Friday, June 6, 2014, 09:42
Addressing Asia’s hunger pangs
By Karl Wilson in Sydney

Addressing Asia’s hunger pangs
A boy holds a pinwheel, with each flower representing a child’s death from malnutrition, at an event in New Delhi last year. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s chronically hungry live in Asia, with micronutrient malnutrition affecting many more. (AFP)

Although the world produces sufficient food to meet the needs of everyone on the planet, millions go to bed hungry every night. And most of them are in Asia.

It is estimated there are 842 million chronically hungry people in the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports that one in every eight people suffers from hunger, and one in every three children in the developing world has stunted growth due to lack of food.

Nearly two-thirds, or just over 550 million people, of the world’s chronically hungry live in Asia.

The vast majority live in developing countries where they have become increasingly vulnerable to food price hikes, external shocks and now falling nutrition levels in basic staple foods such as rice and wheat.

In addition, micronutrient malnutrition — or so-called “hidden hunger” — also affects an additional 2 billion people worldwide.

The FAO estimates that the world has to increase food production overall by 60 percent (77 percent in developing countries) by the year 2050 from the level reached in 2005 to 2007 to meet the needs of increasing population.

The rapid increase of calorie consumption is another concern, as the average per capita calorie consumption per day is projected to increase to over 3,000 kilocalories by 2050, from the present level of 2,770 kcal.

This increase will be accelerated further especially in newly emerged middle-income countries such as China, India and Indonesia.

Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO assistant director-general and regional representative for the Asia Pacific, says the world currently produces sufficient food to meet the needs of everyone, “yet, despite our efforts, progress in eradicating hunger has been very slow”.

“The real problem is here in Asia,” he tells China Daily Asia Weekly. “Despite the rising middle class — said to treble in size between 2009 and 2020 — we still have hunger. And we have a lot of it.”

With the world’s population expected to increase from 7 billion today to around 9 billion by 2050, Konuma says world food production will need to almost double just to meet the growing demand for food.

“This has to be achieved from limited available arable lands which have little potential for future expansion and declining water resources,” he says.

In addition, there are a number of critical challenges which need to be addressed, he adds. These include: Declining agricultural investment, stagnation of agricultural productivity growth, high post-harvest losses and food waste, negative impacts of climate change and natural disasters, and increasing competition between food production and bio-energy production.

“Oil prices may remain at high levels or increase further, and food price volatility discourages farmers from making investments,” he says.

“If there are food shortages in the future, the most vulnerable and poor populations would suffer the most. And as a consequence, as seen and witnessed during the food price crisis in 2007-08, many food riots and social unrest occurred.”

Konuma says history shows that the Asia-Pacific region has successfully reduced the proportion of hunger from 34 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2000 through the Green Revolution, which saw the development of higher-yielding varieties of rice.

The millennium development goal to halve the proportion of extreme hunger by 2015 and the zero hunger goal to eradicate hunger in our lifetime is achievable, he adds.

“(Asia-Pacific countries must) ensure inclusiveness and sustainability, mobilize strong political commitments, double our efforts and work together as a team for concerted efforts. I don’t think it is a dream. It is our obligation for our children, and we need to work together.”

A recent study published in the science journal Nature showed that rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels were stripping away life-sustaining nutrients in rice and wheat grains, essential staples for over half the world’s population.

Other studies show rising temperatures impacting on yield growth, especially for wheat and maize, Konuma says.

“However, we are yet not really sure to what extent climate change will have an impact on food production in the future.

“The frequency of natural disasters such as droughts can impact on agricultural yields as temperatures change. Then we have the increased frequency or new emergence of plant and animal pests and disease.”

Ros Gleadow, an associate professor with the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University in Melbourne, says the big issue now is the rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the impact this has on the nutritional value of crops — in particular, staples such as rice and wheat.

“We need to find better ways of producing food and reducing waste,” she tells China Daily Asia Weekly.

“Some say we need to double the amount of food we produce by 2050. Leave aside the impact of CO2, let’s look at waste, and I don’t mean what we throw away in restaurants and supermarkets in the developed world,” she says.

Gleadow notes that there are waste issues all along the line from the infrastructure involved in transporting the produce to market storage and distribution.

“With global warming and changing weather patterns we need to examine what we grow, where we grow and when,” she says. “Growing cycles are changing and we have to take another look at crop choices.”

Michiko Katagami, senior natural resources and agricultural specialist with the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, says the latest CO2 findings are a “significant constraint to the ongoing efforts to reduce the alarmingly high levels of micronutrient deficiency or hidden hunger in Asia”.

“Despite impressive economic growth, high prevalence of nutrition insecurity persists in Asia,” she says.

Roughly 30 to 40 percent of children under the age of five in South and Southeast Asia are stunted — which means they have a low height for their age — a marker of long-term food insecurity and malnutrition.

In Southeast Asia, 315 million people suffer iron deficiency anemia, with severe prevalence among pre-school children (66 percent) and pregnant women (48 percent), according to Katagami.

“Iron deficiency during childhood and adolescence impairs mental development and learning capacity,” she says. “In adults, it reduces the ability to do physical labor. Severe anemia increases the risk of women dying in childbirth.”

An inadequate zinc intake in South Asia is particularly high, with 30 percent as a national average and 79 percent among children under five years old, she notes, adding that zinc is essential for survival and its deficiency is a cause of death.

“This also indicates that future human capital (labor) of the next generation in developing Asia is at risk.”

Katagami says the insufficient nutrition intake of children during the first 1,000 days of life affects the foundations for adult human capital.  “Early childhood ill-effects of malnutrition are irreversible in later in life,” she warns.

To address micronutrient deficiencies, the public sector supports the fortification of staple food items in partnerships with private companies as one of the top priority solutions.

The intake of iodized salt, iron-fortified flour and cooking oil fortified with vitamin A would be a good start, Katagami notes. This approach, however, has a limit in reaching the malnourished population in remote rural areas.

Climate change is having a major impact on the region with higher temperatures, changing precipitation and more frequent extreme weather.

“All these are likely to amplify resource stress and cause yield loss in many regions,” she adds. “Irrigated and rain-fed wheat and rice are expected to be hard hit, with losses of 14 to 20 percent and 32 to 44 percent respectively.”

Developing countries in Asia Pacific are likely to face the highest reductions in agricultural potential and the negative effects are especially pronounced in South Asia, where production reductions of 11 to 18 percent for rice and 40 to 45 percent for wheat are expected.

“Consequently, the calorie availability in 2050 is likely to decline relative to 2000 levels in the developing world, increasing child malnutrition by 20 percent relative to a world with no climate change,” Katagami concludes.