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[NEW DELHI] Eight South Asian countries have launched a regional food security programme, pooling together scientific and natural resources to improve crop production and nutrition in the region.

The 'South Asia Food Security Programme' will receive an estimated US$25 million for ten projects addressing South Asia's food security.

The announcement was made by Ram Badan Singh — secretary general of the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperatives Limited — at a meeting of South Asian agriculture ministers, crop scientists and farmers' cooperatives in Delhi, India, last week (5 March).

The donors include the Asian Development Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The programme was approved at a meeting organised by the FAO and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last month (27–29 February) and will begin in 2009.

Key regional issues discussed at the Colombo meeting included low crop yields, high pre-harvest losses due to sudden rains or winds and post-harvest losses due to poor storage conditions. Degradation of land resources, the absence of biosecurity measures to prevent disease outbreaks in plants and animals, and inadequately trained staff were also discussed.

At the Delhi meeting, the eight South Asian countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — emphasised the key role of science in transforming the region's agriculture and fighting poverty and hunger.

Regional cooperation in research to develop interventions at all stages of the agricultural chain should be top of the agenda, said India's agriculture minister Sharad Pawar. "There is potential to turn agriculture in the SAARC region into a dynamic sector with rapid technological innovation accelerating growth and reducing poverty."

A serious concern, crop scientists said, is the huge gaps in yield between crops grown in experimental fields and in farmers' fields, suggesting that potential yields are not realised due to inadequate crop management practices.

The projected impact of climate change on South Asia's crop production is also causing concern. Delayed rains, unexpected temperature surges and frost due to climate change are changing when crops can be harvested.

South Asian countries should work together on science and technology interventions, ranging from nanotechnology to genetic markers for selecting crops with useful traits, scientists said at the meeting.