26 March 2014
Climate smart villages in South Asia

Food security in Asia

Too many Asians live in a state of food insecurity, not only those still living in poverty, but also those who are just above the line in the "lower-middle class" category, living on only $2-$4 a day.

Emerging Asia has achieved a stunning reduction in poverty these past few decades. Nevertheless, in East Asia 32% of the population still live on less than $2 a day, while in South Asia the figure is 71%. These people live in a state of food insecurity, because they spend most of their income on food.

But food insecurity also afflicts many people who have been lifted out of poverty. This is because a large share of Asia's new "middle class" is still in the "lower-middle" category, living on only $2-$4 a day.

What does food (in)security actually mean?

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization defines food security as the situation when "all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".

To achieve food security, food should be available, accessible and properly utilized at all times. Availability refers to the supply of food. But food should also be delivered to the people at prices they can afford -- "access". It must be of satisfactory quality and safety -- "properly utilized".

Food insecurity is the most basic form of human deprivation. Before people can provide for their education, health care, or even clothing and shelter, they need to satisfy their hunger and feel secure that their future meals will indeed be available.

Poverty is the single most common cause cause of food insecurity. While food price spikes and volatility have adverse impacts on all segments of the population, these impacts are more acutely felt by the poor, who spend up to 70% of their income on food items. Indeed, in South Asia spending on food represents above half of all household spending in the region, while in East Asia and the Pacific spending on food is about 45% of all household spending. Consumers in Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia and Nepa devote the greatest share of household spending to food, about 70% of total.

Pervasive hunger remains a problem in Asia despite the recent declines in the region's poverty incidence. Between 1990 and 2009, the proportion of people in Asia living on less than $1.25 a day dropped from 50% to 22%. But the proportion of undernourished children in Asia only declined from 26% to 18% over the same period. And undernourishment in the general population persists in Armenia, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Timor-Leste. The Asian Development Bank has estimated that a 10% increase in domestic food prices could push 64 million Asian people below the $1.25 a day poverty line.

Despite its rapid economic growth in recent years, South Asia continues to be a hotspot for food insecurity and inequity, with the prevalence of child undernutrition decreasing only slightly, from 64% in 1995 to 60% in 2009, for the poorest 20% of the population. India, in particular, remains one of the most undernourished countries in the world despite its economic gains. Because of poor nutrition, about 44% of Indian children below the age of 5 years were underweight in 2009, while 48% were stunted and 20% were wasted.

Over the past decade, global food prices rose twice as fast as inflation. Huge price swings for wheat, maize, soybeans and rice -- staple crops for much of the world -- made matters worse, disrupting markets and harming both producers and consumers.

The 2007-2008 food price crisis pushed 44 million people globally below the poverty line, most of them in poor countries. It was caused by a combination of reduced production due to extreme weather events such as drought in Australia, cyclones in Myanmar, and flooding in India. This was exacerbated by unprecedented increases in petroleum prices, which not only made food production and delivery more expensive, but also increased demand for relatively cheaper biofuels, mainly in the form of ethanol sourced from maize.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has estimated a Global Food Security Index for some 105 countries. The top ten countries in terms of food security are: US, Denmark, Norway, France, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Finland and Germany; while most of the bottom ten are from Africa, from the bottom up: Congo, Chad, Burundi, Haiti, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Togo, Sudan.

So Asian countries sit in the middle between the top and bottom tens. In the top third of the 105 countries are: Australia (14th), Japan (16th), Korea (21st) and Malaysia (33rd). In the middle third are: China (38th), Thailand (45th), Vietnam (55th), Philippines (63rd), Indonesia (64th) and India (66th). And in the bottom third are: Pakistan (75th), Myanmar (78th), Nepal (79th), Bangladesh (81st) and Cambodia (89th).

What is the longer term outlook for world food prices? Factors on both the demand and supply side point to the likelihood of continued food price increases. Looking ahead to the year 2050, the world population is projected to rise from 7 to 9 billion, with more than half of that increase taking place in Asia. Further, as Asia's population becomes more prosperous, consumption patters will shift further away from cereal grains toward more costly proteins and vegetables. The FAO estimates that food production needs to increase by 50-70% to meet global demand by 2050.

The greatest threat to food security, however, is climate change. Rising temperatures tend to reduce crop productivity in the tropics. Climate change alters rainfall and its patterns. The warming of the ocean and its acidification are reducing fish populations. Rising sea levels results in permanent land loss, coastal inundation and salwater intrusion. Global warming is also leading to sever droughts, floods and storms, which destroy crops, pasture lands, livestock, transport and agricultural infrastructure, and household assets.

The ADB proposes a very useful set of policy actions. Safety nets and social protection programs can offer immediate relief to the poor during times of crisis. Improving agricultural productivity is essential for ensuring long-term food security and promoting poverty reduction. Rural development can contribute substantially to food security and poverty reduction. As with the Green Revolution of the 1970s, agricultural research is an essential tool for improving food security and reducing poverty. Investment in health and education, and in basic infrastructure, plays a critical role in providing food security.

One area that the ADB does not touch on is agricultural protectionism in Japan and Korea. Despite some reductions in support, these two countries still have outrageously high levels of agricultural protection, at twice the OECD average, and also have the forms of support that most distort production and trade still represent the vast majority of the support. If only these two countries could take agricultural reform seriously, they could make a meaningful contribution to global food security.

Another issue that the ADB does not explore is that of foreign investments in farmlands by countries like China. These investments are sometimes controversial because, while they may improve food security for the buying nation, they can similarly reduce food security for the country which is recipient of the investment. Further, because of unclear and sometimes shady governance, especially in Africa, such investments are regarded by many as "land grabs". We will explore this issue in a future article.

Finally, it is important to stress the immense costs of food insecurity. Obviously, there is a tragic human cost when people go to bed hungry. There are also massive economic costs due to lower workforce productivity and higher health costs. And food insecurity can also threaten political stability. Studies show that lack of food can lead to communal violence, riots, human rights abuses and civil conflict.

In short, food security is an issue that we should all take more seriously.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asia, food security, vulnerability, poverty, emerging middle class, FAO, ADB, Economist Intelligence Unit

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