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Low prices aren't a food security panacea

For many, the recent slide in global food prices has eased concerns about food insecurity. After all, lack of economic access to food is one of the key reasons for global malnourishment. When food is cheaper, not only can more people afford to eat, they can eat better. This is especially important in poorer countries that rely on imports to feed their populations.

     Affordability, however, is only one aspect of food security. And while global food prices have been falling for the past year, they remain higher overall than they were before the century's first global food price crisis, in 2007-2008. That episode saw protests and riots in more than 30 countries. When global food prices hit an unprecedented peak in 2011, riots erupted again.

     In Asia, small farming households provide about 80% of food consumed in the region. These households also make up the majority of those that are food insecure. Asia is home to around two-thirds of the world's hungry and poor.

     For these households, growing price volatility is just one of several complex and interconnected challenges threatening their food security and livelihoods. Many governments are pursuing economic and agricultural policies that are exacerbating these problems.

Fewer resources, more people

Decades of industrial agricultural production have led to serious environmental degradation across Asia. Although the mid-20th century burst of agricultural innovation known as the Green Revolution boosted farm production, the heavy use of pesticides, fertilizers and other agrochemicals polluted land and waterways.

     Biodiversity has suffered in the face of large-scale monocropping, and poor irrigation practices have resulted in the widespread degradation of agricultural land. Soil degradation is now a major problem. Almost three-quarters of agricultural land in South and Southeast Asia is affected by wind or water erosion, or by chemical pollution, according to the United Nations. In China, more than 35% of land is degraded.

     Even as the availability of land, freshwater, fisheries and other food-producing resources is shrinking, the population of Asia continues to grow. Rapid economic growth over recent decades has led to surging incomes across the region. Income inequality has grown, too, with millions left in poverty. But the overall rise in incomes has caused demand for certain food items to balloon -- especially meat and dairy products, but also sugar, edible oils, fruit and vegetables.

     This trend is set to continue. With more people eating growing quantities of animal products, the demand for livestock feed has also escalated. Far more land and water are required to rear livestock than to grow cereal crops. At the same time, food crops previously used for human consumption are being diverted to feed livestock and produce biofuels. These trends are unsustainable.

     Countries like China and India are importing increasing amounts of food to meet demand at home. For example, about 60% of the world's soybean exports end up in China, where soybeans are crucial to pork production. Imports of edible oils and maize have also increased. India is the world's largest importer of vegetable oils and relies heavily on the global food market to meet demand for pulses.

     The competition for land and water between agriculture, urbanization and industrialization is reaching fever pitch. The growing demands of cities are steadily encroaching on agricultural resources that would otherwise be available for food production.

     In pursuit of economic growth, governments are keen to make it easier for private investors -- foreign and local -- to buy agricultural land for industrial and urban development. In India, a debate is raging over proposed changes to land acquisition laws that would reduce the proportion of farmers whose consent would be needed for the sale of land for construction, in certain circumstances.

     Food and agricultural systems are also seriously threatened by climate change. Affected food-producing areas include the Mekong and Irrawaddy deltas in Southeast Asia and the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta in South Asia. All are highly vulnerable to effects such as rising temperatures, coastal flooding, erosion, saltwater intrusion, shifting rainfall patterns and a rise in the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and cyclones.

     The global food price crisis in 2007-2008 briefly catapulted food security to the top of the agenda for governments in Asia. For some food-importing countries, the crisis highlighted their vulnerability to the vagaries of international markets. The Philippines, for example, emerged from the crisis adamant that the only way to attain food security was to become self-sufficient in rice production. Vietnam also put a stronger emphasis on maintaining rice self-sufficiency and boosting its exportable surplus.

     However, given the extent to which both the Philippines and Vietnam are exposed to the negative impacts of climate change, it is clear that any policy linked to food security must address local susceptibility.

     Vietnam's experience, in particular, shows that food security is not just about having adequate supplies at the national level. Although Vietnam became self-sufficient in rice production in 1989 and is one of the world's largest rice exporters, World Bank statistics show that almost 13% of Vietnamese are undernourished. In this context, focusing almost exclusively on producing more rice makes little sense.

     Private investment in agricultural land is also being viewed as a route to economic growth and greater food security. Unfortunately, in leasing land to private investors, governments have tended to overlook environmental concerns, as well as the needs of local communities.

     In China, officials evict about 4 million rural families every year to facilitate investment by property developers. Countries like China, India, Cambodia and Indonesia have all seen protests and riots in recent years in the face of forced land acquisitions. Despite decades of reforms across Asia, access to land and security of tenure remain deeply problematic.

     Widespread corruption, a lack of political accountability and weak rule of law all contribute to food insecurity. Food safety-net programs such as those in India, Indonesia and the Philippines suffer from varying degrees of corruption, as well as waste due to problems such as inadequate storage infrastructure. Since subsidized food does not reach everyone, countries also face significant welfare costs.

It's all connected

Policymakers must grasp the complex and interconnected nature of food and agricultural systems. A silo approach is doomed if measures to boost agricultural productivity are designed without adequate consideration for environmental sustainability, the impact of climate change and socioeconomic factors.

     The challenge of improving the lot of small-scale farmers, while ensuring environmental sustainability, goes hand-in-hand with the problem of raising agricultural productivity. Secure land rights and greater, more reliable access to agricultural resources would encourage these farmers to invest over the long term, and to use and manage their resources in sustainable ways.

     Making better use of existing natural resources and suitable technologies is a vital part of raising productivity over the long haul. Governments should encourage small-scale farmers to adopt agro-ecological methods that minimize damage to the environment and promote biodiversity.

     Greater public investment in agricultural infrastructure and rural development would also go a long way toward improving farmers' access to markets, enhancing efficiency and reducing waste. This would contribute to alleviating food insecurity by raising farm incomes and boosting food supplies while ensuring long-term sustainability.

     Effective governance is critical for the success of any food security strategy. Governments need to follow through and implement these strategies adequately, monitor them and re-evaluate them regularly -- in consultation with those affected. Policymaking needs to be based on a solid understanding of how food and agricultural systems are being affected by all the different pressures. Only then will policies have a real chance of succeeding on the ground.

Monika Barthwal-Datta is a lecturer in international security at the University of New South Wales and the author of "Food Security in Asia: Challenges, Policies and Implications" (Abingdon: Routledge).  

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