Myanmar agriculture rebounds amid push towards sustainable development

Favourable weather conditions and improved yields have helped drive a return to growth in Myanmar’s agricultural sector, a trend likely to be supported by government efforts to embrace modern farming methods to ensure long-term sustainable development.

The agriculture sector grew by 3.5% in FY 2017/18, which ended on March 31, rebounding from a drought-induced contraction recorded in FY 2016/17, according to the Asian Development Outlook 2018 report, released by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in early April.

Merchandise exports grew by an estimated 15%, following a 0.3% fall in FY 2016/17, with the report crediting the 2.8m tonnes of exported rice – the highest level in half a century – as a key factor behind the increase.

While agricultural growth was below overall GDP expansion of 6.8%, the ADB said it expects the sector to grow robustly in the present financial year, supported by improved weather conditions.

Agriculture’s enhanced performance also saw food and headline inflation fall from early-2017 levels of around 10% and 8%, respectively, when drought conditions were prevalent, to more moderate levels of 5% and 4% in January 2018, according to the Central Statistical Organisation.

New technology and modern farming methods to combat climate risks

While less-damaging weather patterns have led to an improved agricultural outlook in the near term, the overall threat of climate change has hastened efforts to adopt modern technology and farming methods to provide greater long-term security for the sector.

The Global Climate Risk Index 2018, released by Germanwatch, a Bonn-based NGO, ranked Myanmar third in terms of countries affected by climate change over the past 20 years, with the list based on the frequency of natural disasters such as drought, flooding and cyclones.

With agriculture accounting for around 30% of GDP and directly or indirectly employing about two-thirds of the workforce, weather-related damage to crops poses a significant threat to the national economy.

According to the ADB, Myanmar – along with countries such as Bangladesh and Laos, which also maintain a large rural workforce – must better utilise available and accessible technologies to advance farming techniques and maximise farm production and earnings.

“Productivity can be enhanced, and food security safeguarded, by further extending the use of proven technologies such as mechanisation, high-yielding crop varieties, and improved irrigation, fertiliser and pesticide,” the bank said.

Sustainable fishing to increase production output

One segment being prioritised for modernisation is fisheries and aquaculture, as the government looks to stabilise the industry amid a decline in wild fish stocks.

In addition to being an important resource for domestic consumption, fishery products are a key economic driver, accounting for nearly 25% of total agricultural shipments in FY 2017/18, with exports of 560,000 tonnes representing a 20-year high, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation (MALI).

Local media reported 2017/18 fisheries exports to have a value of $711m, while industry officials say the segment could expand to be worth $2bn-3bn within the next two years if the right technology and equipment are deployed, including ponds for aquaculture, processing factories and cold storage facilities.

However, these projections are being threatened by dwindling wild fish stocks, which are largely the result of increased levels of fishing activity and pollution.

To improve sustainability, U Htay Myint, chair of the Myanmar Fishery Federation, told local media in April that the Ministry of Planning and Finance had agreed to provide MMK100bn ($75m) to develop the fisheries supply chain and modernise the aquaculture process.

This followed the launch of the Myanmar Sustainable Agriculture Programme (MYSAP) in February. Developed by MALI, along with €22.5m in funding from the EU and the German government, the programme will see officials draft a National Aquaculture Development Plan by the end of the year, aiming to diversify the fisheries industry away from its dependence on wild-capture fishing, which accounts for some 65% of annual take, and towards a greater reliance on organised fish farming.

Officials estimate MYSAP will directly benefit 250,000 fish farmers and provide 25,000 rice growers with the chance to boost earnings by diversifying into aquaculture.

Liberalisation laws to improve access to fertilisers

In addition to direct support for farmers, the government is working to improve efficiency through liberalisation reforms, which it is hoped will lead to an increase in agricultural products in the market.

In June 2017 the Ministry of Commerce relaxed restrictions on foreign fertiliser companies importing products and operating domestically, providing local growers with access to higher quality seeds, fertiliser and other products used to boost yields and protect plantations from infestations.

One such company to enter the market is the Norwegian-headquartered fertiliser firm Yara International, which on top of selling its products in Myanmar, has invested $500,000 in training programmes to improve the skills of local farmers and subsequently boost crop quality and yields.

“Increased productivity among farmers will not come automatically,” Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of Yara International, told local media in January. “It will require new ways of working together. It will require improved farming techniques. It will require increasing both the productivity and quality out in the fields.”

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