Rising Food Insecurity in Asia: A Growing Concern Amidst COVID-19 and Economic Downturn
According to a report released on January 24 by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and other United Nations agencies, growing numbers of people in Asia lack enough to eat as food insecurity rises with higher prices and worsening poverty. Nearly a half-billion people, more than eight in 10 of them in South Asia, were undernourished in 2021 and more than one billion faced moderate to severe food insecurity. The report is the fifth annual stocktaking on food insecurity and hunger by U.N. agencies including the FAO, UNICEF, World Health Organization and World Food Program. Over those years, progress toward alleviating hunger and malnutrition has stalled and then backslid as growing numbers of people lost the wherewithal to get enough to eat.
Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic
- The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on food insecurity and hunger in Asia. The pandemic caused mass job losses and disruptions, which has put an adequate diet out of the reach of many millions.
- The FAO’s Food Price Index has risen in the past several years, hitting a record in March 2022. It fell back as commodity prices declined somewhat later in the year but is still 28% above the 2020 level. The Asia-Pacific region imports nearly $2 trillion of food a year. Rising prices for basics such as rice, wheat and oil hit the poor the hardest.
Impact of War in Ukraine
- The conflict in Ukraine has dealt a heavy blow in many countries that depended on the region for wheat, edible oils and fertilizers. The war in Ukraine has pushed up prices for food, energy and fertilizer, putting an adequate diet out of the reach of many millions.
Impact on Urban Population
- The report also highlights the growing food insecurity faced by people who have moved into cities, where they have less easy access to affordable food. Nearly two billion people — or almost 45% of people living in Asia — cannot afford healthy diets, contributing to problems with anaemia and obesity as well as hunger.
Impact on Children’s Health
- Unhealthy diets and inadequate food are also compromising future health and productivity, as they cause children to suffer from stunting or wasting and make them more susceptible to illness. The report says nearly a quarter of children in the Asia-Pacific are affected by stunting, or small height for their ages.
- The report also highlights the country-specific impact of food insecurity and hunger. In Afghanistan, 70% of people are facing moderate or severe food insecurity as the economy has collapsed after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, driving millions into poverty and hunger as foreign aid stopped almost overnight.
- In Cambodia, half of the population faces moderate or severe food insecurity. One-third of women in Asia aged 15-49 are affected by anaemia, which causes fatigue and, in its most severe forms, can cause lung and heart damage.
The report shows that the slowdown in the fight against hunger continues. Reforming our agrifood systems to produce nutritious food and ensure equitable access to healthy diets is critical. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have dealt a heavy blow to the fight against hunger in Asia. The urban population and children are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity and hunger. The situation in Afghanistan and Cambodia is particularly dire. Addressing the crisis of rising global food prices is crucial in order to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in Asia.
Written by IAS POINT