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On Earth Day: Continuing Hunger in Asia

April 21, 2010

By V. Bruce J. Tolentino

On Earth Day 2010, Asia has much to be thankful for. While the recent global financial crisis hit Asia hard, most of Asia’s governments acted swiftly and decisively and succeeded, against prevailing expectations, to limit the impact of the financial debacle. They had learned the hard way from the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Intertwined with the global financial crisis was the food price crisis of 2007-2009: long-term global trends in population growth, rising incomes, competing non-food use of crops, falling investments in agricultural productivity, and lower food stocks were jarred by sudden supply shocks in key producing countries. The panicky procurement and knee-jerk trade bans hurriedly implemented by several governments, particularly India and the Philippines, sparked a food price spiral – that spiraled out of control. This was further exacerbated by a surge in speculation by investors on the global commodity trading markets in search of alternative investments away from the rapidly declining U.S. housing market. The food price spiral eventually led to food trade bans and riots in several Asian countries and was finally broken by Japan’s threat to dump excess food supplies into the market.

There is a delicate balance between income and food security. Increases in food prices affect everyone, but they hit poor people especially hard, because the poor spend a much larger proportion of their income on food. Analysis of the impact of the recent food price crisis shows that among Asian populations, a 10 percent rise in food prices reduces the welfare of the poorest by 7 percent, and of the wealthiest by less than 3 percent.

While rice is the most important food staple across Asia, “food security” encompasses much more than just stocks of rice. At the World Food Summit of 1996, governments agreed that a state of food security is achieved when:

“… all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

On a day-to-day basis, a country’s state of food security – the number of hungry people – is measured by two key nutritional statistics: one, the proportion of people considered undernourished who consume less than the minimum level of dietary energy requirement, and, two, the proportion of children (0-59 months) who fall below the median weight for age, based on World Health Organization standards.

By these two measures, hunger still besets much of Asia. Globally, it is estimated that there are 850 million hungry people. Of this total, at least 550 million are in Asia. This means that some 16 percent of all Asians are in a state of hunger. Of the hungry people in the Asia-Pacific, fully 313 million are in South Asia, indicating that 21 percent or slightly more than one fifth of South Asians suffer from hunger. A quarter of Cambodians, and about a fifth of Chinese, Burmese, and Laotians suffer from hunger. Around 17 percent of Filipinos, Indonesians, and Thais, and 14 percent of Vietnamese, are hungry. Clearly, hunger persists across Asia, and remains a crucial challenge for Asian governance.

The food security challenge has four key aspects: (1) open global trade in agriculture and food; (2) rational and efficient agriculture and food sector governance; (3) securing higher yields; and (4) adjusting to climate change.

Open global trade is crucial for shared food security across nations with different natural endowments that determine their agricultural production capacities. Unnecessary and unexpected constraints on trade disrupt food supply chains and cause price spirals that can hurt both consumers and producers.

The efficiency and productivity of the food and agriculture sector has immense bearing on the welfare of whole populations and thus necessitates management policies that promote the interests of the whole, not just the few. In this globalized age, effectively governed nations must recognize cross-border interdependencies in food supply chains which demand collaboration and cooperation among countries. The stalled Doha multilateral talks on agricultural trade should be revived and regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) mobilized to better share crucial intelligence on food stocks and production forecasts.

Hunger still besets much of Asia. It is estimated that there are 850 million hungry people globally, at least 550 million are in Asia. Photo taken in Cambodia by Karl Grobl.

Immediately and into the medium term, research and development efforts to achieve higher yields are critical. The food price crisis was a wake-up call to pay more attention to this long-neglected and overlooked sector. Added support for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and other members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) would be helpful. National R&D centers must be adequately funded in order to adapt to local production conditions the internationally targeted scientific work led by the IRRI.

Finally, as the arrival of Earth Day reminds us, meeting all these challenges will come to naught if the greatest long-term challenge – climate change – is not adequately anticipated and its effects mitigated.

V. Bruce J. Tolentino is The Asia Foundation’s Director for Economic Reform and Development Programs. He will be attending the ADB’s Investment Forum on Food Security in Manila in July. He can be reached at [email protected].



  1. In Asia » Blog Archive » Fostering Regional Integration for Shared Food Security - [...] tremendous economic growth achieved over the past two decades, hunger continues to beset much of Asia. Estimates show that…

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