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ASIA: Green Revolution Has Little to Offer New Hungry Mouths

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jun 4 2010 (IPS) - As it took root in the rice fields across Asia, it was hailed as the solution to the hunger afflicting millions of people in the region. But four decades on, the much vaunted Green Revolution appears to have reached its limits, unable to meet new demands, to feed new mouths.

United Nations food experts are increasingly touting the region’s chronic hunger figures for 2009 to confirm this reality. Last year saw the proportion of people in the grip of chronic hunger hit 17 to 18 percent in the Asia- Pacific region, up from 16 percent in 2006.

It was the first time that the number of the hungry had risen since the Green Revolution spurred a downward trend. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned this week of a change in grain production since the late 1960s, which saw the output of rice, a regional staple, triple.

The Green Revolution was a series of initiatives, including the introduction of high-yielding rice varieties, launched in the late 1960s to boost agricultural production and feed a growing world population.

According to Hiroyuki Konuma, the FAO’s regional head, the high yield of rice resulting from the introduction of the Green Revolution accounted for a 300 percent increase in the past 40 years, consequently seeing a “deduction of food prices by 40 percent in real terms” and helping to “reduce the proportion of hunger from 34 percent in 1970 to 16 percent in 2006.”

But with a repeat of such achievement now in question, the FAO is appealing to the heartstrings of the world’s public and private sector investors to perform a rescue act to help feed children dying of chronic hunger.

Among the grim facts the FAO is laying on the table are the 14,000 children who die of hunger every day and the five million children who die every year, the majority of whom are in Asia.

“This is unacceptable!” asserted Konuma during a Bangkok press conference this week that sought to sound the alarm about the emerging food crisis in the region and beyond.

“Of the 1.02 billion hungry people in the world, 642 million live in this region,” he added to reinforce the message that “food security and agriculture are back as a priority on the global development agenda for the first time after the Green Revolution.”

The death of children due to hunger stems from malnutrition than starvation. “Children in Asia are not receiving the correct micronutrients; they lack sufficient vitamins and minerals in their food,” said France Begin, regional nutrition advisor of Asia-Pacific office of the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“Children die of chronic hunger in Asia because their immune systems are weak,” she told IPS. “Pneumonia and diarrhoea are the two main killers.”

To help such victims, the FAO has set its sights on a groundbreaking investment forum in Manila in early July to attract public and private sector investment to help boost the region’s agriculture sector. The Investment Forum for Food Security in Asia and the Pacific in the Philippines capital will be the “first such forum to attract public and private sector security-related initiatives in the region.”

But the planned forum from Jul. 7-9, co-hosted by the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in addition to the FAO, faces a formidable financial challenge.

After all, investments in agriculture in the developing world have plummeted in the past three decades. Overseas Development Assistance for agriculture has dropped from a high of 18 percent in 1978 to a little over four percent in 2008, according to the Rome-based IFAD.

Governments in Asia have mirrored similar neglect of a sector that is still home to a majority of the world’s farmers. Government expenditure “as a proportion of total expenditure in 27 Asian countries showed a noticeable decline beginning in 1990, reached a low in 2001 and recovered somewhat in subsequent years,” according to the FAO.

“The proportion of agriculture expenditures to total expenditures declined from about 8.5 percent in 1990 to less than two percent in 2001,” it added. “This declining trend in the share of agriculture expenditures on agriculture in Asia is symptomatic of the neglect of the sector.”

In fact, argued the U.N. food agency, gross annual investments of 209 billion U.S. dollars are needed in primary agriculture and downstream services in developing countries to meet global food needs by 2050, 90 percent of which will be in the developing world.

The need for crop production to mirror the output of the Green Revolution is also being touted by the Rome-based FAO for another pressing concern – the limit of new land available for agriculture.

In the Asia-Pacific region, according to the FAO, there has been a marginal increase in agricultural land in developing countries during the 1997-2007 period, from 495 million hectares to 519 million ha, representing a share for agricultural land of 19.4 percent and 20.4 percent, respectively, of the total land area.

But beyond the rice fields, the cost of food has also condemned millions into food insecurity, states the AsDB in the April-June 2010 edition of ‘Development Asia’, a quarterly magazine. In Cambodia, nearly 71 percent of a family’s expense goes toward food, notes the publication in a survey of food security across Asia.

Following this South-east Asian nation are Tajikistan and Burma (Myanmar), where 70 percent goes to a family’s food bill, Georgia, 64 percent, Azerbaijan, 60 percent, and Nepal, 59 percent.

The irony among victims of food insecurity in Asia is that most of them live in rural areas that produce food. “Small farmers are net buyers of food from the market,” said FAO’s Konuma. “The rice they produce is sold to buy other food items.”

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