Alleviating Food Insecurity in Asia

Date01 September 2014
AuthorPeter Warr
Published date01 September 2014
World Food Policy - Volume 1, Number 2 - Fall 2014
Introduction: Asia’s food insecurity
Despite signicant progress in recent
decades, food security remains a se-
rious concern for Asia. e rst rea-
son is the absolute size of Asias food inse-
curity problem. According to a recent FAO
report, summarized in Table 1, of the 868
million people estimated to be undernour-
ished in the world, 564 million, or 62 per-
cent of the global total, reside in Asia (Food
and Agriculture Organisation of the United
Nations (FAO) 2013). Undernourished peo-
ple constitute 14 percent of the population
of Asia, compared with 12.5 percent of the
world population. Of Asias malnourished
people, 297 million, or 35 percent of the
global total, are in South Asia alone, exceed-
ing the total number, 225 million, in Sub-Sa-
haran Africa.
A second reason is the dependence
of much of Asia on a single crop. Rice is
the staple food for most of Asia and for the
majority of Asias poor people expenditure
on this one commodity accounts for a large
proportion of their household budgets. e
important exceptions are parts of north In-
dia and Pakistan, where wheat is the staple
and parts of Eastern Indonesia, where it is
maize. is, together with the rst point
above, explains why Asian countries were
so greatly alarmed by the huge increases in
grain prices during the 2007–08 food price
e global market for rice is particularly
thin, making international price volatility
more pronounced than for most other sta-
ple foods. In recent decades both supply and
demand conditions for staple foods have
changed rapidly in Asia. A growing middle
class has diversied its diet away from staple
cereals such as rice and towards fruit, vegeta-
bles and livestock products (Timmer 2014).
But at the same time rapid urbanization and
accelerating non-agricultural demands for
land have placed greater pressure on agri-
cultural resources. Finally, agricultural pro-
Despite recent progress, Asia has many more food insecure people than the rest of the
world combined. e prevalence of stunting and underweight in children far exceeds the
global average. Expansion of agricultural output within Asian countries themselves is
strongly associated with reductions in the rate of undernourishment. It is not sucient
to rely solely on aggregate economic growth or reductions in poverty incidence to reduce
food insecurity. But higher food prices increase the rate of undernourishment. e policy
imperative is to raise agricultural output without at the same time raising food prices.
Investment in the infrastructure and knowledge required to raise agricultural produc-
tivity achieves that objective. Agricultural protection does not, because the number of
food insecure people who are net sellers of food is exceeded by the number who are net
purchasers of food and for whom increased food prices mean greater food insecurity.
Keywords: food security, poverty reduction, food prices, agricultural productivity.
Peter Warr1
1 Australian National University, Canberra.
Alleviating Food Insecurity in Asia
Alleviating Food Insecurity in Asia
duction in much of Asia is especially vul-
nerable to climate change, requiring much
greater policy attention to the requirements
of agricultural adaptation (Nelson 2010).
Decades of international neglect of
agriculture have not helped. Between 1980
and 2005 total annual foreign assistance to
less-developed countries that was designat-
ed for agricultural development declined
from US$ 8 billion to US$ 3.4 billion, a re-
duction from 17 to 3 percent of total foreign
assistance to these countries. In the 1980s,
25 per cent of U.S. foreign aid went to ag-
riculture. In the 1990s, it was 6 percent and
in 2011 it was 1 percent. e share of World
Bank lending going to agriculture was 30
percent in 1978, 16 percent in 1988, and 8
percent in 2006. In many Asian developing
nations, public commitment to investment
in agriculture has also waned, as other de-
velopment priorities have seemed more
promising. e combined implication of
the neglect of agriculture is that continued
productivity growth in Asian agriculture, at
rates sucient to feed a growing population,
can no longer be assumed.
Undernourishment, poverty, and
Undernourishment has declined at
widely varying rates in dierent
parts of the world, including coun-
tries within Asia. In Southeast Asia the ab-
solute number of undernourished people
declined over the last two decades by more
than 50 percent and East Asia (including
China) was not far behind, at 36 percent.
But the rate of decline was much lower in
South Asia, at 7 percent. As a percentage of
the total population, undernourishment de-
clined by 38 percent in Vietnam, 36 percent
in ailand, 11 percent in Indonesia, 10 per-
cent in China, 9 percent in India, and 7 per-
cent in the Philippines. ere may be many
reasons for the variation between countries,
but the dierences seemingly correlate with
dierences in rates of poverty reduction,
themselves correlating loosely with dier-
ences in rates of economic growth.
e relationship between under-
nourishment and poverty incidence is ex-
plored further in Figures 1 to 3, for the devel-
Table 1. Number of undernourished people (millions)
Central Asia
East Asia
South Asia
South East Asia
Latin America
Sub-Saharan Africa
Note: n.a. means not available.

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