MANILA // For the first time since the 1970s more than one billion people, almost one-sixth of humanity, were either hungry or undernourished last year and the number is growing, an international conference on food security held in Manila was told last week. This figure was 100 million more than in 2008, and the Asia-Pacific region leads the world with more than 650 million hungry people, according to data by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
For three days, some of the world's leading experts on food and food security, policymakers, development experts and representatives of non-government sectors met at the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) Manila headquarters to try to address the growing problem of hunger. The conference, which was jointly organised by the ADB, the FAO and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (Ifad), was told more than US$120 billion (Dh441bn) needs to be invested into Asia-Pacific agriculture annually until 2050 if food security is to be guaranteed.
The FAO's assistant director general and regional representative for Asia-Pacific, Hiroyuki Konuma, said the current amount invested in agriculture in the region is only $80bn a year. He said that with the world's population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, food production will need to increase by 70 per cent. Ganesh Thapa, the Ifad country programme manager, echoed Mr Konuma, saying food security will only be ensured if dynamic private sector investments and political commitment from national governments are assured.
In his opening remarks to the conference, the ADB's president, Haruhiko Kuroda, said that although Asian economies appeared to be bouncing back following the economic, oil and food crisis of a few years ago, world food prices remained 85 per cent higher today than they were in 2003 and are expected to increase by between 15 per cent and 40 per cent over the next 10 years. "The region's vulnerability to hunger and food insecurity was made particularly apparent during the food crisis of 2007 and 2008," he said.
"According to FAO data, soaring food prices caused more than 100 million people to join the ranks of the global hungry last year alone. The effects of this trend have been felt most acutely here in our region, where two-thirds of the world's one billion hungry people now reside." He said that contrary to what many people may think, grain shortage did not cause the recent food crisis. Instead, it was caused by a complex range of factors including protectionist food policies and "a long-standing neglect on the part of governments to provide incentives for the private sector to invest in agriculture".
Mr Kuroda said governments, the private sector and non-governmental organisations must work together to "develop an enabling policy and institutional environment" to support the development of the food-supply chain. He said the ADB had already committed $2bn a year towards this goal. The FAO in a report this year said the economic crisis left no nation immune. "As usual, it was the poorest countries and the poorest people who suffered the most," the report said.
The report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World, said that for the first time since 1970, more than one billion people were either hungry or undernourished worldwide in 2009 and described it as "historically unprecedented". The FAO said the food crisis of 2006-08 pushed the prices of basic staples beyond the reach of millions of poor people around the world. "Although they have retreated from their mid-2008 highs, international food commodity prices remain high by recent historical standards and volatile," the report said. "Affected countries made recourse to various instruments such as currency devaluation, borrowing or increased use of official assistance to face the effects of the crisis. In a global crisis, the scope of such instruments becomes more limited," the report said.
The FAO said another factor was that developing countries today are more financially and commercially integrated into the world economy than they were 20 years ago and in turn are more exposed to shocks in international markets. "Faced with the crisis, households are forced to find ways to cope. Coping mechanisms involve undesirable but often unavoidable compromises, such as replacing more nutritious food with less nutritious food, selling productive assets, withdrawing children from school, forgoing health care or education, or simply eating less," the FAO report said.
Last year more than 60 million Asians became malnourished, raising the regional total to 642 million, Jacques Diouf, head of the FAO, told the conference. "The sheer magnitude of food insecurity is the result of the low priority that has been given to agriculture in economic development policies," Mr Diouf said in a video address. Mr Konuma added that governments had been lulled into complacency by farm-yield breakthroughs from the 1960s that gave rise to the "Green Revolution" and raised farm outputs three-fold, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.
"Since then, output and yields have stagnated, particularly for wheat and rice - two of the world's most important cereals. At the same time, the world's population is increasing. For rice and wheat alone, we will need to triple the pace of production over the next 20 years just to keep pace with the growing world population." firstname.lastname@example.org