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7 Sep, 2013

Obesity, Malnutrition Pose Twin Threats to Asia-Pacific’s Food Future: ADB Study


5 September 2013 (ADB media release) – Asia and the Pacific’s drive for food security has focused too narrowly on quantity, with a surge in obesity and still high levels of malnutrition in some countries highlighting the need for a new approach, says a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) study (Click here to download free).

“Many developing countries in the region face the twin burdens of both under and overnutrition,” said Cyn-Young Park, ADB Assistant Chief Economist. “Improving nutritional standards rather than just boosting calorie intake is essential if the region wants a secure and healthy food future.”

The study, Food Security in Asia and the Pacific, says the region’s growth boom has been accompanied both by sharp dietary changes and uneven food access. The affluent have developed an appetite for protein rich and processed foods, including more meat and dairy products. At the same time, more than half a billion people remain undernourished―more than the total in Africa. Childhood stunting rates are above 40% in several countries, and there are high levels of vitamin A deficiency in Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan with several other economies close behind.

Obesity, in contrast, has been rising fast both in urban centers and in some Pacific Islands, where the rates are among the highest in the world. The shift to rich, often sugar-based, foods has seen a spike in diabetes and other diet-related diseases. The demand for meat is also changing agricultural land use patterns.

Resolving these challenges goes hand-in-hand with tackling other food security issues such as fast rising populations, strains on land, water and energy, and the growing threat from climate change. Asia and the Pacific currently accounts for 60% of the world’s population, and it will have added over 850 million people by 2050, requiring vastly more food, but expanding cultivated land in nearly all countries in the region is no longer a viable option.

The solutions must be wide ranging and sustainable, and include both domestic and broader measures. High yielding crops and other technologies are needed to produce more food from the same amounts of land, and small poor rural landholders must get support to become more productive with better access to quality seeds, finance and other inputs.

The region’s policymakers must find ways of buffering the poor from price spikes in food– which accounts for up to 70% of their income–and ensuring they fully benefit from economic growth. Social safety nets provide a crucial support mechanism for low income groups, and targeted food aid and cash transfer programs among others, reduce the vulnerability of poor households, especially in crisis periods. Currently social protection spending amounts to less than 2% of total GDP in a third of 31 Asian countries.

Setting up national and regional food reserves as buffers during shortages, establishing emergency funds and insurance products to cushion against disasters, food trade liberalization, and investment in agricultural research are other ingredients that must be considered. Tackling both undernourishment and better nutrition, especially for children, requires more public awareness campaigns and targeted investments in health, education, water and sanitation infrastructure.

Food Security in Asia and the Pacific

Strong income and population growth, industrialization, and urbanization continue as driving forces behind the fundamental structural change in global food production and market systems. While Asia’s economic growth and ongoing structural transformation deepen the complexity in managing the limited natural resources required for food security, many pockets of Asia continue to struggle with high levels of poverty and poor nutrition.Combating hunger by raising food productivity and supporting initiatives to reduce food waste.


The “two faces of Asia”


The economies of developing Asia and the Pacific grew an average 7.6% a year between 1990 and 2010, far exceeding the 3.4% global average. The rise in affluence in conjunction with growing populations continues to drive greater demand for more protein-rich food and better nutrition. This has enormous implications for the intensity of production. Food consumption in Asia and the Pacific has grown steadily, from 2,379 kilocalories per capita per day in 1990 to 2,665 in 2009. But some 733 million people in the region still live in absolute poverty (defined as living on less than $1.25 a day, in 2005 purchasing power parity); and 537 million remain undernourished. These are the two faces of Asia—one of progress and prosperity; the other of continued poverty.

Key Findings

The main findings from project background studies to highlight key food security issues across the region showed three major themes:

(+) ensuring the sustainability of global food systems, to meet growing food demand without sacrificing the resources of future generations; improving the efficiency of food production and delivery; and maximizing the benefits of international trade;

(+) reducing poverty and vulnerability to food insecurity, to ensure the ability to purchase sufficient and nutritious food; reducing the price impact on real incomes of poor households; and providing effective social safety nets for those bypassed by rapid economic growth and poverty reduction efforts; and

(+) establishing risk management systems and tools, to provide food-based safety nets that offer immediate relief to disadvantaged groups during crises; building adequate emergency food reserves and relief systems as a buffer to natural and human-made disasters; and introducing risk management systems and tools such as crop insurance and futures contracts to help mitigate the effects of price volatility and crises.

The study was compiled by ADB in collaboration with Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.