Over the past thirty years, across the Asia-Pacific region millions of people have benefited from an improved standard of living due to economic growth, rising per capita incomes, and increased food security. Featuring as the key site of the Green Revolution, production has grown by manifold and productivity has also increased commensurate with that progress. Although the region as a whole has achieved rapid economic growth and increases in food production have been dramatic, the developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region still account for a majority of the worlds poor, and have the highest proportion of undernourished people. Over 950 million people live under the $1.25 per day poverty line and it is estimated that 542 million people in the region are still undernourished.
The Asia-Pacific region was on track to achieve the MDGs but there is evidence that the 2007-2008 food price rises have pushed millions of people back into hunger and poverty and are significantly slowing down the progress. This indicates that the region's food supply system is more fragile and imbalanced than what was previously believed. The events of 2007 and 2008 have reminded us that our food supply is precarious, and stable prices cannot be taken for granted. Renewed efforts are needed to address energy use, climate change, and declining growth in agricultural productivity within a holistic food systems approach. Simply focusing on increasing the production of staples to address the food crisis misses the point that the real crisis is one of a narrow food base and imbalanced diets, and this will require more fundamental changes in policies, science, and practices to ensure good health for all. Sustainable agricultural development is crucial for achieving the MDGs and continued investment in agriculture supported by the creation of an institutional framework for all stakeholders taking part in agriculture is therefore urgently needed
The real crisis was and is one of imbalanced diets
Poor people under financial distress reduce their food intake to cope
A large proportion of the Asia-Pacific population already was undernourished before the 2007/2008 crisis and price rises have exacerbated this. Undernourishment affects large population groups particularly in South and South-West Asia, where 21 per cent of the population is affected. The problem is most acute in Afghanistan, where more than a third of the population is undernourished. But levels of undernourishment are also high in other countries in Asia and the Pacific, including Tajikistan, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Armenia, Sri Lanka, India, and the Solomon Islands (ESCAP, 2009).
Poor households have little room for adjustment when under financial crisis. Food accounts for between 50 to 70 per cent of total household expenditures in South and South-East Asia (ADB, 2008) and comprises 30 to 50 per cent of the consumption basket of the average household in East Asia (Brahmbhatt and Christuaensen, 2008). A large proportion of this is spent on staple foods. For instance, in Bangladesh, rice accounts for 30 per cent of total household expenditures and 48 per cent of total food expenditures of the poor (von Braun et al., 2008).
Experience from previous financial crises in Asia and Africa has shown that poor households first cut down on non-staple food consumption when under financial stress. Then, the quantity of food items consumed is reduced. These strategies thus affect first the diversity and quality, and then the quantity and safety of diets. Distress sales of assets and cutbacks in health expenditures due to a temporary shock may further jeopardize the nutrition situation (SCN, 2009).
The diets of the poor are already monotonous and imbalanced
Populations in developing countries with more diverse diets have a higher nutritional status (Johns and Eyzaguirre, 2007). A higher ratio of energy consumption from staple food to all foods consumed indicates a low diversity of diets (Table 1) compares the share of cereals, roots, and tubers in total energy consumption for countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Diets in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Timor-Leste, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Nepal, Indonesia, and the Solomon Islands are very monotonous with more than 70 per cent of energy consumed from staple foods. The table also shows that the food diversity in most of these countries has not improved over the past tenyears. Populations with low food diversity in these countries deserve policy attention to promote awareness of healthy diets and increase access and production of diverse and nutritious food.
The diets of the obese are also imbalanced
Other groups that need policy attention and are largely ignored are the obese. The global epidemic of excess weight and obesity -'globesity' is the term used by WHO- is rapidly increasing and is becoming a public health problem. South-East Asia and the Western Pacific region are now at the forefront of the global diabetes epidemic. In India and China, the incidence and prevalence of type 2 diabetes among children are also increasing at alarming rates, with potentially devastating consequences, and show no sign of slowing (Hossain et al., 2007; Chan et al., 2009). People in Asia tend to develop diabetes with a lesser degree of obesity at younger ages, suffer longer with complications of diabetes, and die sooner than people in other regions (Yoon et al., 2006).
The increasing number of obese and overweight people has been linked to less physical activity and overconsumption of poor quality of food with diluted nutrients and dense energy (Popkin, 2003). In developed countries or economies in transition such foods tend to be more affordable and available to the poor and obesity becomes a problem that preferentially affects the poor (WHO, 2007). In developing countries, treating chronic diseases in the future will add tremendous costs to already overburdened national health care budgets.
