World Food Day: Food Security in Asia and the Pacific

On World Food Day, talks to Professor Julian Cribb, author of "The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It." Prof. Cribb shares his views about the vast challenges ahead for food production and the actions we need to take to meet food demand in Asia.

Julian Cribb is an author, journalist, editor and science communicator. His book, "The Coming Famine," explores the question of whether we can feed humanity through the mid-century peak in numbers and food demand.

What are the major challenges to meeting global food demand in the next 10 years?

We have already witnessed three global food price crises since 2008 – so the short answer is: we'll see more of the same, as we have not solved the underlying problem nor have we yet attempted to do so at a global level.

However 10 years is too short a planning horizon. We need to be thinking in terms of the next 50-100 years. It can take more than 25 years to develop a new agricultural technology and get it into the hands of millions of farmers worldwide.

There are no technology silver bullets that will solve all aspects of the food crisis of the mid-21st century. We need both new technology and to reinvent how we produce food, where we produce it, what we eat, and the world diet in general. We need to act on all the major drivers of global food insecurity – not just on technology alone. We need to learn a new respect for food.

What are the specific challenges Asia is going to face – both as a major agricultural producer as well as a major consumer of food – compared to the rest of the world?

Asia is facing critical water scarcity as early as the 2020s and certainly by 2030. Much water that could be used to grow food is now being taken away by cities, the energy sector and other users. Acute scarcities of good farm land are likely to emerge as the megacities grow, while soil degradation remains an ongoing and unsolved problem. Furthermore, high oil and fertilizer prices are likely to stifle the industrialization of Asian agriculture by the 2040s.

We need to recycle Asia's water back into food production; develop renewable energy sources for agriculture; and end the waste of food and recycle all nutrients back into food production, both traditional and high-tech. These actions can lead to the creation of new industries, commercial enterprises and millions of jobs – as well as an exciting, healthy and sustainable diet for everyone.

"We need both new technology and to reinvent how we produce food, where we produce it, what we eat, and the world diet in general. We need to act on all the major drivers of global food insecurity – not just on technology alone. We need to learn a new respect for food."

In Asia, millions of people still live in dire conditions, often struggling with malnourishment and hunger. What would a food crisis mean for them?

Very high food prices work two ways: if transmitted to poor farmers they can help to alleviate rural poverty and the rural poor currently outnumber the urban poor. The difficulties faced by the urban poor in affording food can be addressed by subsidization, food stamps or similar programs and by public and private investment in urban agriculture. Without these, the risk of government failures in many countries will be high, as we recently witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia.

What are the most urgent programs, policies, and investments that governments in Asia and the Pacific need to enact and make today to counteract this threat?

Societies should end food waste and recycle all nutrients back into food production as well as develop renewable energy sources for agriculture and the food chain that do not compete against food production.

In addition, all urban water should be recycled. Governments should restrict by law access to rural water by cities and other industries and introduce greater efficiencies in water management.

We should also massively re-invest in agricultural and food research and development – in fact, double our existing R&D spend, and then spend the same again on dissemination new knowledge and technologies to farmers, poor and affluent, via social media, the Internet etc.

Finally, we should introduce a 'Year of Food' in every junior school in Asia, educating the next generation about how to choose food for both health and sustainability.

What can organizations like ADB do to help counteract a possible global food crisis?

A key role for ADB is to lead a focused global discussion on how we can turn the current negative economic signals into positive ones that will lead to massive reinvestment in farming and food production.

Without this necessary investment (about $90 billion a year in developing countries alone, according to FAO), serious food shocks lie ahead that will cause great hardship worldwide, leading to government failures, mass migration by tens of millions out of hard-hit regions and possibly even conflicts.

Julian Cribb is the guest speaker during World Food Day at ADB held in Manila on 15-16 October 2012.

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