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Food insecurity highlights need for sustainable agriculture

A report by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), “Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Asia and the Pacific”, highlights that food insecurity is still very much alive in the Asia Pacific region, home to the largest number of hungry people. Sustainable agriculture and food security was the theme topic at the ESCAP’s annual Commission session in Bangkok that ended on 29 April 2009. The report was the focus of discussions of the ministerial round table.

Unless farmers can produce food not just efficiently, but also in ways that respect the environment, the food security outlook will continue to be bleak, says the report. This is crucial in the face of environmental degradation, climate change, and a series of other threats.

The report identifies the need for investment in sustainable practices in agriculture production and small scale farmers in a ‘new green revolution’ that gives high priority to small-scale food production based on ecologically viable systems. The report also says that the benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops are far from certain, while little is known about the risks, since there has been relatively little biosafety research on their health, environmental and socio-economic effect, making it difficult to assess their impact.

The ESCAP report is available at http://www.unescap.org/65/theme_study2009.asp

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Lim Li Ching
Third World Network
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Email: twnet@po.jaring.my
Websites: www.twnside.org.sg, www.biosafety-info.net


May 2009

FOOD CRISIS STILL LURKING ON THE HORIZON

While the world is focused on the economic crisis, food insecurity is still very much alive in the Asia Pacific region, home to the largest number of hungry people.

By Chee Yoke Heong
Third World Network Features

            While the current global financial and economic turbulence continues to grab headlines, the food crisis of recent past is still with us. The former should serve as a critical opportunity to address the food problem that would worsen given the multiple challenges to sustainable agriculture and the threats posed by climate change, according to a new UN report. 

            The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), in its April 2009 report “Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Asia and the Pacific”, said food insecurity is still widespread across much of the Asia and Pacific region where millions of people go hungry. While food prices have fallen from 2008’s spike, they remain high. With rising unemployment and falling incomes, the economic crisis will become a food crisis particularly for the poor and vulnerable. Also, there is the danger that once the global economy recovers, the pressures that pushed up food prices last year will return.

            “This report reminds us that, while the world’s attention is very much on the economic crisis, food insecurity remains a real threat,” said Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. “Efforts at stimulating the economies also provide us a window of opportunity to address the systemic issues related to food insecurity.”

            Sustainable agriculture and food security was the theme topic at the ESCAP’s annual Commission session in Bangkok that ended on 29 April 2009. The report was the focus of discussions of the ministerial round table.

            Despite being one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions, the Asia-Pacific region is home to the largest number of hungry people – 62% of the world’s undernourished.

            The greatest problems are in South and South-West Asia where 21% of the population are undernourished and as high as 42% of children are underweight. The problem is most acute in Afghanistan where more than one-third of the population lacks adequate food.

            Even in countries which are seemingly doing well, national averages may mask disparities between different population groups. “In East Asia and the Pacific, for example, rural children are twice as likely to be underweight as their peers in the cities,” said Heyzer. The report described the number of children in the region who die each year before reaching five from causes related to malnutrition as equivalent to 10 jumbo jets, full of children, crashing every day and killing all on board.

            Although poverty is the leading cause of food insecurity, there are also many other contributory factors. Lack of access to land also prevents many poor people from growing their own food. Other causes range from low farm revenues to volatile fuel prices and speculation.

            Protectionist trade polices especially in the developed countries is another cause of food insecurity in the region, says the report.

            The developed countries, except Australia and New Zealand, have generally taken advantage of a fairly lax international trade regime prior to 1995 to offer protection and subsidies to their own farmers, leading to over production, while most developing countries, influenced by the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, generally neglected agriculture, leading to underproduction.

            With cheap subsidized food pouring into the international markets, developing countries that had been self-sufficient, or even net exporters for a number of food items, became net importers. Fiji, for example, in 1986 was 75% self-sufficient in rice but, due to deregulation and the influx of cheaper imports, that proportion is now down to 15 percent.

            Today, many countries in the region are major food importers and hence the global food prices crisis in 2008 had dealt a severe blow to these countries. The drop in world stocks of wheat, maize and rice to 30-year lows which resulted from production lagging significantly behind consumption, resulted in price hikes. The price increase accelerated from 9% in 2006 to 23% in 2007 and 51% between January-June 2007 and January-June 2008. Domestic wheat prices, for example, increased by 36% to 100% in Bangladesh, Mongolia, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajiskistan and Sri Lanka.

