By Wickramasinghe, Upali

The recent food and financial crises demonstrated with no uncertain terms the fragility of the global food system. At its peak the world had an estimated 1.02 billion undernourished people. Many countries felt a sigh of relief when the food situation improved and the number of undernourished came down to 925 million by 2010. We all recognize that much more needs to be done as it is not just because it is inhumane for the civilized world to let one-sixth of the global humanity to suffer from lack of food while the world produces enough food to feed everyone, it is also a colossal waste of productive human resources. Solving the problem of global hunger is not charity, but a productive investment and it makes pure economic sense. While there seems to be consensus on this, there is lack of agreement as to how to achieve this. This short essay will not do the justice to the problem given its sheer scale and complexity. It nevertheless attempts to put together the salient elements of such a programme, with particular focus on Asia and the Pacific.

Extent of food insecurity
The Asia and the Pacific region is home to 578 million out of the 925 million undernourished people in the world in 2010 (FAO, 2010), representing 62 per cent of the global undernourished. This means that the region has 339 million more undernourished than Sub-Saharan Africa - the region often associated with famine and food deprivation. The unfortunate reality is that the region was on its way to achieve hunger reduction targets until 1995, but the progress largely reversed in the subsequent period, rising to a staggering 642 million in 2009. These aggregate figures hide the severity and depth of hunger and food insecurity across and within countries. The situation of India, a country with the largest number of food insecure in Asia and the Pacific, illustrates the point well. Based on the IFPRI India State Hunger Index 2008, Ghosh (2010) points out that Bihar and Jharkand rank lower than Zimbabwe and Haiti, and Madhya Pradesh falls between Ethiopia and Chad.

We should not also forget that a large proportion of children in the region is malnourished. The Asia-Pacific region had an estimated 98 million (31 per cent) underweight children under five in 2003-2007, representing 41 per cent in South Asia, 24 per cent in South-East Asia, and 7 per cent in East Asia (MDG Report, 2010). With the current rate of reduction of malnutrition among children, by 2015, India will still have 51.9 million underweight children, Pakistan 9.8 million, Indonesia 3.5 million, Myanmar, Nepal and Afghanistan each 1.5 million (MDG Report, 2010). The damage for the individuals, loss of productive capacity to society and social discord need no further elaboration. Given this absolutely poor record and at the rate of current progress, the World Food Summit (WFS) 1996 target of reducing the number of undernourished from 840 to 420 million by 2015 is extremely difficult, if not impossible. All the stakeholders need to act without delay even to bring the global hunger to a bearable level, first targeting the most affected and vulnerable communities, and eventually covering all.

Food security components
The commonly used definition of food security1 recognized four components of food security: availability, access, utilization and stability. The availability is determined by three major components: production minus allowances for seed, processing, storage and handling losses, industrial uses, non-human consumption such as for livestock feed and biofuel production; net trade (buying and selling2); and stock changes. Access to food on the other hand is determined by 'entitlements', which in turn, is determined by access to resources and their distribution, socio-economic factors, institutions and social connections. Utilization is essentially a matter of ones biological capacity, influenced by dietary balance, state of health, food handling and processing methods, access to clean water and sanitation; and nutritional awareness and food preparation practices. Stability refers to access and availability of food, at least to fulfil ones biological needs, over time without disruption. Achieving this is not easy; individuals undergo food shortages at sometime of their lives; poor farm households face food shortages in 'lean' months of almost every year just before harvesting; and countries due such events as disasters, prolonged droughts, disruption to markets and civil wars.

Let us turn the attention to the experience of the Asia-Pacific region. Food production index3, covering food crops, with the base year as 1999-2001, shows that East Asia and the Pacific has surpassed that of the world food production growth in year 2000 (Figure 1). South Asia on the other hand maintained a higher trajectory from 1962 until 1998. Since then, however, has entered into a period of sluggish growth. The crop production index4 has a similar pattern.

Agriculture value added per worker5, a measure of productivity of agricultural labour, shows that both East and South Asia have low agricultural labour productivity. The world average of value added per worker was USD 735.8 (constant 2,000 US dollars) in 1980, and it has increased to 1,052.7 in 2007 (WDI data base). The comparable figures for East Asia and the Pacific for 1980 and 2007, respectively, are 230.1 and 534.2, and for South Asia the figures are 313.7 and 554.4. Production of rice, roots, tubers, fruits, vegetables, melon and other cereals in the ASEAN countries has been significantly higher than the production of other food commodities. In case of China, Japan and South Korea, vegetables production has surpassed the production of rice and tubers.

Agricultural production and productivity figures across regions and among countries suggest a considerablescope for increasing agricultural productivity, particularly for South Asia this is an imperative as the current level of productivity is so low compared to other regions with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa6 (Figure 2) Given the limited availability of arable land7, this may be the only major avenue open to the region.

