Rice is the staple food of most people in Southeast Asia, and flooded rice fields dominate most of Southeast Asia's agricultural landscapes. Asia is characterized by several commercial plantation crops, of which the most important are tea, rubber, palm oil, coconut and sugar cane. Jute, a commercial fibre, although it has declined in importance, remains one of Bangladesh's main export crops. Cotton is important to Central Asian states and is also an important crop in India and Pakistan.
Rubber arrived in Asia from Brazil in the 19th century; the main producers are Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, with smaller quantities from India, China and the Philippines. Palm oil has become important in Indonesia and Malaysia. Tea is grown on commercial plantations in the highlands of India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia; and China, Taiwan and Japan produce various types of tea on small farms. Coconuts are an important crop in the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.
India, the world leader in sugarcane production, grows mainly for domestic use, while the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan produce both for domestic consumption and for export. Tobacco is widely cultivated, especially in China, India, Turkey, Central Asia, Pakistan and Indonesia. Date palm trees are cultivated, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula. A wide variety of spices are cultivated in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia.
Achieving SDG2 by 2030 requires the region to work collaboratively to address complex and interrelated challenges, such as climate change, urbanization, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, poverty, food security and nutrition, and social inequity. Climate change adversely affects agriculture and food systems due to irregular weather patterns, floods, droughts or natural disasters. Urbanization often means less labor for agriculture in rural areas and changes in dietary demands. Along with the declining role of agriculture in the region's economy, more and more young people are opting for a more luxurious career in cities.
The contribution of agriculture to the region's GDP is 10.3%, compared to 33% of services and manufacturing. The future of agriculture will have to respond to all of these changes. The lowland rice cultivation system is the most important agricultural system in East Asia in economic and demographic terms, covering about 197 million hectares (12 percent of the region's land area) and containing 825 million people, or more than a quarter of the region's agricultural population (474 million). A project recently implemented and funded by the Asian Development Bank in the province of Houaphanh, in northeastern Laos, aims to solve this problem and help agricultural households replace itinerant crops with sedentary farming systems.
Market liberalization is expected to encourage agricultural diversification (production and trade of higher-value products) in all agricultural systems. The average size of farms ranges from just 0.3 ha on the Chinese Loess Plateau to several hectares further north, where it is gradually integrated into the Pastoral Agriculture System. Most farmers are quasi-subsistence producers on farms with agricultural units oriented to low-volume and unprofitable value production. Therefore, it is expected that by 2030 most of the farms in the region will remain small traditional farms, although the proportion of semi-commercial and commercial farms will increase.
Farmers will need to grow higher-value crops and increase farm size to significantly increase disposable agricultural incomes, as well as to expand non-agricultural sources of income. The intensive mixed farming system in the highlands has received less attention and has benefited less from government research and extension services than the agricultural systems in the lowlands for many reasons: the remoteness, the complexity of the system, the lack of water resources, the lack of perception of its importance, etc.