By Wickramasinghe, Upali; Krishnan S. Raghavan

South Asia has made tremendous progress towards alleviating hunger and food insecurity over the last quarter of a century. However, the rate of decline of chronic undernourishment is still too low for it to be completely eliminated even by the year 2050. This article discusses the current status of and prospects for eliminating undernourishment in South Asia and the role of regional cooperation in promoting sustainable food security with a particular focus on regional cooperation for technology transfer.

Chronic undernourishment has declined significantly, but not fast enough to be eliminated
Between 1990-1992 and 2011-2013, the number of undernourished people in South Asia declined from 314.3 million to 294.7 million and the proportion of undernourished people, known as the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU), declined from 27 to 17.5 per cent of the population (see Figure 1).

Over the same period, South Asia's population grew from 1,166.7 million to 1,677.4 million -- an increase of about 510 million. If the PoU had remained at the 1990-1992 level of 27 per cent, South Asia would have had 451.9 million undernourished people in 2011-2013. Compared to what the level of undernourishment would have been without the progress made during the last quarter of a century, the decline in South Asia is impressive.

The same period saw compound rates of decline in the PoU of 1.7 per cent in Bangladesh, 0.9 per cent in Sri Lanka, 0.28 per cent in India, 0.03 per cent in Pakistan and 0 per cent in Nepal. Applying the rates of decline observed in South Asian countries over the past quarter of a century to future population projections, South Asia will still have an estimated 251 million chronically undernourished people in 2050. At these rates of decline, the PoU will have reached about 10-12 per cent in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan and 18 per cent in Sri Lanka, by then. Hence, a business-as-usual approach will not eliminate food insecurity from South Asia even by 2050.

Causes of chronic undernourishment
How do we explain the persistence of chronic undernourishment in South Asia? Undernourishment is, indeed, the result of a complex interaction between numerous factors spread across all dimensions of food security including availability, accessibility, stability and absorption. Each of these, in turn, is influenced by a host of additional social, economic, political and environmental factors. The aggregate food supply and demand enable us to derive some answers because the framework is based on many of the underlying factors mentioned above.

The Average Dietary Energy Supply Adequacy (ADESA) ratio1, estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is a summary indicator. To develop a better sense of the association between the ADESA ratio and the PoU, a scatterplot of the two variables, considering all available global data was drawn (see Figure 2).


Figure 2 shows that South Asian countries, with the exception of the Maldives, have relatively low average dietary energy supply adequacy ratios with relatively high PoU rates. The figure also shows two fairly robust global trends. First, a decline in the PoU has a high degree of correlation with the ADESA ratio (correlation coefficient -0.8). Second, countries that have managed to bring down their PoU to 5 per cent, have done so after their ADESA rates reached a minimum threshold of 115 per cent or an average value of 120 per cent, barring a few exceptions outside the threshold.

The Maldives has reached an ADESA ratio of above 120 with a PoU of 5 per cent. Pakistan has managed to raise its ADESA ratio to 116 per cent and all other South Asian countries are below the minimum threshold of 115 per cent. Accordingly, South Asia's dietary energy supply levels are far below those required to reduce the PoU to 5 per cent.

However, the factors underlying low average dietary energy supply adequacy across countries are vastly different. These include large gaps between local production and food availability for human consumption (India and Nepal); low production of critical food commodities (Sri Lanka); and high wastage in selected food commodities such as starchy roots, vegetables and fruits as well as cereals, across all countries. An in-depth country level analysis is needed to identify the critical constraints in order to develop policy frameworks to guide targeted interventions. An important and often encountered constraint in the region, however, is bottlenecks in the transfer of sustainable agricultural technologies, negatively impacting progress towards both short- and long-term food security. The identification, dissemination, adaptation and adoption of appropriate technologies are necessary along the entire food value-chain to eliminate food insecurity and hunger. Such technology transfer will help farmers to bridge the yield-gap and/or increase cropping intensity to boost production growth and will also minimize food waste at the level of food production and initial processing, food processors and transporters to reduce waste during further processing and transportation, and food retailers to eliminate food losses. The role of regional cooperation in addressing this constraint is explored later in this paper.

Addressing the multiple manifestations and depth of food insecurity
The United Nations Zero Hunger Challenge calls on stakeholders to ensure that everyone has year-round access to enough and nutritious food, and that there is no more malnutrition among children and pregnant women. The Challenge has turned the focus on the multiple manifestations of food insecurity, requiring a deeper analysis of its causes. To realize the goals of the Zero Hunger Challenge, the following four aspects merit deeper consideration.

  • First, the PoU, often used in policy planning, is inadequate as a measure to 'ensure everyone's' food security. A more accurate measure should also cover people with higher physical activity levels who are vulnerable to food insecurity. The FAO Prevalence of Food Inadequacy is one such measure that estimates undernourishment among physically active populations. Despite known weaknesses of the measure, it shows that food insecurity may be much more pervasive. This measure indicates that 30 per cent of people in Sri Lanka, a quarter of the population in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and 20 per cent in the Maldives, face food inadequacy. This is equivalent to an 8-percentage point jump over chronic undernourishment as measured by the PoU.
  • Second, the seasonality of income and consumption among agrarian households often gets neglected in policy discourse as official data usually deal with annual aggregates. Research has shown that rural agrarian households in South Asia have highly seasonal incomes and their food consumption covariates highly with seasonal production, exposing them to transitory food insecurity.
  • Third, child and maternal malnutrition is highly pervasive across South Asia. Health-related data are the weakest in the region, but the often outdated data suggest a high prevalence of anaemia during pregnancy of up to 61 per cent in Afghanistan and over 50 per cent in Bhutan, India and the Maldives. Stunting among children is above 40 per cent in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and 20 per cent in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Sixty per cent of children in the poorest quintile are underweight, compared to 26 per cent in the richest quintile, indicating a high correlation between income distribution and child malnutrition.
  • Fourth, rising overweight and obesity levels is another dimension of food insecurity that often gets neglected in policy discourse. Although recent global data show that overweight and obesity levels in South Asia are still lower than the rest of the world, these are likely to be high among the relatively affluent. National news media in South Asia is full of reports of increasing diabetes among the general population and even among urban children, primarily due to sedentary lifestyles, carbohydrate-rich diets of poor nutritional value and lack of awareness.