            The failure of productivity to keep pace with demand is largely the consequence of a neglect of investment in agriculture, says the report. Moreover, when prices were low, farmers had few incentives to step up production. Extreme climatic events also played their part in disrupting agriculture and food output. One of the main contributing factors to the 2007-2009 increases, for example, was six years of drought in Australia.

            Another major factor in the food price rises was the steep hikes in oil prices. Food prices are increasingly linked with those for oil and gas, partly because natural gas is the principal input for fertilizers. But agriculture itself has also consumed more fuel, as it has become more energy intensive. Farmers today are using much more electricity or diesel for irrigation, especially in the Green revolution areas that plant high-yielding seeds. As a result, countries in the Asia-Pacific region are among the world’s most intensive users of mineral fertilizers. Consumption per hectare is more than twice that in the rest of the world.

            Another way in which the prices for oil and food have become more closely linked is through biofuels. Partly because of massive subsidies, land has rapidly been diverted from grain and oilseeds into production of biofuels.

            While speculation is not a driver of commodity prices, it can nevertheless accelerate and amplify price movements driven by fundamental supply and demand factors. Given how steeply food prices increased and how fast they fell in 2008, it is likely that the growing presence of financial investors in commodity markets made prices over-react to new market information and deviate from fundamentals.

            With the onset of a global recession, prices of food started to fall again, and by in early 2009 they were back in real terms at around 2006 levels. However, the report says that this is a temporary respite as both oil and food prices are expected to start to rise again once the industrial economies recover from recession.

            Farmers in Asia and the Pacific have, in many respects, been very successful as they managed to increase output and just about kept pace with demand. But in future, farmers will find things steadily more difficult – faced with environmental degradation, climate change, and a series of other threats. Unless they can produce food not just efficiently, but also in ways that respect the environment, the food security outlook will be bleak, says the report.

            Sustainable agriculture integrates the goals of environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. The overriding principle is to meet current food needs without compromising the rights of future generations.

Threats to sustainable agriculture include degraded land due to destructive farming practices such as excessive use of mineral fertilizers and contaminated waterways from pesticides and herbicides from intensive agriculture and industrial effluents. Deforestation to open more farmland threatens watersheds, disrupts fisheries and reduces natural processes like pollination. Other factors include the development of biofuels, the spread of genetically engineered crops as well as the overarching phenomenon of climate change.

            Climate change, which threatens to significantly alter weather patterns, will have lasting detrimental impacts on agricultural output and hence food security. Changes have already happened in Asia and the Pacific. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), annual mean rainfall has fallen, for example, in the Russian Federation, North-East and North China, in the coastal belts and arid plains of Pakistan, and in parts of North-East India, Indonesia, the Philippines and some areas in Japan. On the other hand, rainfall has increased in parts of China, the Arabian Peninsula, Bangladesh and along the western coasts of the Philippines.

            The IPCC forecasts that mid-twenty-first century cereal crop yields could increase up to 20% in East and South-East Asia, but decrease up to 30% in Central and South Asia. By the end of the twenty-first century, rice production in Asia could decline by 3.8%.  In North Asia, grain production could fall by 26% and fodder production by 9 per cent.

            The study proposed short-, medium and long-term recommendations for addressing food insecurity in the region. The immediate priority is to improve people’s ability to buy and access food through the development of social protection schemes such as land rights, agriculture insurance, minimum wage, basic health and nutrition care and “food-for-work” programmes. Particular attention needs to be given to addressing the multiple food insecurities that women and girl children face due to inequalities. The report calls on governments to eliminate gender-based food insecurities if required, through legislative measures.

            Over the medium term, investment in sustainable practices in agriculture production and small scale farmers in a new green revolution that gives high priority to small-scale food production based on ecologically viable systems are very important. The report said long term measures will require that all countries adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Building the resilience of communities to tackle the impact of climate change has to be rapidly developed and widely promoted. – Third World Network Features

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About the writer: Chee Yoke Heong is a researcher with the Third World Network.

 


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