation, protection crops, harvesting and improving family nutrition. Dialog now plans to digitize leaf color index, help farmers check nutritional status and plant deficiencies, and develop Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled automation tools for the sector. agricultural.

Govipola is a trilingual mobile phone application and web program that allows farmers, buyers and sellers to access prices. The European Union Technical Assistance Program for the Modernization of Agriculture (TAMAP) has helped the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka (MASL) to launch a pilot “smart farming village” program while training staff, MASL vendors and farmers in the use of digital apps with an extensive outreach and communication plan by partnering with private sector digital service providers and transport services such as PickMe.

Leading agribusiness companies in Sri Lanka such as Chemical Industries Colombo (CIC) and Hayleys are increasingly using the latest innovations to provide crop application requirements tailored to local conditions from the Ministry of Agriculture and relevant research institutes . These include drones to scan fields and distribute agrochemicals and fertilizers with minimal human involvement and waste and state-of-the-art greenhouse technology, such as automated climate control and fertigation as well as cultivation hydroponics to enable “climate-smart” production, all year round. Building on Sri Lanka’s unique experience, the BIMSTEC region can strengthen science, innovation and technology cooperation in agriculture to alleviate food security challenges.

Go forward

Since research and development (R&D) of the agricultural sector is very low and the agriculture and food processing sectors continue to use outdated technologies and inefficient manufacturing techniques, the region needs more innovation to boost its global competitiveness, exploit its knowledge base, improve its economic position and meet the challenges of food security. However, the rise of protectionism in the technology and intellectual property rights (IPR) markets has made the acquisition of cutting-edge technologies a daunting challenge for developing countries in the region.

Therefore, South-South Cooperation (SSC), like BIMSTEC, provides a good platform to govern technology transfer between BIMSTEC economies. Similar factor endowments such as land, labor, capital and entrepreneurship in the region can mutually contribute to meeting regional development needs including rural income generation, poverty alleviation and food security. Moreover, the technologies and knowledge pools available in these countries are more cost-effective and easily and quickly adaptable to the conditions prevailing in these countries.

As decided at the 17th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in 2021, Sri Lanka should take the necessary steps to establish a Technology Expert Group to coordinate cooperation in the technology sub-sector and develop a plan. of action to strengthen cooperation in the field of technology, including in agriculture. and the food processing sectors. Furthermore, the establishment of a regional network of technology transfer offices of leading research organizations such as the European Circle of Technology Transfer Offices will ensure effective and efficient scientific and technological exchanges, sharing of technological know-how, joint R&D and industrial application of superior technologies. Finally, local industries could increasingly exploit more advantages through their participation in regional value chains (RVCs) and global value chains (GVCs).

(Link to full Talking Economics blog: farming /)

(The author is a researcher at IPS with research interests in agriculture, agro-industrial value chains, food security, and environmental and natural resource economics. He holds a BSc (Agriculture) with Honors from University of Peradeniya, MSc (Agricultural Economics) from Post-Graduate Institute of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya and Ph.D. from University of Australia -Western. [Talk with Manoj – [email protected]].)

About Keneth T. Graves

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