Alexandra Tracy, Green Finance Advisor of Friends of the Earth (HK)

Agriculture and deforestation, through burning and clearing, generate more than 20 percent of emissions in the Asia Pacific, including 40 percent of methane emissions (largely from livestock farming).  Off farm activities, meanwhile, contribute a growing share of food system emissions across the entire production, transportation and consumption chain.

We are well aware of the vulnerability of the farming sector in Asia to potential climate change.  Flooding in China’s Henan province in 2021 impacted around 2.4 million acres of cropland, as well as food processing facilities.  India and the Philippines also experienced torrential rainfall, causing mass evacuations and crop damage.

As the urban population grows, food security has to be a priority

However, tackling Asia’s agricultural emissions facesa range of complex challenges.  Agriculture is crucial to livelihoods in the region’s emerging markets where more than 100 million smallholders produce over 80 percent of the food consumed.  In an area where nearly 500 million people are still undernourished, food security is the priority for many policy makers.

And food security has to remain an important focus as Asia’s urban middle class is growing at an extraordinary rate.  By 2030, around 555 million people are likely to have moved into cities, where they will generate increasing demand for new types of food, especially meat and dairy products.  Per capita beef consumption alone in China could increase by over 40 percent in the twenty years to 2030.

At the same time, new urban areas are rapidly encroaching on farmland, and as people migrate into cities, workers leave the agricultural sector.  Indonesia could lose about 8 million farmers by 2030.  As fertile land is destroyed and the numbers of productive workers shrink, previously untouched areas have to be brought into cultivation.

Government interventions can have negative impacts

Governments in the region have responded to the challenge of food security with mechanisms such as tariffs, quotas and subsidies to provide support to farmers.  Incentives to increase production create enormous pressure on natural resources, especially water.  More than 450 million people in Asia already experience very high water stress, as farmers face increasing competition for water from industrial and residential users.

Government interventions to increase food yields are also pushing up emissions.  Subsidies for chemical fertilisers have led to considerable overuse, generating substantial emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more than 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Technology will transform agricultural production and lower emissions

The agriculture sector in Asia is in the early stages of a major transformation, which combines mechanisation and automation with better inputs (seeds, fertilisers) and greater availability of information about production techniques and market trends.  More machinery reduces the need for human labour, while increasing adoption of computer systems, electronics and data management creates cost savings and efficiencies.  This has the potential both to increase productivity and to have a material impact on emissions in the region.

Precision agriculture, involving high technology sensors and analytical tools, is being introduced to wealthier markets such as Japan and Korea.  It uses data to monitor crop status and soil condition and to manage more efficiently processes such as irrigation, planting and use of fertilisers and pesticides. 

Drones play a key role in precision agriculture, both for gathering data and by replacing manual labour.  Agricultural drones can spray 40-60 percent faster than manual spraying, creating 30-50 percent savings in the use of chemicals and up to 90 percent less water use.

The farming sector already consumes more than 80 percent of water resources in Asia, and as demand for meat grows, a great deal more water will be required for its production.  A large proportion of farmlands in the region is served by pumping groundwater, which is extremely energy intensive.  It is estimated that in India lifting water for irrigation contributes as much as 11 percent of the country’s emissions.  Drip irrigation helps to address this, as it feeds the plant instead of the soil, delivering water and liquid fertilisers straight to the roots, which greatly lowers water consumption. 

…As will better farming practices

Rice cultivation generates around 50 percent of all crop related emissions due to the age old practice of flooding paddy fields.  This reduces the growth of weeds, but also produces methane, which is more than 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.  The Sustainable Rice Platform, based in Bangkok, works with farmers in Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere to enable them to develop more sustainable growing practices.  

Where does finance come in ?

In much of Asia, of course, these new technologies are unaffordable for most farmers.

In some cases, governments have provided backing for local initiatives, such as in Rajasthan in India, where financial support from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has led to the state becoming the country’s solar water pump leader, allowing farmers to replace diesel pumps and giving them higher yields and multiple harvests per year.

In the private sector, providers of microfinance have traditionally been active in the farming sector, and more institutional capital is being directed into climate friendly agriculture in Asian emerging markets, much of it catalysed by multilateral and development banks or “patient” philanthropic funding. 

Market mechanisms can also provide incentives for poorer farmers, such as the Sustainable Rice Platform’s certification programme which allows them to sell product to global buyers such as Olam International in Singapore.

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