Asia’s Food Security Challenges, and How We Plan to Address Them

Cabbage farmers in Nepal.
Cabbage farmers in Nepal.

By AKM Mahfuzuddin Ahmed

Despite significant progress, Asia is still home to two-thirds of the world’s hungry people. ADB’s new Operational Plan for Food Security 2015-2020 focuses on 6 critical areas to address the region’s food security challenges in the SDGs era.

Eradicating hunger and malnutrition should be within reach of most Asian countries going by the impressive economic growth trends in recent years - but this is not quite the case.

Asia is still home to the highest number hungry people on the planet, with 512 million undernourished people in 2014–2016, or two thirds of the world’s total. This means that 1 in 8 Asians is undernourished despite significant progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target to reduce by nearly half the proportion of undernourished people in Asia since 1990. Another indicator of hunger is the proportion of underweight children under the age of five, which reached 18.4% in 2014-2016, a sharp reduction from 31.4% in 1990 but short of the MDG target of 15.7%. High levels of micronutrient deficiencies or “hidden hunger” thus persist in Asia, threatening sustainable growth as it affects the next generation’s ability to learn and work.

As global attention shifts to the just-adopted Sustainable Development Goals, efforts to address the food security issue will be ushered into its most challenging phase yet, with food production required to increase by 70% to meet the calorie requirements of Asia, where the population is expected to reach 5.2 billion people by 2050. 

On the demand side, growing economies are expanding the middle class in cities, where 64% of the region’s population will live by 2050. Higher incomes in urban areas result in a growing demand for resource-intensive food such as meat, dairy and processed food. On the supply side, land, soil, and the natural resources needed to grow food are being degraded, used for things other than food production, and threatened by the impacts of climate change. In addition, post-harvest losses in South and Southeast Asia account for one-third of regional food production, with most of the waste occurring during the handling and storage phase of the value chain.

Going forward, ADB’s new Operational Plan for Food Security 2015-2020 focuses on the following critical areas to address the region’s food security challenges:

  1. Increasing the efficiency of the food system to reduce use of energy and water through climate-smart agriculture; adopting modern technology to grow more food per unit of input; and mechanization.
  2. Reducing pre- and post-harvest losses through improved logistics and modernizing value chains. This will also allow smallholder farmers to diversify into higher value crops, and meet enhanced food safety standards.
  3. Improving value chains infrastructure to better meet consumer needs with more investment in processing, storage and distribution. An upgraded food transportation network will help integrate fragmented markets, reduce transaction costs, and enable wide dissemination of sophisticated farm inputs, financial services and modern technology.
  4. Partnering with the private sector on inclusive business opportunities that connect farmers, small producers and processors to investors and markets, and help achieve scale for instance via risk sharing agreements. 
  5. Supporting public policies that create an enabling environment for agribusiness and set higher standards for green business, food safety, and quality. 
  6. Promoting innovative financing tools to give agricultural small and medium-sized enterprises access to credit so they can participate in global value chains, including cluster lending and financial literacy training.

Ensuring safe, nutritious and affordable access to food for all calls for structural shifts in production organization and distribution. Supply-side interventions to enhance productivity on the farm and improve livelihood of smallholder farmers will work only when we also invest in market linkages, value chains, and logistics to achieve a more productive, integrated and efficient food system. Strong synergies with investment in other sectors— water, energy, transport, and finance—as well as more active pursuit of South-South and regional cooperation and integration on cross-border solutions will result in win-win outcomes.