Imperative to fix Asia-Pacific's agrifood systems so they can withstand shocks and disruptions
We live in a world full of competing interests and disagreements. Yet despite this, there is one underlying, unifying interest that we all share. It is in all our interests to have access to safe, affordable and nutritious food at all times. The question is will there be enough food for all in the not too distant future, and will it be produced sustainably?
The answer is not affirmative without immediate action. Despite food security being in the common interest, the Asia-Pacific region is sliding back into hunger and malnutrition. According to a recent United Nations report, Asia and the Pacific are so off track, they would need an additional 35 years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals — in 2065.
Some of the backsliding is obvious. This year, we've witnessed droughts and floods, the highest food prices in decades, an armed conflict in Eastern Europe, and a lingering COVID-19 pandemic that continues to threaten health, and disrupt supply chains and livelihoods. Together, these have resulted in a lack of food, feed, fuel, fertilizer and finance, and it's predicted there could be reduced cereal output next year due to fertilizer shortages in some countries in the region.
But even before these crises, successive annual reports of the FAO's flagship publication, the State of Food Security and Nutrition, were warning that the fight against hunger and malnutrition was stalling, and then failing. In 2021, more than 400 million people in the Asia-Pacific were malnourished, most of them in South Asia. In fact, of the billions of people in this region, 40 percent cannot afford a healthy diet.
For decades, as the world's population grew, we took our collective eye off the agrifood systems ball. The world was producing enough food, and there was little political appetite to upset the applecart. Our agrifood systems were (and still are) a complex, interdependent system, of planting, harvesting, transporting, processing, marketing and consuming.
The wake-up call came two years ago with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. While food production didn't come to a halt, the lockdowns and supply chain disruptions that followed took a serious toll on this interdependent system. The pandemic and its fallout have been happening in tandem with other huge disrupters such as climate change, natural disasters, hazards and risks that account for 60 percent of global fatalities and 40 percent of global economic losses.
It has become clear we urgently need to fix our agrifood systems by transforming them to withstand shocks and disruptions, and also use this as an opportunity to make nutritious foods and healthy diets more accessible and affordable for all.
Last year, the UN Food Systems Summit in New York was the world's first major attempt to move these plans forward. Now it's time to get that transformation underway on the ground in the Asia-Pacific region. In other words, it's time to roll up our sleeves and build a better applecart. But it will take more than just a few of us to do that.
Governments in the region must act through leadership. The Asia-Pacific's private sector, among the leaders in technology and innovation, must broaden its customer base to provide affordable solutions to the region's smallholders. Civil society, while continuing its important role as watchdog, must work more proactively with policymakers and the private sector. Academia must accelerate its research, while resource partners must make this transformation their top priority, because to achieve this massive transformation, our region, indeed the world, must literally put its money where its mouth is.
More than 80 percent of the world's smallholders and family farmers live off the land in the Asia-Pacific region and their interests and livelihoods must be safeguarded. Social safety nets and reskilling programs to improve employment prospects should form an important part of this transformation.
The good news is that, overall, there are plenty, and a variety, of available solutions — policy and evidence-based, regenerative, innovative and technological. These include strengthening actions to sustainably manage natural resources, enhance forest areas and restore landscapes. The Asia-Pacific region benefits from thousands of years of agriculture-based systems and hundreds of generations of traditional knowledge which could be coupled with a fast-growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.
On our part, the FAO's mission is to support the 2030 Agenda through helping member nations and partners build more efficient, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable agrifood systems for Better Production, Better Nutrition, a Better Environment, and a Better Life, leaving no one behind.
In order to get the region's transformation underway, the FAO is convening an Asia-Pacific Symposium on Agrifood Systems Transformation in Bangkok.
Without doubt, this transformation will require massive public and private investment — and the political will to effect the change. But if we fail to act, even the year 2065 may be too optimistic.
This time, all eyes are on the ball, as no one doubts what's at stake. Failing to transform our agrifood systems is not an option — it is an imperative for our future and that of our children.
The author is an assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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