A much greater and concerted effort is needed if South Asia is to eliminate food insecurity in all its manifestations and depth.

Opportunities for realizing sustainable food security
The challenge before South Asia is to provide food security in all its manifestations and depth, without undermining environmental sustainability o an estimated 295 million currently undernourished people and the 2.2 billion people expected to inhabit the region in 2050.

Eliminating food insecurity and achieving agricultural sustainability will require, as the Rio+20 Summit in 2012 called for, a holistic approach that promotes sustainable agriculture while ensuring economic viability of farm operations and sustainability of the resource base. Such a framework should be inclusive and allow for economic transformation. In this context, it is worth examining the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Open Working Group's draft which will provide the basis for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) after the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, particularly in respect to the food security goals envisaged in the draft. The SDGs include six mechanisms to achieve food security by 2030: doubling agricultural productivity, ensuring sustainability of food production systems, maintaining genetic diversity, increasing agricultural investment, correcting and preventing trade distortions, and adopting measures to ensure proper functioning of food and commodities markets (United Nations, 2012). Implementing these will necessitate coordinated efforts at individual, household, community, local, national, regional and global levels. Many aspects of the proposed SDGs will require regional and global collaboration, including through enhanced R&D in agriculture to benefit regions with low agricultural productivity, technology transfer and dissemination of knowledge thus generated for the benefit of poorer communities.

Regional technology transfer for food security
The development, transfer and dissemination of technologies is vital for enabling countries to attain food security and has long been important in the context of regional or even international diffusion of agricultural know-how. As highlighted by Ruttan and Hayami (1973), international and intercontinental diffusion of cultivated plants, domesticated animals, hand tools and production practices was a major source of productivity growth even in prehistory and in classical civilizations. The Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s that contributed to widespread poverty reduction and prevented millions of people from going hungry, was explicitly based on the premise that, given appropriate institutional mechanisms, technology spillovers across political and agro-climatic boundaries could be captured. The Rio+20 outcome document reflects the need for the development, transfer and diffusion of nvironmentally sound technologies and corresponding know-how, in particular to developing countries. The document stresses the importance of cooperative action on technology innovation, research and development, and of exploring modalities for enhanced access to technologies by developing countries.

One way to promote technology transfer, sharing and adaptation is the reciprocal recognition of technology assessments. This approach can not only increase the pace of diffusion of technologies or innovation across the region, but also allow an increase in private sector investment and availability of technology. Recognizing the results of pilot phase testing and stage 2 technology assessments across the region can offer a significant reduction of cost in cross-border technology transfer, while boosting the availability of and market access for the technology.

A number of South Asian countries have similar agro-climatic conditions, soils and natural resources. Smallholder mechanization, improved seeds, fertilizer and water management technologies need relatively little adaptation to country contexts. Thus several countries in South Asia can take advantage of low-cost innovative technologies developed by faster progressing neighbours if the potential of cross-border technology sharing is recognized and promoted.

Climate change and sudden erratic shifts in weather cycles pose a challenge for several countries in South Asia with common climatic zones. Countries like India have invested a significant proportion of research in the development of climate-resilient (drought-, flood- and salinity-tolerant) seeds, particularly for staple crops such as rice, wheat and maize. The country's framework of research institutions and agricultural universities has enabled farmers to access these technologies, improve agricultural productivity and adapt to climatic variability and stress. These seed varieties were released in the country after rigorous testing procedures and have gone through a long gestation period. Examples like these have a lot to offer to other countries in terms of best practices in developing drought- and flood-resistant seed varieties, dissemination of new technologies to farmers, and sharing of knowledge and expertise among research institutions.

Smaller countries within the region, unable to devote adequate resources to research for development of similar climate-resilient varieties have a compelling reason to identify mechanisms and policy interventions that would allow sharing of such research outcomes immediately. For instance, in the cases cited above, if the seeds are developed by a public sector research institution, a regional technology assessment framework ratified by countries in the region would enable these seeds to be made available to smallholder farmers across the region. Similarly if seeds are developed by a private sector firm, requirements for cross-border availability can be restricted to basic assessments that serve the purpose of scientific risk management strategies.

Complicated export-import procedures, sanitary and phytosanitary permissions and procedural delays, particularly for such technologies are preventing farmers from accessing these in time. As these technologies can help farmers tide over climatic stress and provide adaptive capacity, they should get high priority and be treated as time-sensitive cases where it is not advisable to wait for the usual gestation period. Reciprocal recognition would also enable a two-way technology flow, giving both countries involved, opportunities to test technologies in diverse agro-climatic zones.

The role of multilateral agencies, knowledge transfer platforms such as SATNET Asia2 and regional stakeholder groups is critical for engaging agricultural research institutions as well as the private and public sector to promote the role of innovation in addressing food and nutritional security challenges. Such institutions and platforms can develop a framework for engagement with policymakers in South Asia to formalize reciprocal recognition arrangements for agricultural technologies. Institutions such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and United Nations entities can provide an objective and inclusive platform for critical assessment of the merits of reciprocity arrangements and provide a level playing field where the voices of all countries can be heard. Overall, promoting reciprocal recognition can have significant and long-term benefits, and help address the food security challenges of the region in a short span of time.