Ending world hunger has become harder amid a more challenging environment. There is growing consensus that one of the ways to improve food insecurity is to address inefficient agrifood systems.
The number of people affected by poor access to food globally rose to as many as 828 million in 2021, up 46 million since 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a new report. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced 150 million more to go hungry.
Southeast Asia is also challenged by food security issues. In a report published in April, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said as of 2019, the prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity in the region was 18.6%, equivalent to 122.6 million people.
According to FAO’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022, the escalation of major drivers behind recent food insecurity and malnutrition trends—conflict, climate extremes, and economic shocks—combined with the high cost of nutritious foods and growing inequalities will continue to challenge food security and nutrition. This will be the case until agrifood systems are transformed, become more resilient, and deliver affordable healthy diets for all, sustainably and inclusively, the report said.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is among the global conflicts that has disrupted supplies of food staples and fertilizer, straining a global food system already weakened by climate change impacts, pandemic-related supply shocks, and unsustainable farming practices.
‘Crisis of malnutrition’
ASEAN has made a great deal of progress in improving food security. Yet, there is a “crisis of malnutrition” in the region partly because of inefficient food systems
An estimated 24% of the population in Southeast Asia consumes inadequate quantities of essential vitamins, minerals, and trace elements due to limited micronutrient density in the food supply, said the ASEAN report. Food scarcity and poor food system infrastructure have spurred the consumption of contaminated food, with about 52 million people in the region falling ill each year after eating unsafe foods.
The report blamed lack of financial investment and accountability, inadequate, and poor-quality services across the health, education, water and sanitation and social protection systems and more. “These problems cannot be solved by nutrition actors alone, nor by the trickle-down effects of economic growth and poverty reduction,” it said. Individual food and lifestyle choices of families matter, as well as the policies, institutions, and resources that are put in place,
ASEAN identified the following strategic thrusts to bolster food security:
- Accelerate the evidence-based multisectoral actions to end all forms of malnutrition particularly among the most vulnerable, poor, and disadvantaged groups;
- Intensify efforts to engage with relevant sectors and stakeholders to address the multi-causality of all forms of malnutrition;
- Increase public, multisectoral investments and level of cooperation to improve nutrition and ensure healthy diets;
- Strengthen human and institutional capacities in multisectoral planning and evaluation, policy analysis and advocacy, health and nutrition research, nutrition surveillance and service delivery; and
- Monitor progress of the ASEAN Strategic Framework and Action Plan for Nutrition.
Worldwide support for the food and agricultural sector averaged almost $630 billion a year between 2013 and 2018. However, FAO said much of the support is market-distorting and does not reach many farmers. Food subsidies also end up hurting the environment while failing to promote the production of nutritious foods that make up a healthy diet. These subsidies often target the production of staple foods, dairy, and other animal source foods, especially in high- and upper-middle-income countries.
To address the imbalances, FAO said there is a need to repurpose food and agricultural subsidies to target nutritious foods where per capita consumption does not yet match the recommended levels for healthy diets. The evidence suggests that if governments channel these resources to incentivize the production, supply, and consumption of nutritious foods, they will contribute to making healthy diets more affordable and accessible.
The report also urged governments to do more to reduce trade barriers for nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and pulses.
Food security assistance
The prevailing food crisis has prompted the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to commit $14 billion through 2025 to address the problem in Asia and the Pacific. ADB aims to strengthen long-term food security against the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss.
The assistance expands ADB’s support for food security in the region, where nearly 1.1 billion people lack healthy diets because of poverty and record-high food prices. The funding will be channeled through existing and new projects in sectors including farm inputs, food production and distribution, social protection, irrigation, and water resources management, as well as projects leveraging nature-based solutions.
“This is a timely and urgently needed response to a crisis that is leaving too many poor families in Asia hungry and in deeper poverty,” said ADB President Masatsugu Asakawa, in remarks at ADB’s 55th Annual Meeting in September. “We need to act now, before the impacts of climate change worsen and further erode the region’s hard-won development gains. Our support will be targeted, integrated, and impactful to help vulnerable people, particularly vulnerable women, in the near-term, while bolstering food systems to reduce the impact of emerging and future food security risks.”
Asia and the Pacific is vulnerable to food shocks, as some of its countries depend on imported staples and fertilizer. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, nutritious food was already unaffordable for significant portions of the population in many ADB low-income member countries.
ADB said it will continue to invest in other activities that contribute to food security, such as energy transition, transport, access to rural finance, environmental management, health, and education. Aside from supporting vulnerable people, it will promote open trade, improve smallholder farm production and livelihoods, ease shortages of fertilizer and promote its efficient use or organic alternatives, support investments in food production and distribution, enhance nutrition, and boost climate resilience through integrated and nature-based solutions. A key focus will be to protect the region’s natural environment from climate change impacts and biodiversity loss, which have degraded soils, freshwater, and marine ecosystems.