The third component that determines availability of food is agricultural trade. Autarky in agriculture is not observed anywhere in the world, as countries rely on food imports to fulfil whatever food commodities they are unable to produce locally. This can also be observed by looking at food and agricultural trade, which still constitutes a significant proportion of global trade, although its percentage share in total merchandise imports has declined. In some products such as cereal, domestic production has increased significantly without corresponding increase in trade suggesting that increased production is absorbed within the country. In ASEAN countries, for example, cereal production has increased from under 200 million tones in 1960 to over 650 million tons by 2006, but trade has grown from close to 10 million to just under 100 million during the same period. Another feature that can be discerned from trade data is that cereal imports show a mirror image of production figures, with minor lags. This shows that food imports essentially serve in filling domestic production shortfalls. This capacity of trade was severely disrupted during the food crisis when food exporting countries bannedexports. The fear of countries not being able to secure food prompted them to launch food 'self-sufficiency' campaigns even when such ventures are ineffective and costly.

On access to food, Asia and the Pacific managed to reduce the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day from 1.5 billion to 947 million (MDG Report, 2010), but we also observe that the number of undernourished increased since 1995. This along with the observation Ghosh (2010) made on India that the proportion of the population nutritionally deprived is larger than 'poor' population, and in many states they are not overlapping8, leads one to wonder whether rising income would naturally result in reduced food insecurity.

The 2008 food crisis was a crude wake-up call on ensuring stability of food markets. As a result of the crisis, within less than two years, the number of undernourished people globally jumped from 850 million to 1.02 billion, and the proportion of undernourished people increased to 20 per cent from 16 per cent in 2005-2007. Asia-Pacific region saw an increase of 76 million. Although the region partially recovered by 2010, food insecurity and hunger remain concerns and the level of hunger is still higher than it was before the food price and financial crises. The poor, both in rural and urban areas, are the most affected from high prices; the impact of the crises severely affected net food buyers, the landless, households headed by females (FAO, 2009). FAO (2010) identified 22 countries as 'countries in protracted crisis', and luckily only two countries belong to this category from Asia and the Pacific: Afghanistan and Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The twin crises undermined decades of progress towards the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating hunger and achieving other targets.

Recent food price spike should not divert our attention from long-term concerns such as demographic growth and urbanization, shifts in the structure of demand, growing demand for biofuels, land and environmental constraints, and climate change. These will have much larger impact on global food security in the years to come. Any future crisis similar to the current financial and economic slow-down can have far greater implications for a number of reasons including the fact that a large proportion of the poor in developing countries depend on foreign remittances; less demand for main exports; reduced investment and foreign direct investment in agriculture; reduced overseas development assistance to developing countries due to budgetary pressure in the industrialized world; and credit market volatilities. As the foregoing discussion implies, no single theory or conjecture has the monopoly over explaining food insecurity. As levels and depth of food insecurity differ across individuals, households, regions or countries, so do their explanations.

Rooting out food insecurity
Rooting out of food insecurity will need collaborative arrangements at three levels: local and national level; regional bodies; and global institutions. Only a co-ordinated and massive effort at all these levels will enable the world to end hunger and food insecurity. National governments should take the lead in devising strategies and programmes, fully taking into account the nature of poverty and food insecurity and the implications of counter measures, in co-ordination with farmers, producers, suppliers of inputs and equipment, transporters, consumers, civil society groups, private sector businesses, importers and exporters. The strategies and programmes need to be designed so as to disproportionately favour food insecure households and communities; to remove structural rigidities9; and to help the poor and farmers to engage in productive economic activities. Growth is essential, but not sufficient.

As was also observed during the recent food price spike, higher food prices at consumer markets rarely translated to higher farm gate prices. At the same time, declining international prices were not associated with similar declines of food prices for the consumer. Farmers often receive low prices even when food prices rise. However, they are compelled to pay higher prices when they buy food from the market. Raising farmer incomes and ensuring their food security should thus begin by solving the age-old issue: high transaction costs. Governments can help the poor through several channels. Evidence the world over suggests that development of efficient transport systems and information networks significantly reduce transaction costs, thus allowing farmers to use markets efficiently. Involvement of international financial institutions is required in this effort given the involvement of high capital requirements, but national governments need to introduce effective regulatory mechanisms and governance structures for attracting capital and their efficient use. The usefulness of agricultural programmes like the establishment of minimum farm gate prices is well-known. The continued use of such interventions often can be explained by political-economy considerations including rent-seeking and high transaction costs. The need for such costly interventions becomes weak in economies where markets are efficient (Roumasset, et al., 1993; Wickramasinghe, 1997). Similarly, the calls for 'banning' future markets in essential commodities will not solve the issue of food insecurity and hunger. The need for banningfuture markets will disappear when markets are fully functional and efficient. Regulations can be introduced to prevent hoarding and other activities that may undermine the efficient functioning of the food system. The creation of an environment conducive to evolve efficient food and agriculture markets will also attract private sector investment, further strengthening the efficiency of markets. Governments need to play a decisive and pro-active role to bring about a change by introducing appropriate regulatory policies, including the competition law.

