The importance of sustainable agriculture cannot be overstated. The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 – which, when combined with higher incomes and rising demand for meat and dairy products, makes food security a primary challenge. This challenge, which significantly affects South-East Asia, is further exacerbated by water depletion, soil degradation and a reduction in land availability, as well as the effects of climate change, such as shifts in seasons and a rising incidence of extreme weather events. And it will not be made easier by increasing susceptibility to pests and disease, or rising energy prices.

The only way to sustainably create shareholder value is to create value for society at the same time, which is why rural development, nutrition and water is so important. There are many parts to any comprehensive rural development strategy.

Firstly, in several areas of South-East Asia, the agricultural productivity of many major commodities – food grains and leguminous crops, for example – remains low. In order to create value sustainably and successfully, the region must come up with a strategy to increase production. Closing the yield gap and reducing post-harvest losses and waste (which account for up to 50% of total calories produced from farm to fork) are also imperatives.

Secondly, low rates of land ownership deprive farmers of the capacity to invest in necessary materials, such as plant protection agents or fertilizers; limiting farmers’ earnings. Small-scale farmers are more susceptible to changes in the weather and can be hit by unsustainable levels of debt when crops fail. Affordable microfinance schemes and crop insurance schemes would go a long way towards alleviating their burden.

Thirdly, investing in education remains a key element of any strategy: training in good agricultural practices would significantly increase the productivity of a farm and quality of the produce. The next generation of farmers needs to be educated and trained; they need to be introduced to recent innovations and upcoming technologies. Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technologies (AKST) will remain central to sustainable agricultural development, which is why investment in this sphere must continue.

Developing what we might call “agripreneurs” will therefore be central to ensuring a sustainable supply of high-quality agricultural produce. Introducing this concept into mainstream education is a good start, but what is needed are practice-oriented vocational schools that specialize in agricultural business management.

Nestlé has helped fund agricultural programmes in Latin America, which provide technical and business training to students alongside their normal curricula – a model that could be replicated in Asia. It could be complemented with increased emphasis on the continuous education of farmers and targeted technical assistance through the agricultural extension and advisory system. An “agripreneur” would then be a progressive farmer by choice; a rural entrepreneur.

Finally, consideration should be given to drawing up a “livelihoods framework”, something to guide decision-making on objectives, scope and priorities. This puts communities and people at the centre of the process, ensuring risks and opportunities are properly reviewed and aligned to the community’s long-term goals. This is all the more important when we consider ageing farming populations and the migration of young people to urban areas.

Luckily, there is widespread awareness that we need to act now to achieve sustainable agricultural development and deliver food security. This global awareness is translating into collaborations between multiple stakeholders, whether they are government, civil society, private sector, research community or development agency. Working together is absolutely critical: no one can transform agriculture and solve food security on their own.

Governments play a major role in creating environments that enable agricultural systems to become economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. The role of the private sector is to incentivize efficiency, stimulate investment, technology and innovation, and at the same time ensure an economically attractive and lasting livelihood for the farmers.

If the world is going to feed the global population in 2050, a change in mindset is needed. We must recognize the critical role of rural development and act collectively to make it sustainable.

Author: Nandu Nandkishore is Executive Vice-President, Asia, Oceania, Africa and Middle East, Nestlé, Switzerland

Image: Farmers work on a terraced paddy field for the new rice season in Vietnam REUTERS/Staff