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Food crisis still plagues Asia

by Noeleen Heyzer

BANGKOK — For 583 million people across Asia and the Pacific the financial crisis has become a food crisis. While food prices have fallen from last year’s spike, they remain high. Rising unemployment and falling incomes are putting additional pressure on poor and vulnerable groups. More worrying still is that, once the global economy recovers, the pressures that drove up food prices last year will return.

The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) recently launched a publication, titled “Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Asia and the Pacific,” at the 65th Commission session, which focuses on the same topic. Countries throughout the region are assembling in Bangkok to discuss how to deal with this persistent crisis.

Despite the regions’ enormous capacity to produce food, Asia and the Pacific is home to 64 percent of the world’s people living with food insecurity. Poverty is the primary cause of food insecurity in the region. This manifests itself three ways. Inadequate income makes it difficult for the poor to buy food. Lack of clean water and poor sanitation result in infections that reduce the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. And lack of land means that poor people cannot grow their own food. ESCAP’s report identifies 25 countries as hot spots in the region, with the worst problems existing in South and Southwest Asia as well as Southeast Asia.

Even in countries that are seemingly doing well, national averages can mask disparities at the subnational level. For example, the percentage of underweight children is higher in rural areas than in urban. This situation is particularly severe in East Asia and the Pacific, where rural children are twice as likely to be underweight.

Ironically, a second major cause of food insecurity comes from agriculture itself. Destructive farming practices have degraded land and contaminated waterways with pesticides and herbicides. Deforestation to open more farmland threatens watershed areas, disrupts fisheries, and reduces natural processes like pollination.

Two other threats to regional food security identified in the report include climate change and energy security. Changing weather patterns will significantly alter growing conditions for crops over the next decade. High fuel prices have the potential to adversely affect the agricultural sector in many ways. Natural gas is a principal input for fertilizers. Farmers require fuel for farming and processing machinery, transport of crops to markets and storage. Volatility in fossil fuel prices will necessarily lead to volatility in food prices. Speculation resulting from volatile fuel prices can also further drive up prices.

The eradication of poverty and hunger is at the top of the agenda for the United Nations. ESCAP’s study contains short, medium and long-term recommendations to improve food security. The most immediate challenge is to improve access. For the poor this translates into having adequate income to purchase food. Governments need to develop social protection programs that include minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and agricultural insurance. During times of disaster, emergency measures include the establishment of regional food banks, food subsidies and “food-for-work” programs. Marginalized groups like women-headed households, nomads, and those living with HIV/AIDs require special attention. Provision of health insurance as well as improvements to water and sanitation services help beneficiaries avoid illnesses such as diarrhea that prevent the proper digestion of food.

Over the short term, improving availability of food at the national level will require looking at trade policies. Protectionist trade practices exacerbate food insecurity by driving up prices. Most countries in the Asia-Pacific region meet national needs through imports. As a result, more open trade policies will be at the heart of any response to food security issues in the region. Governments also need to be concerned about the way food is transported, stored, marketed and distributed. Improvements will reduce food lost to spoilage.

Over the medium term, the promotion of sustainable agriculture will take priority. With demand growing faster than supply, there is a need to ensure future production levels will meet our growing population needs. We need investments in agricultural research and development that will ensure increases in food production, combined with protection of the environment and an ability to adapt to and reduce the impact of climate change. Governments will need to achieve more optimal and equitable use of water resources by promoting the more efficient use of water.

Over the long term, adapting to and mitigating impacts from climate change will be a regional priority. At the national level, governments should strengthen regional and national mechanisms for scientific assessment, forecasting and information sharing. National and local capacities will have to be built for greater ecological literacy, sustainable farming practices and risk management.

The Asia-Pacific region needs to identify policies that reconnect people with food. Regional cooperation can play an essential role through the mapping of food insecurity hot spots, promoting the sharing of information among organizations and stakeholders and building consensus for action. ESCAP will continue to promote sustainable agriculture and food security in the region. This work will be supported by its regional research institutions like the Center for the Alleviation of Poverty through Secondary Crop Development and the United Nations Asian and Pacific Center for Agricultural Engineering and Machinery. In a world of plenty, it is unacceptable to allow people to go hungry.

Noeleen Heyzer is U.N. undersecretary general and executive secretary of ESCAP.