Governments need to play another key role in the fight against hunger and food insecurity: provision of safety nets to the most vulnerable groups. No matter how efficient commodities and factor markets are, there are groups who fall-out of the system and become food insecure, often as a result of a combination of factors including lack of access to resources, social exclusion, discrimination, or even sheer negligence including addiction to drugs. Caution must be exercised, however, in designing such safety nets to make sure that the communities do not develop some sort of dependency. To put in more economic terms, the benefits that communities receive should always below their shadow wage rates.

Beyond national borders, regional organizations play significantly important role in the area of poverty and food security through a number of channels. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and ASEAN+310 and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) have long recognized the need to play proactive roles in ensuring food security. The ASEAN Vision 2020 envisioned " socially cohesive and caring ASEAN where hunger, malnutrition, deprivation and poverty are no longer basic problems." The first objective of the SAARC charter is "to promote the welfare of the peoples of SOUTH ASIA and to improve their quality of life11 Both ASEAN and SAARC have undertaken several steps to achieve these objectives. The preparation and approval of the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework (AIFS) and the Strategic Plan of Action on ASEAN Food Security (SPA-FS), the SAARC Programme for Food Security, the Colombo Declaration on Food Security and steps taken to operationalize the SAARC Food Bank are few recent examples (websites of ASEAN and SAARC). One of the most critical areas where regional organizations play a role is to ensure smooth flow of goods and services across their boundaries. The importance of maintaining the free flow of food commodities became clear during the recent food crisis. When faced with domestic food shortages, the first reaction of many of the food exporting countries was to ban food exports, especially cereal. Food importing countries resorted to 'panic buying', importing even more than their normal import requirements for the purpose of stockpiling. These two actions further aggravated the food crisis. It is in the interest of all that member states to revisit this episode and find amicable solutions to face with such events. Discussions are underway both under ASEAN and SAARC for designing such effective mechanisms such as the proposal of the establishment of a food bank under the aegis of SAARC and the ASEAN Fund for Food Security. Trade facilitation, again a subject that has been dealt with by both ASEAN and SAARC, can strengthen food and agricultural trade significantly. Regional organizations recognize the need for facilitating inter-country co-operation and action on issues of transboundary nature, such as sharing information, the optimum use of forest and river-basin systems, regional transport networks, the control of avian influenza and harmonization of policies and standards across countries. There is need to strengthen these efforts in areas of food trade.

Another area is networking arrangements to share information on production and productivity, technology, exportable surplus, prices, import demand as well as information on trans-boundary plant and animal diseases. Simplification and standardization of customs procedures and quarantine and certification practices are essential for the smooth functioning of food and agricultural trade. The establishment of a regional accredited laboratory system, as has been proposed under SAARC, will assist smaller nations facing difficulties to export even within the region due to lack of laboratories or non-acceptance of certificates issued by national laboratories. Few other areas where there is great potential to improve include: emergency reserves and standby credit facilities during crisis; co-operation on trans-boundary plant pest and animal disease control; collective actions to promote mitigation and adaptation measures in agriculture to address climate change; policy dialogue and technical collaboration on innovations to deal with the food-biofuel dilemma and food price instability.

The 2008 food crises brought home the message that agriculture and food security cannot be neglected as has been in the past and that combating hunger and food insecurity will require collaboration among global players. L'Aquila Food Security Initiative (AFSI), endorsed by G8 and a number of countries, regional organizations and global institutions, launched during the L'Aquila Summit in July 2009, committed to mobilize 20 billion dollars over a three year period to improve food security and identified a number of areas for intervention. It is time to revisit the statement, record the progress thus far has been made, and renew efforts to achieve the goals identified therein. Raising investment in food systems is an imperative that the global community can no longer ignore.

1 The definition articulated in the World Food Summit 1996 states that food security exists "when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy and active life" (The World Food Summit, 1996).
2 At national level, they should be replaced by imports and exports.
3 The index shows food production for each year relative to the base period.
4 Not shown here.
5 Agriculture value added per worker measures the output of the agricultural sector (ISIC divisions 1-5) less the value of intermediate inputs. Agriculture comprises value added from forestry, hunting, and fishing as well as cultivation of crops and livestock production. Data are in constant 2,000 US dollars.
6 Figures for Sub-Saharan Africa are not shown.
7 Defined as land under temporary crops, temporary meadows for mowing or for pasture, land under market or kitchen gardens, and land temporarily fallow.
8 This would need further analysis, but beyond the scope of this particular essay.
9 This may include monopoly and monopsony market structures, lack of access to resources and property rights, unjustified rules and regulations and social exclusion.
10 ASEAN member states + China, South Korea and Japan
11 SAARC Charter Article I (Objectives) a.