Redefining sustainable development, the Asean way

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Not very long ago, economic productivity was largely defined simply as an increase in economic output usually measured through the gross domestic product, regardless of the origin of the growth. This was usually coupled with preference for industrialization over agriculture, with the latter occupying more rudimentary stages according to classical models of growth, such as Rostow’s Stages of Growth. It is imperative, then, to discuss both the role of agriculture and the Fourth Industrial Revolution in fulfilling the sustainable development goals during the time of climate change and the still evolving Covid-19 pandemic.

Agricultural and industrial growth have traditionally been pitted against each other, as evidenced by models such as Rostow’s (1959), which posits that agricultural output and dependence ought to decrease as nations achieve economic maturity. True enough, many Asian economies attained progress through industrialization, particularly those dubbed “East Asian miracle economies”. Quibria (2002) discusses the role of capital accumulation and access to bigger markets and new technology as the primary sources of growth for these economies. The book further points out that while miracle economies did not explicitly discriminate against agriculture, much of the progress was achieved without it, and that its importance gradually diminished in favor of industrialized growth. This was also due to the fact that not all these economies were blessed initially with geographical features that would support a vibrant agricultural sector, and so industrialization was the more logical and feasible route to economic success.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic coupled with strict lockdowns underscored the importance of food security and, therefore, the need for a robust agricultural sector to serve national and regional demands. Liu, Wang, Yang, Rahman, and Sriboonchitta (2020) discuss policy options to sustainably strengthen the agricultural sector amid land degradation, water availability reduction, and other effects of climate change. The exponential increase in population inevitably increases the demand for food, thus making a case for agricultural productivity as one of the keys to SDGs 1 and 2, which are No Poverty and Zero Hunger, respectively. Whereas Viegelahn and Huyhn (2021) of the International Labour Organization note agriculture as one of the sectors less vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, the policy brief on the Asean labor market still lists rural agricultural productivity as one of the regional priorities for action, further underscoring its importance in achieving a “robust and inclusive socioeconomic recovery” (Viegelahn and Huyhn, 2021).

Furthermore, intensifying the whole discourse on Asean regional growth is the discussion on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how disruptive technologies involving AI, robotics, blockchain, and 3D printing hold the key to unlocking greater heights for the Asean Economic Community. Such a breakthrough will require regional cooperation and coordination unlike anything we have seen before and forge the path to the future following the Asean way, with opportunities to increase wealth while encouraging economic inclusion and connecting the unconnected (World Economic Forum & Asian Development Bank, 2017).

Interestingly, in this very revolutionary approach to regional development, agriculture is being given renewed emphasis, as the researchers recognize the crucial role of agriculture in many Asean countries, including the Philippines, and how climate change continues to make economic gains from this sector volatile at best. Thus, the 2017 study includes “Transforming Agriculture” as one of the opportunities for Asean amid the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as new technologies could impact farming positively, with more connected farmers gaining timely access to market prices, weather information, and knowledge about soil, seeds, and fertilizer, and thus allowing them to further increase their productivity, profitability, and sustainability. These new technologies can also pave the way for disaster preparedness to curb the adverse effects of natural calamities such as typhoons and earthquakes, which have always rocked the agricultural supply chain of Asean, thereby affecting revenue streams from this sector. 

Hence, from this discussion, we realize that the face of economic progress no longer lies in being able to produce and, therefore, earn more as a country, especially at this age when regional cooperation is given prime importance alongside achieving national growth. Furthermore, this progress lies with sustainable development that factors in external shocks aggravated by climate change and threats of another pandemic. Success does not have to mean letting go of agriculture in favor of industrialization, as older developed economies elected to do and given the advantages which existed then and no longer hold true now. Newer technologies allow for multi-sectoral growth to include agriculture which can lead to resilient and sustainable development, paving the way to food security, stable income, and overall better standards of living for major stakeholders involved.

Ms. Ma. Angelica B. America is a part-time faculty member who teaches SocSci13 (The Economy, Society, and Sustainable Development) in the School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University.


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