As a result of the food crisis, food consumption patterns have shifted the balance towards low-quality food. Policies are needed to stop the rapid growth of public health epidemics for populations in countries with a high prevalence of obesity and low consumption of nutritious foods. Greater and continuous efforts to promote healthy eating, improve nutritional literacy, and increase the availability and affordability of diverse foods, including pulses, fruits and vegetables, and roots and tubers in rural and urban markets are needed to encourage farmers, the private sector, and consumers to produce, distribute, and consume more diverse foods.
The components of a sustainable food systems
World population is expected to grow by 50 per cent to more than 9 billion people by 2050. By 2030, projected demand for cereals will increase by 50 per cent and meat by 85 per cent above current levels (Brown, 2008). This will require more investment in agriculture and agricultural research than national governments and bilateral donors are currently providing. It will also require a shift in the way business is done. Agriculture and food contribute significantly to carbon emissions, energy consumption, biodiversity loss, and increased soil erosion. Innovations are required that contribute to more efficient use of resources and inputs and which support good agricultural practices. More attention is required to develop food systems that promote healthy eating habits, including the consumption of a higher share of fresh and unprocessed foods
Producing more of the right foods to balance diets
Efforts to increase food supplies in a sustainable mannerwill need to consider a better cereal, protein, vegetable, and fruit balance. The world food supply is precariously reliant on a very small number of crops. Only three - wheat, maize, and rice- supply more than half of humanity's calories (Weis, 2007). Good health is dependent on dietary diversity, and as poverty increases, human diets become less diverse. In impoverished countries the poor have little choice and are forced to rely on the cheapest available staples and dietary diversity and health suffer. In richer countries, changes in the food systems have made poor quality processed foods high in carbohydrates and fats more affordable, available and accessible and this has most impacts on the diets of the poor (Friel and Baker, 2009). Diets become less diverse. In both cases, as a consequence, diets lack adequate supplies of essential vitamins and minerals. Simply focusing on increasing production of staples to address the food crisis misses the point that the real crisis is one of adequately balanced diets. Shifting consumption to more grain-efficient forms of animal protein, and the movement of consumers down the food chain to more fresh and unprocessed foods (Brown, 2008) all contribute to establishing more balanced food systems.
Good Agricultural Practices for better human and environmental health
Increasing food production can be at the expense of the health of producers and consumers alike. In parts of the developing world, pesticide poisoning causes more deaths than infectious diseases. Use of pesticides is poorly regulated and often dangerous (Eddleston et al., 2002). Abuse of pesticides is a chronic problem in Asia, where the majority of the world's pesticide poisoning cases occur each year (Gunnell et al., 2007). India produces the largest quantities of basic pesticides in Asia and accounts for one-third of all pesticide poisoning cases in the world. Excessive use of cheap pesticides by poorly educated farmers is a growing global problem affecting the health of farmers and consumers alike and causing major environmental damage. In India pesticide residues in food, especially vegetables, are extraordinarily high. Surveys show that 50-70 per cent of vegetables are contaminated with insecticide residues (Karanth, 2000).
There is a huge need to focus on good agricultural practices to maintain both good environmental health and the health of producers and consumers. Increasingly such standards are being mandated by trade requirements. Privately developed standards such as EurepGAP are becoming major determinants of international trading patterns (Campbell, 2006). Nationally, quality standards are also growing across Asia, and this can be to the disadvantage of smallholder producers with limited education or management alternatives to continued excessive pesticide use.
Improving food supply by reducing large post-harvest losses
Another area that deserves attention in renewed efforts to increase productivity is the post-harvest sector. Field observations have reported that 40-50 per cent of crops can be lost before they are consumed, mainly due to high rates of bruising, water loss, and subsequent decay during post-harvest handling (Kader, 2003). On average, it is estimated that 15-20 per cent of all vegetables are lost before they reach the final consumer (Weinberger et al., 2008). The risk to future sales from selling food past its prime has encouraged retailers in developed countries to discard excessive amounts of food, and consumers overly concerned with expiry dates also contribute to high overall levels of waste, estimated by the USDA in 1995 to account for almost a quarter of all edible food (Martin, 2008). Reducing post-harvest losses for fresh produce has been demonstrated to be an important part of sustainable agricultural development efforts meant to increase food availability (Kader, 2005; Weinberger et al.., 2009) but during the past thirty years less than 5 per cent of the funding provided for agricultural research has gone toward post-harvest areas of concern, while more than 95 per cent has gone toward trying to increase production (Kader and Rolle, 2004).
