29 Sep 2017

Millions of people around the world currently suffer from hunger, and this number is set to increase with various foreseeable threats to food security in future. What are these risks and how can they be mitigated?

The figures for world hunger are staggering. As of 2016, as many as 815 million people in the world go hungry every day, up from 777 million in 2015. Out of this total, 520 million reside in Asia.

Food security is achieved when people have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times to meet their dietary needs for a healthy life.

Although food security is a multi-dimensional issue, it is primarily caused by poverty, roughly defined as those who make less than US$1.90 a day. Rural households in developing countries tend to be the most heavily burdened by poverty as they spend the highest proportions of their income on food or are not able to afford it at all.

International organisations and various countries have attempted to solve the problem with initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals, which have now been superseded by the Sustainable Development Goals that pledge to reduce the rates of hunger drastically. However, with growing global populations, food insecurity could rise over the next few decades if food production does not keep up with increasing demand.

Threats to the world's food production

In Asia alone, there will likely be 5.3 billion people by 2050, which would require a 70 per cent increase in food production. However, whether output will be able to keep up with demand is questionable, as there are several interlinked factors that threaten the world's ability to produce the necessary amounts of food.

Climate change

It is now common knowledge that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have dramatically increased the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which in turn is expected to cause global surface temperatures to increase by one to four degrees Celsius by 2100.

Some of the predicted effects of climate change which we are already witnessing are more intense heat waves, rising sea levels and changing rainfall patterns. This means that coastal and low-lying areas in Asia where agriculture plays a crucial role, such as Thailand, will especially be at risk of flooding.

Additionally, there appears to be an increase in the frequency of extreme weather incidents. India, for example, has seen both rising temperatures leading to droughts and increased rainfall resulting in floods, all of which affect crops and leave farmers struggling to adapt. It is estimated that 59,000 Indian farmer suicides over the past 30 years can be attributed to climate change.

Paradoxically, agricultural processes themselves contribute at least a fifth of GHG emissions. However, studies have shown that such emissions can potentially be reduced through existing technologies and best practices such as improved fertiliser management.

Lower agricultural productivity

Economic structural transformation in Asia has also seen a shrinkage of the agricultural sector. Although the reallocation of resources from agriculture towards other industries has led to economic growth in developing countries, it means that there is a rapidly declining share of agriculture in gross domestic product.

Additionally, agricultural productivity can be affected due to improper farming practices such as poor water utilisation or the use of chemical fertiliser which affects soil productivity in the long run.

As crop yields are further expected to drop due to climate change, problems of agricultural productivity need to be addressed to ensure that food production keeps up with population growth. Lower agricultural output would affect food supply globally, with increasing food prices potentially causing market instability.

Overexploitation of natural resources

Over the last 40 years, natural resources in Asia have faced increased degradation. This has occurred due to deforestation, inappropriate agricultural practices, unsustainable groundwater extraction and industrial development, among many other factors. Growing populations and ineffective governance or weak institutions have merely exacerbated this.

In China, arable land has dwindled due to erosion, while in Vietnam and Thailand, intensive farming has led to a rapid decline in agricultural soil quality. Such land degradation will have repercussions on food security.

Given the current statistics on the matter, the outlook seems grim. However, the situation may not be as grave as some sources make it out to be.

Is doomsday really approaching?

The realities of food security threats were discussed in an interview with Cecilia Tortajada, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Water Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Although food insecurity is likely to increase, developed economies such as Singapore or Hong Kong are likely to be less affected, according to Tortajada. They will have the capacity to continue importing adequate amounts of food, even at heightened prices. Compared to rural populations in developing countries, the types of food consumed in higher-income countries are more diverse, while existing systems ensure that the food is safe to consume.

Tortajada believes that much of the anxiety surrounding food security arises from media speculation and representation. When the 2011 floods in Thailand occurred, the press focused on the huge amounts of paddy fields that were damaged. Ultimately, however, exports were not affected. If cities are prepared, it is unlikely that they will experience any drastic changes in food supply.

However, Tortajada added that those who will be most affected are people in poorer developing countries, especially communities which rely on certain agricultural products as their staple food. With potential price hikes due to increased demand, there will be many who may be unable to afford sufficient food.

Moving towards sustainable agricultural development

At the core of managing food security is the need to develop a system of sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agricultural development improves resource efficiency, strengthens resilience and secures social equity in agriculture and food systems in order to ensure adequate nutritious food for everyone. Here are four ways this can be done.

  1. Include small farmers in modern processes
    One important method of achieving sustainable agricultural development is to involve small farmers in modern agricultural value chains. In line with structural transformation, small farmers can increase productivity and evolve from subsistence farming to commercially oriented farming if they are offered access to credit and training.
    Given that 45 per cent of Asia's population depends on small farms for their livelihoods, allowing them to participate in agricultural value chains could make a huge difference to rural poverty.
  2. Invest in agricultural research
    Studies have shown that investing in agricultural research leads to large economic payoffs. However, agricultural research requires prolonged commitment from both the public and private sectors. Researching and investing in holistic approaches such as agroecology and climate-smart agriculture may also offer solutions.
  3. Cut down food loss in the supply chain
    Food loss in the production system also needs to be addressed. An estimated one-third of total food production is discarded as food loss and waste. Though the food waste in medium- and high-income countries is largely due to consumer behaviour, food loss in developing countries happens during the production process. This occurs due to inadequate mechanisms for harvest, storage and transport. Therefore, strengthening the supply chain by providing suitable infrastructure and investing in transport is crucial to food security.
  4. Ensure water security
    Tortajada also recommended improving water security. She explained that there are many countries in Asia that do not have enough storage capabilities. By developing infrastructure to store water, countries will be more prepared for possible irregular rainfall.
    Additionally, there is a need to create systems to manage surface water and groundwater more efficiently. Countries such as India face the problem of water scarcity due to over-extraction of groundwater. By creating an efficient system, countries can maintain a steady water supply for agricultural production.
    Tortajada also pointed out that in many instances, water may be available but become contaminated due to pollution. Ensuring water quality is therefore as important as securing water quantity.

Tackling food security needs to be a global effort. Organisations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the United Nations are urgently looking into implementing various strategies such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Ultimately, governments need to look into long-term strategies that balance food supply, price management and welfare of the poor. To achieve this, leaders need to craft appropriate policies that are flexible enough to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. Only then can they guarantee the fundamental human right of food security for all.

This piece was written by Prethika Nair.