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Food Security Issues in Asia

SINGAPORE, Apr 3 2024 (IPS) - Asia has about 60% of the World’s population but only about a third of the world’s arable land. This region additionally has some of the most economically active countries with increasing urbanisation and a growing middle class. Asia is also home to some of the most affected countries by climate change. For these and other reasons, food security in Asia affects global food security through many inter-links. A new book, “Food Security Issues in Asia”, edited by Paul Teng and with multiple authors, explicates many of the key issues continuing to cause food insecurity in Asia as well as discourses on exciting developments. Through its twenty-seven chapters, the book, published by World Scientific Publishers Singapore was launched on 27 March 2024 in Singapore by Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, former ASEAN Secretary General.

Paul Teng

Foremost among the issues is the future availability of food items important for Asian food security, such as rice, fish, vegetables and animal protein. The growth in demand for rice and animal protein in particular are expected to put pressure on the environment through demands on water use and increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The International Rice Research Institute has estimated that an additional 60 million tons of rice will be needed by 2050. Wild fisheries are being decimated by factors such as over-fishing and illegal fishing which reduce the stock of captured fish. The production of vegetables with high nutrient content will be further challenged by climate change and consumer demand for improved mineral nutrition while the demand for meat from livestock grown outdoors or in confined spaces will almost double by 2050.

How countries respond will be influenced by their state of agricultural transformation, their economic development status, as well as agrifood policies which balance farmer versus consumer needs. The performance of agriculture in the two Asian giantrs, China and India, can be expected to further affect food supply-demand dynamics in Asia and beyond. India has become the world’s largest exporter of rice and is an important exporter of pulses. China, although a large agricultural producer, is prone to severe unexpected weather events which force it to buy from world markets to assure its domestic demands are met. The amounts which India can export and China needs to import, greatly affects those countries which rely on food imported through trade.

A “silver lining” is provided by the potential offered through technologies such as digital, biotechnology, precision fermentation, urban agritechnology, novel food technologies, waste valorisation and alternative proteins. Digital agriculture is being considered by many Asian governments to provide a pathway to improve productivity, especially increase yield and reduce costs of production. A noteworthy example is that of the ASEAN Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry, which have endorsed the ASEAN Guidelines on Promoting the Utilization of Digital Technologies for ASEAN Food and Agricultural Sector. With biotechnology, while large exporters like the U,S.A., Canada, Argentina, etc have adopted biotechnology-crops, Asian countries have been slow in the uptake of this technology, often due to scientifically dubious reasons. But a sea change may be in the offing, as China has announced in 2023 its intention to leading the way in growing more genetically modified crops.

Controlled Environment Agriculture is expanding in use due to weather uncertainties and is best exemplified by indoor vegetable farms in urban areas grown under artificial lighting, and Indoor fish farms using high- tech Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). The 2000’s have also seen a resurgence in using a biotechnology called Precision Fermentation to grow animal and plant cells in bioreactors for food or food extracts. Investments in novel food such as cultivated meat and plant-based or microbial protein reached billions of US$ in the early 2020’s. Regulatory systems although slow in becoming operational have gained traction since Singapore first approved cultivated chicken in 2020.

Asia has seen the emergence of a vibrant agrifood startup ecosystem mainly fueled by private financing. But enabling innovations to take hold is requiring more to be done to proactively prepare consumers and regulators to deal with novel food products and novel technologies. Increasingly, many public institutions and companies have come to realize that it is not enough to generate new technologies without accompanying action on technology transfer systems like public extension, consumer acceptance and appropriate communication programmes such as those using risk communication.

With the anticipated further increase in food demand in Asia accompanied by increased environmental awareness, Asian countries will need to accelerate their move into harnessing technologies and implementing policies which support sustainable food systems. These food systems will need to conserve natural resources and concurrently provide livelihoods for millions of small farmers and affordable food to consumers. But to ensure food security, governments should have in place a “preparedness-paradigm” based on “futuring” scenarios of food supply and demand, each with its own response plan. A change towards an inter-sectoral “whole of food system” approach involving many relevant government agencies is needed. Too often, agriculture has been the sole responsible sector for food security and this has to change.

Paul Teng is a food security expert with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University Singapore and concurrently Managing Director of NIE International Pte. Ltd. Singapore. He has worked in the Asia Pacific region on agri-food issues for over thirty years, with international organizations, academia and the private sector.

IPS UN Bureau


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