Investing in agricultural research for poverty reduction
There is an emerging consensus on the need to adopt new, sustainable agricultural models. We also know that such investments have large and measurable impacts on poverty reduction (Thirtle et al., 2003) and that income growth originating in the agriculture sector is many times more effective in raising incomes of poor people than income growth originating outside the sector (Alene and Coulibaly, 2009). Yet spending on agricultural research has been declining. In the world's poorest countries, government spending on agriculture averages only 4 per cent of public expenditure. Aid from developed countries has also fallen dramatically: development aid to agriculture was only 4.6 per cent in 2007, compared with 18 per cent in 1979 (IFAD, 2009).
Concerted action is needed
Much greater investments are needed to develop technologies and management systems that more efficiently use scarce resources such as land, forests, water, plant nutrients and fossil fuels; in helping protect ecosystems by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water pollution and slowing or reversing the loss of biodiversity; in controlling plant and animal pests and diseases; and in contributing to the development of sustainable food systems. Strong leadership is required to end the devastating scourge of hunger and malnutrition.
Ensuring food supplies is fundamental to government survival
Providing adequate supplies of food for balanced diets is not just a humanitarian imperative for governments. It is also a matter of national and international security and government survival. Historically famines have been major causes of social disruption and the fall of governments. Between January 2007 and June 2009, food price related protests were counted in 43 countries (Dugger, 2008; UN News Centre, 2008; von Grebmer et al ., 2008; Wikipedia, 2009). Even price changes in non-staples have had big political impacts. In 1998, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was thrown out in provincial elections in Delhi, largely because of excessive rises in the price of onions - a staple vegetable for the poor. Ever since, Indian governments have been quick to respond to any 'onion crisis' (Pasricha, 2005).
Concerted action also is required across governments. Large and wealthy nations need to help smaller and poorer nations; states that cannot ensure sufficient food and peace for their citizens threaten the political stability of the international system. The food crisis has clarified that food security is a matter of global security. As one world leader noted, the crisis could "threaten democratization, destabilize countries and lead to international security problems." There is no national security without global security. This has to be recognized and global efforts need to be restructured and refocused (Brown, 2008).
Complex problems require regional and global responses
Regional organizations involved in South-Soutcollaboration including the Centre for Poverty Alleviation through Sustainable Agriculture (CAPSA) and the Asian Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutes (APAARI) must become involved in coherently organizing the creation of knowledge, the distribution and exchange of information, and the education and training of farmers and resource users.
Donors can support such developments by becoming more involved in advance planning, and by providing more certainty in budget allocations. Under the current funding environment, it is difficult to find adequate funds for long-term strategic research because donors are interested in immediate impact of their investments. Strategic research takes more time to produce quantifiable impacts.
A greater scientific focus on food systems, not just component parts
The current organization of knowledge, science, and technology is insufficient to adequately deal with the challenges to sustainable food systems. Information on food, health, agriculture, forestry, landscape management, rural areas, environment, climate, ecology, and policy trends continue to be held in separate 'knowledge silos' (SCAR, 2008). Available information is difficult to integrate because data sources are built for different purposes and currently it is impossible to make adequately informed choices among technological options on the basis of existing data on costs, price, and value. Holistic understanding of agriculture and food systems is weak. Agriculture tends to focus on food as source of rural income while the health sector is often more focused on food as a nutritional input. More interdisciplinary co-operation is required to understand and address the challenges ahead to better connect the opposite ends of the human food chain represented by agriculture and human health and nutrition. This involves an improved balance of upstream and downstream research, less focus on supply components of the food system such as individual staple crops, and greater focus on improving the food system and human diets as a whole.
The recent financial and food price crises may have been a wake-up call. The proximate causes point to topical market issues of supply and demand for particular staples, but the ultimate causes are a dysfunctional food system in which humanity relies on too few crops leading to imbalanced diets. This was creating chronic and less well-publicized health problems long before the recent rise in food prices, as evidenced by widespread long-term undernutrition in many countries in the Asia-Pacific. The era of cheap food prices is likely behind us, and the challenges of volatile energy prices and climate change will make it even harder to maintain continued growth in food supply. Complacency by government and industry has led to underinvestment in agricultural research, over-reliance on a few familiar staples, and improving food supplies by simply increasing yields rather than reducing losses. We need to think and act differently. A generation that has benefited from the yield increases of the Green Revolution assumes adequate supplies of staples as a given, and governments ignore this expectation at their peril. Increasing disasters and food emergencies can easily shift the international focus of food supply to one of ensuring human survival, but the more fundamental issue is ensuring health, and this affects everyone from the rich and obese to the poor and hungry.