Asia Needs Another ‘Green Revolution’ to Ensure Food Security

A sack of wheat grains being weighed before milling in India.
A sack of wheat grains being weighed before milling in India.

By Md. Abul Basher

Yesterday’s thinking will not solve tomorrow’s challenges; we need to do something radically different to ensure safe and quality food for everyone in the region.

It is irrefutable that the world has failed to stop the march of hunger and equally irrefutable is the fact that the facets of hunger and food security are continuously changing, underscoring the importance of staying ahead of the curve. To achieve that, the world needs to take full cognizance of the evolving nature of the problem – even more so for Asia and the Pacific, which now accounts for about 61% of the world’s population and is expected to be home to 5.2 billion people by 2050.

Asia’s demographic structure is projected to change to an inverse pyramid shape – with relatively more old people and fewer young people, including in the farming community. This, coupled with outmigration from the farming to the non-farming sector, will make it difficult to produce enough food to feed the region’s current population—let alone the projected one—due to a shortage of labor.

Stimulated by strong economic growth, the urban and middle class population in Asia and the Pacific is rapidly rising. It is estimated that Asia’s urban population  will increase from 1.9 billion in 2011 to 3.2 billion in 2050, and the number of middle-income people will reach 2 billion. There is already evidence  that urbanization and the rise of middle-income consumers are driving the demand for non-grain produce like fats and oils, meat and fish. As a result, their relative price vis-à-vis grain crops, is increasing, pushing up the price of grains as well, following the simple rule of profit maximization. This interconnection between grain and non-grain products means the poor in Asia and the Pacific stand to become even more food-insecure in coming years.

In addition to the likely fall in production of grain crops, demand for grains for non-food use like production of biofuel will rise with the growing demand for energy. Some estimates calculate that the region will increase its production of biofuel from 5.6 million tons in 2015 to 22.8 million in 2035. The European Union is aiming to meet 10% of its energy needs from renewable sources, mostly biofuels, by 2020. This will affect food prices in Asia and the Pacific through the trade channel; Increased use of biofuels by the US in 2007 contributed to about 30% of the 2007-08 global food price hike.

Each dimension of food security in the region will also be affected by climate change in form of more intense and/or frequent climate hazards like heat waves, prolonged dry spells, or intense rainfall. The majority of the 500 million rural poor in Asia and the Pacific are subsistence farmers who own mainly rain-fed land and whose food security will be severely undermined by these disasters. As a result of global warming, sea levels are projected to rise by 3-16 cm by 2030, and 7-50 cm by 2070, jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions living in the low-lying areas of Pacific islands as well as vulnerable countries in South and Southeast Asia such as Bangladesh, India, or Viet Nam.

The challenges ahead to ensure food security in the region are huge, and also different in nature. Yesterday’s thinking will not solve tomorrow’s challenges, and the world will need innovative strategies. As Albert Einstein succinctly puts it, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

In the early 1960s, when the population was around 3 billion and the world faced the possibility of widespread starvation, governments, different agencies, and science joined hands in what became known as the ‘Green Revolution.’ In 2016, Asia and the Pacific need a similar joint effort to ensure safe and quality food for everyone.