November 1, 2006 | By: Terri McLean

Despite an 8,000-year history of cultivating food crops, the countries of East Asia face severe challenges to sustaining their agricultural systems, raising questions about how their people – more than 1.5 billion of them – will be fed in the future.

That was the topic of a two-day symposium that brought prominent scholars from across the country to the University of Kentucky Oct. 30 and 31. The event, hosted by the Asia Center at UK and co-sponsored by the College of Agriculture and the Gaines Center, was aimed at facilitating dialogue on agricultural sustainability issues in East Asia and, at the same time, helping Kentuckians reflect on similar issues facing its agricultural system.

“Some of the challenges are similar to those we are facing in the United States and some are unique to the region,” said Larry Burmeister, conference organizer and professor in the UK College of Agriculture Community and Leadership Development department. “I believe there is a lot we can learn from each other.”

The East Asia region is defined to include the “rich three” countries of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and poorer but rapidly developing China. The discussion of agriculture-related sustainability issues in the region focused on the challenges of integration into the global trade system, changes in consumption patterns, environmental problems and the social challenge of recruiting a new generation of farmers.

Juha Uitto, of the United Nations Development Programme’s Evaluation Office in New York, said environmental factors in particular are greatly influencing the sustainability of agriculture in East Asia. Land transformation, including deforestation and land degradation, is having a major impact, as is pollution, including waste from animal production and contamination from pesticides and fertilizers.

But the “wild card” issue is climate change. “It’s the great unknown,” Uitto said. “Climate change is a reality and it has many potential outcomes.”

Further, Uitto added, “The uncertainty increases as we move from global to regional to local.”

Other speakers included John Dyck, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service East Asia Desk. Dyck, who has watched the agricultural imports and exports of Asian countries since 1979, focused on the political-economic challenge facing the region’s agricultural sustainability. 

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Anthropology, addressed the consumption challenge resulting from shifting dietary preferences in East Asian countries. She is the author of “Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time.”
Raymond Jussaume, professor and chair of the Department of Community and Rural Sociology at Washington State University, tackled the social challenge, including raising the question, “Who will farm in the future?”

Despite the focus on the faraway countries of East Asia, the presentations struck a familiar chord with those in attendance, Burmeister said.

“You’ll note that the issues faced in the East Asia region relating to environmental concerns, economic adjustment, adaptation to changes in patterns of food consumption and questions about farm successors strike a familiar chord as issues that agriculture faces in Kentucky,” said Burmeister, who currently is a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo in Japan.

UK’s multidisciplinary Asia Center annually sponsors a symposium of this nature. The College of Agriculture joined forces with the center to co-sponsor this year’s event because of the topic’s relevance, said Mike Mullen, associate dean for academic programs at the college.

“Agriculture is global in nature, and we must recognize and embrace that,” Mullen said.
Mullen also announced the college’s new Sustainable Agriculture Program, which will be available to students as an individualized program in the fall of 2007.

“Sustainabililty seems to be an issue that resonates not only on this campus but throughout the country and the world,” Mullen told conference participants.

The conference concluded with speakers sharing their thoughts with UK students in agricultural economics, Japan studies, geography and sociology classes.


Larry Burmeister, 859-257-7588, Mike Mullen, 859-257-3430