Opinion

Food shortage to reach
critical phase in Asia,
Africa

First things first, food security for Africa and Asia is an immediate global challenge.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food insecurity is a major global concern today as 1 billion people are suffering from starvation, under nutrition and malnutrition, and we are still far from reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to half extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

The cost of food has increased worldwide since June 2011 and is today at an all-time high. This problem is much greater than the levels of the last great food crisis (2007-2008). The result is that many people, in their millions, are being dragged below the poverty line and several developing nations are facing the risk of a massive food shortages.

Studies point out that by 2050, there will be 3 billion more people to feed. And that will severely cripple the food supply chain. Better fertilizers and increased usage of water has enhanced the yield by over 70 percent. However, when it comes to cereals, the production has neither gone up nor come down. This is because the investment in agriculture is decreasing. This is despite the fact that the demand is only on the up, thanks to a growing population, rising income and changing diets.

With water becoming a scarce commodity, agriculture is no longer a viable option; thereby the land is being converted and used for non-agricultural purposes. Another reason is the rising cost of fuel that makes agriculture a costly enterprise. This is because fuel escalates the cost of processing and transporting food products. Add to this the fact that the land for conducting fishing has also decreased in the last decade, which is primarily because of over fishing or unsustainable fishing mechanisms.

Only about 43 percent of the cereals produced are suitable for human consumption. This is because the rest is depleted due to bad harvests as well as a poor distribution infrastructure. Not to mention, cereals allocated for consumption by animals. With no new land feasible for agriculture and people, as they get richer and gravitate toward grain-intensive meat, the situation will only worsen. On top of that, the population continues to grow at over 1 percent, adding to the problems of compound growth, which is not a sustainable option.

In developing nations, people are shifting from a grain-rich diet (rice, wheat, corn, etc.) to a protein-rich diet (livestock such as chicken, pork and beef), further fuelling the demand for grain. After all, it takes 2-3 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kg of chicken, 4 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kg of pork and 7-8 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kg of beef. This trend towards meat consumption means that the livestock also needs grain to feed itself.

According to a report by the Global Harvest Initiative, Africa will be affected the most, as it will only be able to cater to the food requirements of 13 percent of its population by 2050. East Asia is better off at 74 percent and so are North Africa and the Middle East (83 percent). The food shortage is even closer than we think. According to UN estimates, by 2030, the world will require 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water. If we fail to fulfill this requirement, about 3 billion people will reel in poverty, according to the UN report.

By 2050, the food shortage will become severe in Africa and Asia. According to a recent report by Bloomberg, although the US produces twice as much food, the distribution is not up to mark. Indonesian food consumption patterns have changed since the late 1990s, with dairy and meat consumption growing while the grain consumption is falling on a per-person basis. Packaged and prepared food sales have gone up significantly. The growth in household incomes and a sustained shift of population from rural to urban areas have also contributed to these changes.

Indonesia’s food consumption changes are consistent with global food consumption patterns — all gravitate toward more sugar, meat and dairy products. While the GDP increased at an annual rate of 7 percent in real terms in the last 25 years, agricultural output went up by only 4.3 percent.

In the same period, the share of agriculture in the GDP fell from 56 percent to 20 percent. Indonesia’s agricultural imports grew quickly from 2007 to 2010, more than recovering from the setback it suffered in the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998.

There are some solutions. The FAO wants nations around the world to set sustainable development goals that would complement the eight MDGs up to 2015 and create a framework for action
post-2015.

The production of food should be ramped up by 70 percent in the next four decades. That means an investment of US$83 billion a year on agriculture in developing countries. The countries should work with international organizations such as the FAO to create an “evergreen revolution”, which would double productivity while reducing resource usage and avoid further biodiversity losses. If the water and marine ecosystems are managed well, affordable sustainable energy could be possible by 2030.

To make the economy more robust, the pricing on carbon and natural resources should be set through taxation, regulation or emissions trading schemes by 2020. Not to mention, the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies by 2030. But what could upset the applecart is climate change. It will affect agriculture because of extremes in weather conditions, be it temperature, rainfall, flooding or drought.

Going by their foreign reserves, developed countries will insulate themselves by stocking up on food. But the poor countries will face the challenge of food shortage like never before.

Will the world sit up and take notice? It is about time — before it is too late.

The author is a writer on business and economics.

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