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Regional Consultation on Trade, Climate Change and Food Security in South Asia

SAWTEE and Oxfam Novib organized a two-day Regional Consultation on “Trade, Climate Change and Food Security in South Asia” in Kathmandu on 20–21 December 2012. Participants from around the region called for policies and strategies to cope with the impacts on agriculture and food production from a highly likely increase in global temperature of more than 2 percentage points above pre-industrial levels. They also called for simplifying the operational modalities of the SAARC Food Bank and making them more pragmatic for member countries to benefit from it in times of need. They stressed the need for effective enforcement of competition laws in the region to curtail anticompetitive practices that are fueling food-price inflation, and increased cooperation on trade, technology transfer and climate change adaptation.

About 50 experts from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka participated in the programme. The discussions during the programme covered issues such as the Doha climate conference and global climate negotiations; SAARC Food Bank; SAARC Seed Bank; liberalization of environmental goods; regional trade in agriculture and food products; climate change adaptation; biofuel and food security; and technology transfer, among others. The event was part of the Regional Programme “Trade, Climate Change and Food Security in South Asia” that SAWTEE is implementing with the support of Oxfam Novib. 

Inaugurating the programme, Dr. Abdur Rahim Mikrani, Member, National Planning Commission, Government of Nepal, said the meeting was timely in the context of severe impacts of climate change on agriculture, and the need for assessing the interlinkages between trade, climate change and food security. He lauded SAWTEE’s key role in lobbying for a regional seed bank in South Asia, an agreement on which was signed at the 17th SAARC Summit in Male. He stressed the need to work out guidelines for the effective operationalization of the SAARC Food Bank, which has not been drawn upon by any member state even five years since its establishment although several countries have been hit by natural calamities resulting in food shortages.

Mr. Amrit Lugun, Director, Economic, Trade and Finance Division, SAARC Secretariat, emphasized that political economy factor plays an important role in the issue of liberalization of agriculture trade in the region. He called for an objective investigation into the gains and losses across different segments of the population from increased trade in agriculture and food products. He informed the gathering that negotiations are under way to further reduce the sensitive lists under Agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area, which may see a liberalization of agriculture trade too. He noted the encouraging developments in agriculture trade opening on the bilateral front—for example, between Nepal and Bangladesh. 

Mr. Keshav Bhattarai, Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology noted the alarming impact, existing and prospective, of climate change on agriculture and said that the Government of Nepal is the process of implementing programmes for climate change adaptation at grassroots level from 2013. He invited SAWTEE to work together with Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology.  

Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Dialogue, Dhaka, observed that Bangladesh was not able to import rice from India neither during emergency nor during food shortage due to cumbersome and impractical operational modalities. He suggested that both political commitment and cooperation at the bureaucratic level are required for countries in need to benefit from the SAARC Food Bank. He recommended that stocks must be located at places closer to other member states, and that the trigger for accessing the SAARC Food Bank must be changed so that it is of use also when member states dependent on food imports are exposed to food-price hikes.

Dr. Krishna Prasad Pant, a leading agriculture economist, pointed out that the requirement of 8 percent shortfall in production for being eligible to access the SAARC Food Bank was unnecessary and impractical.

Discussions on the SAARC Seed Bank Agreement concluded that the agreement in its current form tends to over-emphasize the need to increase the seed replacement rate and create a preference over modern varieties to the detriment of the conservation and maintenance of local and farmers’ varieties. It was argued, however, that the SAARC Seed Bank can be used as a vehicle for achieving regional cooperation for conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; access and benefit sharing (ABS) through a regional ABS framework; and a regional conservation and development fund. They called for a review and an amendment to the Agreement for the regional seed bank to be really able to ensure seed security.

Participants noted that the results from the United Nations climate change conference in Doha disappointing on the whole, but serious follow-up is required on some positive outcomes such as a mechanism to help developing countries with the loss and damage caused by climate change. Dr. Ratnakar Adhikari, Chief Executive Director, SAWTEE, noted that inadequate climate finance is playing havoc with South Asian least-developed and vulnerable countries’ ability to adapt to climate change. There was an emphasis on South-South technology transfer, including for climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector, among South Asian countries. It was also pointed out that climate negotiations must not be further burdened with the agenda of mitigation in agriculture. It was suggested that developing countries within the region must also start preparing national adaptation plans. It was observed that although international migration and associated remittances play an important role in the economies in several South Asian countries, a negative attendant consequence has been the diversion of agriculture land into non-agriculture purpose, which has serious implications for food production and security. This calls for an integrated approach to addressing the problem of food insecurity, taking into consideration the impact of remittances on expenditure decisions at the household level.

Agreeing that anticompetitive practices are also pushing up food prices in almost all countries in the region, participants stressed that a measured state intervention is essential to curb such practices. Noting that agriculture and food trade in the region is less than the potential, experts identified domestic supply-side constraints and non-tariff barriers are holding back region trade in such products. The importance of a South Asian transit arrangement for facilitating intra-regional trade, including trade in agriculture and food products, was also highlighted. Participants pointed out the need for developing regional value chains in the agro-industry to exploit South Asian countries’ individual comparative advantages for mutual benefit.

While agreeing that liberalization of environmental goods does offer export opportunities for South Asian countries, experts cautioned that the definition of environmental goods must first be effectively clarified so that environmental goals, and not just market access interests of developed countries, are served by such liberalization, and that such liberalization must be calibrated well so as not to spell deindustrialization for developing and least-developed countries with a weak industrial base. Discussions also reiterated the need for South Asian countries to integrate adaptation plan and strategies with sustainable development planning. 

On technology transfer, there were calls for inclusion of technology as a cross-cutting issue in a post-2015 international development framework; a more binding provision with milestones and targets to make multilateral commitment to technology transfer more enforceable; and enhanced South-South technology transfer. The need to increase national budgetary allocation for science and technology was also emphasized.

Programme Schedule

Background Note

Inaugural Speech

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Media Coverage