The natural quality-quantity dilemma: food security in Asia
With global population exceeding the 7-billion mark this year, developing regions face profound implications for development with serious touch-points on sustainability, urbanisation, access to health services, and youth empowerment. All these concerns tie back to the issue of food shortage.
“Even with the rising middle class, we have a lot of hunger and malnutrition globally. And the real problem is here in Asia” Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO regional representative for Asia-Pacific, says.
Over 550 million of the world’s chronically hungry are in Asia; with vast majority living on less than $1.25 daily, increasingly vulnerable to food price hikes and falling nutrition levels of basic staples. Konuma cites rising populations and consumerism that naturally translate to increasing demand for food; while there is also a decline in investment in the agriculture sector, stagnation of productivity, rising post-harvest losses and food waste, and the impact of natural disasters. According to FAO, global demand for food will increase by 60% in 2050 – when world population breaks the 9 bn mark.
There is a problem…
The world, especially mothers and children, face an increasing risk not only on food supply; even worse, the quality of food has stunted the growth of children and endangered their health in the process.
“Malnutrition affects not only children’s overall physical health, but their ability to learn”
said (former Philippine Senator) Edgardo Angara, champion of a local advocacy on addressing child health issues through increased consumption of home-grown vegetables. He cited some statistics: 26% of school children are underweight, while 28% of children aged five and below are stunted.
Another issue is anemia, with a prevalence of 56% among infants 6-11 months old, and 20% in the 6-12 age bracket. In addition, there is iron deficiency, Vitamin A deficiency and iodine deficiency disorders. This picture is relatively representative in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR and Nepal and Sri Lanka. The irony is the largely agricultural nature of these economies – an easily logical assumption for success; yet the shortage of food points otherwise.
Still, the bigger question is the quality of food consumed – especially among poorer communities and marginalised groups – which points to the overall economics of consumption: the rural poor buy processed or commercially mass-produced goods because they are cheaper.
Produce from farm plots in relatively undeveloped areas across Asia also requires improved handling outside existing food logistics. Compared to the US, where over 90% of meat, fruit and vegetables are transported in cold-storage vehicles, it is estimated that in China only 15% of meat and 5% of fruit and vegetables is effectively delivered to markets. In India, over 30% of fresh produce is wasted because of inadequate transport, storage and other industrial infrastructure.
The Asian Literary Journal was less timid in 2011: “The crisis stems from flawed government policies. Asian policymakers have shifted their focus from a development path traditionally dominated by agricultural self-sufficiency to one mandated by industrialisation and mass-production […] but not recognising that manufacturing-led growth can push agriculture to the background. Thus, rural-urban disparities unwittingly encourage over-consumption.”
…although it’s not invincible
At the Aid & International Development Forum (AIDF) on food security in Jakarta last October, two incessant concepts stood out in the discussions: the question on food availability (or lack thereof); and the quality of food consumed in the region. Over 400 delegates from global and local NGOs, government agencies, multi-national firms, the academe, multi-lateral institutions and individual advocates of inclusive economy, food certification, and of development wrestled with one question: how to address most effectively a looming food crisis in the region?
It all comes back down to the basics of the food chain – tapping homegrown or locally available resources. In the Philippines, schoolyard farming has gone through the legislative halls of the Senate and into the mainstream media: legislators and corporate foundations have now lobbied for the advocacy on planting fruits and vegetables in school and household gardens.
But this is only the start. To scale up this direction, there needs to be clear data and policy support in creating solutions. “Research and development for food safety policies, and strong accreditation programme in local supply chains, must be both centralised at a country-level and localised. The food chain must protect both the supplier and the consumer,” said Thanacheep Perathornich, acting director of the Thai Ministry of Health’s Bureau of Food and Water Sanitation, at the AIDF summit in October.
Meanwhile, there is a clear need for collaborative efforts.
“Public-private partnership (PPPs) on increased education and awareness and continued innovation are the key to sustainability and consistency in food quality”
Roy Sparringa, Indonesia’s National Agency for Food and Drug Control chair, said at AIDF – a sentiment strongly echoed across researchers, corporations, and NGOs and multi-lateral agencies at the summit.
The way forward
“In the context of the developing economies in Asia, we need country-orientated, multi-sectoral and integrated approaches in our nutrition policies to integrate the (supply chain’s) industries and enable them to enhance food quality,” said Sharad Adhikary, team lead for the WHO’s country office in Indonesia spacialising in environmental health and food safety.
East-West Seed Company, a Dutch firm with high presence in Asia and Africa, offers “there are three strategies to combat hidden hunger and ultimately ensure quality and availability of food: dietary diversification, supplementation with vitamins and minerals, and food fortification.” Francine Sayoc-Shiraishi, Bangkok-based communications director for East-West, says these strategies should be considered complementary along with goals for food security, all targeted at increasing micro-nutrient intake at individual and group levels.
In the end, there is no simple, one size-fits all solution to what can be tantamount to a food crisis in Asia. Rather, a well-thought, integrated and needs-specific approach is needed in the region. Policy reforms on integration must also improve existing supply-chain inefficiencies that result in significant food waste; and make resource conservation and management of the rural environment as central tenets in policies and planning.
Echoing Sparringa’s point earlier, a needs-based approach is still best. Some fine examples are the PPP collaborations in the region between ASSIST, an NGO working in India, the Philippines, and Vietnam; and TUV Rheinland and Bayer. Funded by the German Development Bank (KfW), the initiatives target structured programmes to achieve food safety and certification in Cambodia and Vietnam; boost micro- and SMEs in the Philippine agriculture sector; improve the efficiency of solar-powered post-harvest facilities in Cambodia and India; and provide communities with knowledge for improved productivity in Indonesia and Myanmar.
Transformation should be linked to reforms that centre on resource conservation and environmental management – an advocacy high up in the non-profit and CSR discourse. But for all these to happen, a robust set of reforms of land ownership rights and strengthened agrarian policies, along with farmers’ cooperatives and access to loans for small-scale farming will need the capacity-building that NGOs and community groups are mostly known for. Because an integrated approach also means keeping in mind the real needs of communities and aligning with ground realities – something only local NGOs and civil society groups truly understand.
Still, “governments in Asia-Pacific must ensure inclusiveness and sustainability, mobilise strong political commitments, double their efforts and collaborate for concerted efforts. This is not a dream; but an obligation for our children, and we need to work together,” says the FAO’s Konuma. And that obligation is not solely any governments; it’s everyone’s work and commitment.
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