UN Report Says Food Crisis Must Be Addressed As Part of Response to Economic Crisis

Any recovery from the current economic crisis will be incomplete if the related food crisis is not addressed, says a new UN study.

The report, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Asia and the Pacific, was launched today by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) – the regional arm of the UN. It says that for 583 million people across Asia and the Pacific, the financial crisis has become a food crisis. While food prices have fallen from last year’s spike they remain high. Rising unemployment and falling incomes are putting additional pressure on the poor and vulnerable. More worrying still is that, once the global economy recovers, the pressures that drove up food prices last year will return.

“Efforts at stimulating the economies also provide us a window of opportunity to address the systemic issues related to food insecurity,” said Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. “This report reminds us that, while the world’s attention is very much on the economic crisis, food insecurity remains a real threat. It details the scope and magnitude of the problem and provides both immediate and long-term policy recommendations to decision makers.”

Despite the Asia-Pacific region’s rapid economic growth, the region is home to the largest number of hungry people – 62 per cent of the world’s undernourished. The ESCAP study identifies 25 countries as hotspots of food insecurity.

Even in countries which are seemingly doing well, national averages may mask disparities between different population groups. “In East Asia and the Pacific, for example, rural children are twice as likely to be underweight as their peers in the cities” says Dr. Heyzer. “In fact, the report states that the number of children under five dying of malnutrition in our region is equivalent to 10 jumbo jets filled with children crashing every day and killing everyone on board.”

The study re-affirms that poverty is the leading cause of food insecurity. Inadequate income means the poor cannot afford to buy food. Lack of access to land also prevents many poor people from growing their own food. Other causes for food insecurity range from low farm revenues to volatile fuel prices and speculation.

Protectionist trade policies which drive up food prices is another cause of food insecurity in the region as most countries in Asia and the Pacific meet national needs through imports, the report says.
Ironically, agriculture itself is also a factor. Destructive farming practices have degraded land and contaminated waterways with pesticides and herbicides. Deforestation to open more farmland threatens watersheds, disrupts fisheries and reduces natural processes like pollination. Climate change, which threatens to significantly alter weather patterns, will have lasting detrimental impacts on agricultural output.

The study provides short-, medium- and long-term recommendations for addressing food insecurity in the region. Most immediately, people’s ability to buy or access food needs to be improved through the development of social protection schemes such as minimum wage, unemployment benefits, “food-for-work” programmes, basic health care and agricultural insurance.
Availability of food at the national level can be promoted through trade. Over the medium term, investments in sustainable agriculture and small scale farmers will be extremely important. Long-term measures will require that all nations adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“Given the magnitude of the problem in the Asia-Pacific region, our response will define how food insecurity issues are resolved globally,” said Dr. Heyzer. “We are here to identify the policies that reconnect people with food, a fundamental building block for sustainable development.”

Sustainable agriculture and food security is the theme topic of ESCAP’s annual Commission session currently underway in Bangkok. The study will be the focus of a ministerial round table on Monday, 27 April, featuring ministers from Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. David Nabarro, Coordinator of the Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis under the chairmanship of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, Vice-President of the Asian Development Bank and Dr. Heyzer of ESCAP will join the discussion.

The study is available at ESCAP website: www.unescap.org.