Asia-Pacific facing a food crisis

Asia-Pacific facing a food crisis

We live in a world full of competing interests and disagreements. Yet despite this, there is one underlying interest that we all share. It is in all our interests to have access to safe, affordable and nutritious food at all times. The question is will there be enough food for all in the not-too-distant future, and will it be produced sustainably?

The answer is not so affirmative without immediate action. Despite our common interest, Asia and the Pacific region is backsliding into greater hunger and malnutrition.

According to one recent UN report, Asia and the Pacific is so off track, it would need an additional 35 years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals -- in 2065. Some of the backsliding is obvious. This year, in Asia and the Pacific, we've witnessed droughts and floods, and faced a crisis of five "Fs" -- lack of food, feed, fuel, fertiliser and finance. Also, it's predicted there could be reductions of cereal output next year due to fertiliser shortages in some countries in the region.

But even before these crises, successive annual reports of FAO's flagship publication, the State of Food Security and Nutrition, were warning the fight against hunger and malnutrition was stalling, and then failing.

In 2021, more than 400 million people in the Asia-Pacific were malnourished, most of them in South Asia. In fact, of the billions of people in this region, 40% cannot afford a healthy diet.

Transforming our agrifood systems is vital to achieving all the SDGs. For decades, as the world's population grew, we took our collective eye off the agrifood food systems ball.

The world was producing enough food, and there was little political appetite to upset the apple cart. Our agrifood systems were (and still are) a complex, interdependent system, of planting, harvesting, transporting, processing, marketing, and consuming.

The wake-up call came two years ago with the arrival of a global pandemic. While food production didn't come to a halt, the lockdowns and supply chain disruptions that followed took a serious toll on this interdependent system.

For those of us in Asia and the Pacific, the pandemic and fallout were happening in tandem with other huge disrupters such as climate change, natural disasters, hazards and risks that account for 60% of global fatalities and 40% of economic losses.

And so it became clear we urgently needed to fix our agrifood systems by transforming them to withstand shocks and disruptions, and also use this an opportunity to make nutritious foods and healthy diets more accessible and affordable for all.

Last year, the UN Food Systems Summit in New York was the world's first major attempt to move these plans forward. Now it's time to get that transformation underway on the ground in our Asia-Pacific region. In other words, it's time to roll up our sleeves and build a better apple cart. But it will take more than just a few of us to do that.

Governments in our region must act through leadership. Asia-Pacific's private sector, among leaders in technology and innovation, must broaden its customer base to provide affordable solutions to the region's smallholders.

Civil society, while continuing its important role as watchdog, must work more proactively with policymakers and the private sector.

Academia must accelerate its research, while resource partners must make this transformation their top priority because to achieve this massive transformation, our region, indeed the world, must literally, put its money where its mouth is.

More than 80% of the world's smallholders and family farmers live off the land in this region and their interests and livelihoods must be safeguarded.

The good news is that, overall, there are plenty of available solutions. These include strengthening actions to sustainably manage natural resources, enhance forest areas and restore landscapes. The Asia-Pacific region benefits from thousands of years of agriculture-based systems and hundreds of generations of traditional knowledge which could be coupled with a fast-growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.

FAO's mission is to support the 2030 Agenda through helping member nations and partners build more efficient, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable agrifood systems for Better Production, Better Nutrition, a Better Environment, and a Better Life, leaving no one behind.

In order to get this massive region's transformation underway, the FAO is convening an Asia-Pacific Symposium on Agrifood Systems Transformation in Bangkok, between 5–7 Oct (in-person and virtual). The response has been impressive, with government ministers from many member nations signing up, along with the private sector, academia and civil society joining in as well.

Without a doubt, this transformation will require massive public and private investment -- and the political will to effect the change. But if we fail to act, even the year 2065 may be too optimistic.

Failing to transform our agrifood systems is not an option – it is imperative for our future and that of our children.

Jong-Jin Kim is an Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

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