From Farm to Fork—Combating Asia’s Hidden Hunger

By Bindu N. Lohani

Feeding the world is becoming an increasingly complex task. Providing all our daily bread—or rice—requires grappling with intense competition for natural resources, producing more from less land and dealing with changing dietary habits.

Here in Asia, more than 550 million people still go hungry every day. And given the region’s growing population, migration to the cities, and increasing wealth, the pressures on food security will only intensify. By 2030, 65% of Asians will live in cities. With an additional 3 billion consumers expected to join the middle class by 2030, the demand for food is set to rise by 60% to 70% by the same date.

But meeting food needs is not just about quantity. Quality is also important. Along with daily minimum calorie requirements, people also need vital micronutrients from their meals.  High levels of micronutrient deficiencies, a phenomenon we call “hidden hunger” remains pervasive, particularly in South Asia and Southeast Asia.  

This problem of under-nutrition has been the key cause of our region’s underperformance on the Millennium Development Goals for child mortality and maternal health.  To ensure sufficient food and nutrition in Asia requires stepping up not only agricultural productivity but the quality and nutritional varieties of food available at affordable cost. We need to provide not just food, but nutritious food!

Complicating the issue of food production is the clash of competing interests for scarce resources, more precisely, the food-water-energy-climate change nexus.  As Asia’s economies have boomed, so has the demand for water, both for food production and for energy. Unsustainable use of natural resources has left about a quarter of Asia’s land highly degraded, and a general breakdown of the region’s diverse and fragile environments could see the world losing a quarter of its food supply capacity by 2050. Climate change presents an additional challenge as this is projected to cause losses of up to 45% in irrigated rice output alone by 2050.  

These trends are deeply worrying for the poor who suffer the most when food supplies are threatened and prices soar.  

With these challenges in mind, it is increasingly clear we need to become vastly more efficient in the way we produce, process, and distribute food.  In developing Asia, weak food supply chains result in 20% to 40% of food being lost or wasted after harvest.

To effectively address food security, we need to drastically transform the entire food supply system from farm to fork—or chopstick, depending on your country.

We are, however, constrained by our current business models for agriculture. With more youth migrating to the cities, the farm workforce is shrinking and more food needs to be produced with less labor. So apart from stepping up farm productivity, seeing agriculture as a business instead of for subsistence, is key to addressing food and nutrition insecurity at the household level.  This should be the new business model for agriculture. Asia’s agribusiness has to be done differently.

We must vastly expand the use of state-of-the-art food production technologies so that producers—big and small—can produce more crops per hectare, per drop, per watt and per farmer. That means more investment in agricultural research, better access to quality seeds, and greater support from the private sector, including public-private partnerships.

Infrastructure gaps must also be tackled, including better post-harvest facilities such as cold storage centers, milling, and distribution, which are badly needed to cut down on the appalling crop wastage that hurts small-scale farmers in particular.  

Much more must also be done to include smallholder farmers—who produce most of Asia’s food—in commercial food value chains, giving them greater access to larger markets and higher incomes.

Of course none of these measures can be carried out without the right policies and regulations. That means policymakers creating a regulatory framework which encourages the development of new food production technologies.  Current water, energy, and trade policies that distort market incentives for efficient resource use must also be corrected.

The Asian Development Bank sees food security as fundamental to our mission. That’s why we invest around $2 billion a year in food security-related technologies, institutions, logistics, and policy support.

When it comes to food, the future can be created. But we can’t dream of a prosperous Asia if a large portion of the population is going to bed hungry or undernourished every night. We must set ourselves the lofty goal of putting enough food on everyone’s table, while we simultaneously meet the nutritional needs of the population and ensure our region’s precious, but threatened ecosystems are protected.