Taking action to ensure food and nutrition security in SE Asia

opinion May 29, 2013 00:00

By Shenggen Fan

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Southeast Asia's robust growth has created both progress and new challenges for the region's food and nutrition security. While solving some problems - such as poverty - this growth has placed new pressures on the quality and sustainability of the regio

The region’s past two decades have been characterised by rapid growth. Economies have expanded an average 5 per cent per year during most of this time, with this growth expected to continue in the coming five years. Population growth has also soared, doubling since the 1970s with an additional 25 per cent increase expected by 2050. Urbanisation has intensified markedly, with a majority of Southeast Asians expected to live in cities by 2020, compared to just 20 per cent in 1970. The agriculture sector has grown during this time as well, expanding at 4.2 per cent during the past decade compared to a global average of 2.4 per cent.
The surge in prosperity and food production has helped to drive an impressive reduction in poverty and hunger. In the past 20 years, the prevalence of under-nutrition in Southeast Asia has been reduced by two-thirds, and the number of hungry reduced by half (to 65 million in 2010-2012). Most of the region has already met, or is close to meeting, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for poverty, hunger and child mortality.
However these achievements have not been uniform across and within countries. Myanmar, Laos and the Philippines are unlikely to meet their MDGs by 2015. In the Philippines, undernourishment has actually been rising since 2007. Micronutrient deficiency – which has a major impact on children’s cognitive development and other health issues – remains at severe levels in Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia. The lack of such micronutrients – such as vitamin A, iron and iodine – can have real economic impacts. Indonesia is estimated to lose US$2.6 billion (Bt78 billion) in GDP annually as a result of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
The relatively strong agriculture sector in Southeast Asia will face intensifying challenges going forward. The growing population is demanding more diverse, better quality and more resource-intensive foods, demanding new innovations and shifts in a system which is currently dominated by small-scale farmers and rice production.  The changing climate poses ever greater risks to the region’s productive potential. Low-lying coastal regions, which are often the focus of rice production, are the most vulnerable – putting key production hubs at risk. Mega-deltas such as the Irawaddy in Myanmar and the Mekong and Red River in Vietnam are already being heavily impacted by rising sea levels, coastal erosion and salinisation.
How can these challenges be overcome? It is clear that Southeast Asia will need to find new ways to meet regional food needs which ensure environmental sustainability, economic opportunity for smallholders, and greater productivity – all in the face of an increasingly unpredictable climate.
Six key steps will help to create a sustainable pathway to food and nutrition security in Southeast Asia:
1. Encourage nutrition-sensitive food production. Nutrition does not improve automatically when economies or food productivity grow. A deliberate effort is needed to increase the availability and consumption of nutritious foods, extending along the whole food value chain. It starts with selecting more nutritious crop varieties to grow, and extends to stimulating consumer demand for healthy, nutritious products through awareness campaigns and pricing policies. Biotechnology and bio-fortification can form part of this equation, if managed by effective and transparent regulation.
2. Implement resource-efficient technologies to boost agricultural productivity, especially among smallholders, while reducing the use of essential resources like land and water. Efficient resource use can also be encouraged through pricing and regulatory policies that more accurately reflect the value of natural resources and the foods they create. However such policy tools must be applied jointly with social protection programmes to ensure that poor people are not priced out of accessing food and natural resources.
3. Develop “triple win” solutions to climate change: new investments and policies are needed to simultaneously boost productivity; reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture; and increase farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change. Adjusting planting dates; introducing climate-resilient crops; and improving farming methods to modify fertiliser use are all effective actions.
4. Promote agricultural diversity, expanding beyond rice to include high-value products such as fruits, vegetables, and animal-sourced products. Focus should be especially placed on the introduction and promotion of crops that are more nutritious, sustainable, and climate-smart. More research is also needed to understand the costs and benefits of shifting from rice monoculture to diverse agriculture systems.
5. Strengthen agricultural trade and markets. Robust trade can help stabilise domestic food prices, and national governments should be encouraged to eliminate harmful trade restrictions and refrain from imposing new ones. Increasing smallholder farmers’ access to markets through improved infrastructure, financing and extension can contribute to the development of a more vibrant market.
6. Build partnerships among governments, the private sector, and farmers’ organisations. Coordinated efforts by all stakeholders are needed to meet the challenges outlined above. The private sector can play an effective role in improving agricultural productivity, but it needs government action to ensure a sound enabling environment, as well as collaboration with farmers. Efforts such as the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture initiative can help provide a neutral platform for such coordination. Donors can work with developing countries to harness the expertise of emerging countries, such as China, Brazil and India.
These priority actions will help to address some of the greatest challenges to Southeast Asia’s future food security.
Shenggen Fan is director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Food Security.