Asia: Too Much Food, Not Enough Food

Asia is caught in a dilemma in which hundreds of millions of people don't have enough to eat, and hundreds of millions more have too much, according to a new study by the Asian Development Bank and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Many countries in developing Asia and the Pacific face the double burden of fighting both under- and over-nutrition, with a growing number of obese children at the same time vast numbers are stunted form malnutrition.

The report, titled Food Security in Asia and the Pacific, says Asia has two faces, one growing at an average of 7.6 percent annually while some 733 million people in the region still live in absolute poverty, on less than US$1.25 a day, and 537 million remain undernourished.

"These are the two faces of Asia—one of progress and prosperity; the other of continued poverty," the authors note. "Strong income and population growth, industrialization, and urbanization continue as driving forces behind the fundamental structural change in global food production and market systems. While Asia's economic growth and ongoing structural transformation deepen the complexity in managing the limited natural resources required for food security, many pockets of Asia continue to struggle with high levels of poverty and poor nutrition."

Asia's economic rise has added tremendously to pressures on land, water and energy resources, meaning that the region must produce food with fewer national resources to meet the demands of the 21st century.

"Pressures on land, water, and energy resources are increasing. Competition over their use is intensifying," the report notes, pointing out that the 9 billion people projected to be in the world by 2050 mean that about 70 percent more food will be required, almost double the current food production in developing countries.

Asia and the Pacific today account for roughly 60 percent of global population. By 2050, that will rise by about 853 million people, with Asia producing more than half of global gross domestic product (GDP).

"With growing incomes and more mouths to feed, the region will consume more and better food," the authors note. The region accounts for just a little more than 50 percent of global food consumption, remaining below world per capita food consumption. That is because more than 14 percent of the Asian population are undernourished, more than all of Africa's undernourished together. The growth of more than 40 percent of children in several Asian and Pacific countries is stunted.

Focusing on nutrition rather than simple caloric intake is essential. Dietary patterns must be changed and transitions must be made in nutrition. Unfortunately, transitions in nutrition patterns can also be unhealthy. With more affluent Asians demanding more protein-rich foods, including not just meat and dairy products, but also vegetables and fruits, while vast numbers of children are stunted, obese children can be found alongside them.

The report emphasizes three major themes. First, in order to meet this growing food demand without sacrificing future generations' resources - literally to avoid eating the future's seed corn - the efficiency of food production and delivery has to be improved, partly through the maximization of global trade.

Second, Asia and the Pacific must work to reduce poverty and vulnerability to food insecurity, ensure the ability to purchase sufficient and nutritious food; reduce the price impact on real incomes of poor households; and provide effective social safety nets for those bypassed by rapid economic growth.

Third, the governments in the region must establish risk management systems to provide food-based safety nets that offer immediate relief to disadvantaged groups during crises, build adequate emergency food reserves and relief systems as a buffer to natural and human-made disasters, and introduce risk management systems and tools such as crop insurance and futures contracts to help mitigate the effects of price volatility and crises.

Those are all enviable goals. Some governments are working harder at them than others. And as population increases pressure on agricultural resources, they are increasingly problematical.

Total arable land has been shrinking as development eats up farmland, often in the most desirable areas, and population growth has meant that even if there were arable lands, there are far more people to feed from it. Arable land, particularly in South Asia, has fallen from about one-quarter hectare in 1960 to a projected tenth of a hectare by 2050. Expanding cultivable lands is considered no longer an option in any of the countries in the region.

Water resources are also increasingly strained, with 60-90 percent of available water going to agriculture. The region is expected to require an additional 2.4 billion cubic meters of water each day to provide consumers with 1,800 average per capita calories per day by 2050. Household and industrial use are eating into water supply, almost doubling over the past 50 years and cutting into the growth in agricultural yields. Climate change driven by greenhouse gases can be expected to will significantly affect soil and water resources as well.

Although land supply has topped out, crops yields can be driven up with currently available resources.

"Agricultural output and productivity can be raised in two broad ways: (I) through improved productivity at the farm level, and (ii) through better post-harvest productivity." Enormous amounts of food are lost from inefficient supply chains in South and Southeast Asia, with fully a third of production lost, the report notes.

Unfortunately, the report notes, "Rapid growth has come with increased inequality. National and multilateral development strategies that increasingly emphasize inclusive growth must also target food security as a basic tenet."

Food price increases disproportionately affect the poor and negate efforts aimed at poverty reduction. The poor spend an average of up to 70 percent on food. Thus, any increase in food price slows the pace of poverty reduction. Food prices, according to a 2012 estimate by the ADB, sentenced an additional 112 million in Asia and the Pacific to continued poverty.

Volatility is another concern. A comprehensive assessment of the effects of food price inflation and volatility on population health from 2000 to 2919 shows that a 1 percentage point increase in contemporaneous food price inflation leads to a 0.2% increase in infant and child mortality and a 0.4% increase in prevalence of undernourishment.

At a time when there is a headlong rush of rural dweller to the cities, the report says, rural development cannot be ignored. It improves food security, not just through higher incomes, but also through increased productivity and thus food availability. The focus should be on more localized, smallholder, and sustainable agriculture. The production capacity of smallholders is often constrained by limited access to key inputs—such as quality seeds, fertilizer, agricultural infrastructure, and available modern technology.

Enhancing small farm production and productivity requires assistance to strengthen smallholders' access.

to critical inputs, building and rehabilitating rural and agricultural infrastructure, improving efficiency of the food supply chain (particularly reducing postharvest losses), and expanding agricultural cooperatives.

Social safety nets play an important role in achieving food security, not only helping to provide immediate relief to disadvantaged groups during crises, but also helping to provide care for those bypassed by rapid economic growth and poverty reduction efforts.

Food-based safety nets and related social protection programs play an essential role in building food security for the poor and vulnerable groups, given the prevailing structural weaknesses and market failures in food systems.