Five Pathways to Transform Food Systems in Asia and the Pacific

    AgricultureAgriculture policyFive Pathways to Transform Food Systems in Asia and...
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    Five Pathways to Transform Food Systems in Asia and the Pacific

    Asia faces unprecedented food security challenges due to soaring rice prices, climate-induced disasters, and ecosystem degradation. Strategic action is needed to transform food systems for greater resilience and sustainability.

    By Qingfeng Zhang

    Food security remains a serious challenge in Asia and the Pacific. This region has the highest number of people facing acute food insecurity worldwide. 

    Rice prices soared by more than 40 per cent in 2023, even though international food prices came down from their peak in 2022. Rising rice prices are eroding the purchasing power of people in the region, particularly poor families.

    Floods, droughts, disease, and other climate impacts are curtailing food production. Floods in Pakistan, heat waves in India, and droughts in central Asia region and Yangtze River of the People’s Republic of China in 2022 and 2023 reinforced this reality. Disruptions to livelihoods are exacerbating food scarcity, compounded by climate-induced migration.

    Ecosystem degradation continues to place enormous pressure on the Asia’s vulnerable and fragile food systems. Many ecosystems in the region, from tropical forests to coral reefs, have been degraded beyond repair. 

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    Vicious circle

    It’s a vicious circle. The recent evolution of food systems has fueled – and continues to inflame – some of the greatest and gravest challenges facing humanity, notably loss of biodiversity, environmental damage, and climate change. 

    Agriculture uses 70 per cent of the world’s water resources, 50 per cent of habitable land, and causes up to 80 per cent of biodiversity loss. Emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture contribute significantly to global warming. 

    The environmental cost of existing food systems stands at $3 trillion a year, and a shift to take into account healthier diets and biodiversity would result in between $5 trillion and $10 trillion a year in benefits, the Food System Economics Commission estimates. 

    Leading international financial institutions agreed in February to coordinate among each other to address the interlinked climate-food-nature nexus by introducing coherent tracking methodology, adopting coordinated policy diagnosis, promoting joint knowledge sharing, and establishing an innovation platform.

    Regional cooperation

    There are five clear avenues for action that will help transform the global food systems in Asia and the Pacific.

    First, in the short term, there is a strong need to strengthen emergency response mechanisms. This support should include social assistance, food voucher programs, school lunches (including conditional and unconditional cash transfers, food and in-kind transfers), and a countercyclical support facility to provide fast-disbursing financing. 

    In the medium term, we need to focus on strengthening regional cooperation mechanisms to share policy and market information and jointly respond to food security risks instead of resorting to export bans. 

    Over the long-term, , and empower agribusinesses to become more efficient producers and distributors of food.

    Value chain approach

    Second, we need to further promote a value chain approach to transformation of food systems that covers all activities related to producing and consuming food. 

    Agrifood value chains comprise not only agrifood production activities from production of inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, and farm products to final food products in various forms, but also its supporting activities and services including extensions, research and development, technical education and training, logistics, marketing, and financing. 

    By viewing a series of interlinked activities as a whole, the value chain approach can help improve food production in terms of efficiency in various resources uses, including primary agriculture products as raw materials, energy, water, land and soil, as well as carbon footprint. The approach is also essential to ensure food safety and traceability.

    With an expanded value chain approach, digitalization is an efficient and inclusive way of connecting various stakeholders on both the producer and consumer sides who act on various market signals.  

    Technologies such as early warning systems for extreme climate-related events, or online weather advisory and forecasting services, can also help farmers manage their crops better. 

    Incentivise nature-based infrastructure

    Third, we should create incentive mechanisms to shift the government’s support towards nature-based infrastructure

    These include lakes and wetlands to treat wastewater and improve water storage, sponge villages to mitigate stormwater runoff and extreme heat, zero tillage to conserve soil quality, mangroves to reduce coastal erosion and flooding, and forests to retain water and support groundwater recharge. 

    These nature-based solutions provide a range of co-benefits, including carbon storage, climate moderation, food security, job creation, and eco-tourism. 

    Small farmers need help transitioning to crops that are less dependent on chemical fertilizer, and using organic fertilizers like biochar, technologies such as drip irrigation and natural farming techniques, which are less environmentally damaging and more climate resilient.

    Strengthening infrastructure

    Fourth, investments in productivity-enhancing infrastructure can strengthen food availability through road networks or port facilities to help farmers connect with international agricultural markets. Investments to improve access to infrastructure, including adequate storage and transport infrastructure, have been found to reduce food losses. 

    We need to ensure the food supply chain infrastructure is climate resilient. This means building climate-resilient infrastructure such as cold storage, warehouses, rural connectivity, and digital services that are accessible and affordable for farmers.

    Better rural connectivity can support logistics of agriculture supplies, while technologies such as remote sensing can improve land-use planning and management through monitoring and diagnostics.

    Nutrition deficits

    Finally, we must improve the supply of healthy and nutritious food. Nutrition deficits are an acute challenge in fragile countries including those affected by conflict, and in small island developing states. This includes nutrition education, nutrition labeling and regulations, food fortification and diversification, food safety, and prevention of non-communicable disease. 

    Climate change, nature loss, economic shocks and malnutrition all place enormous pressure on the Asia’s vulnerable and fragile food systems. We need to scale up our support to help developing countries establish more sustainable and resilient food systems.

    Source: Asian Development Bank

    Image: Hippopx, licensed to use under Creative Commons Zero – CC0

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