Asian Development Bank: Pathways to Transform Food Systems in Asia-Pacific Region

In the Asia and Pacific region, where the highest number of people face acute food insecurity, rice prices soared by more than 40 percent last year – against a global backdrop of falling food prices.

By Qingfeng Zhang Senior Director - agriculture, food, nature, and rural development at ADB’s Sectors Group

By Qingfeng Zhang Senior Director – agriculture, food, nature, and rural development at ADB’s Sectors Group

High rice prices hit the poorest people first and hardest; around 45 percent of Asian residents have trouble accessing healthy food. Floods in Pakistan, heatwaves in India and droughts in central Asia have worsened this. Disruptions to livelihoods are exacerbating food scarcity, and are compounded by climate-change-induced migration.

Food systems have been hit by loss of biodiversity, environmental damage, and climate change. Ecosystem degradation has put pressure on Asia’s vulnerable food-production systems. The region’s ecosystems, from tropical forests to coral reefs, have been polluted, ignored, or damaged over recent decades. Biodiversity loss leads to a worsening of climate change – and an increasing threat to food security.

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the world’s water resources and 50 percent of its habitable land – and causes up to 80 percent of its biodiversity loss. Emissions of methane and nitrous oxide are significant contributors to global warming.

The cost of existing global food systems stands at $3tn annually. A shift towards healthier diets, with better protection for biodiversity, could yield as much as $10tn a year in benefits, says the Food System Economics Commission.

Leading international financial institutions have agreed to address the climate-food-Nature nexus by introducing coherent tracking methodology, adopting co-ordinated policy diagnoses, promoting joint knowledge-sharing, and establishing an innovation platform.

There are clear avenues for action for the Asia-Pacific region. In the short term, there is a need to strengthen emergency-response mechanisms. This should include social assistance, food-voucher programmes, school lunches, and a countercyclical support facility to provide fast-disbursing financing.

In the medium term, the focus must be on strengthening regional co-operation to share policy and market information and jointly respond to food security risks instead of imposing export bans.

Over the long term, developing more transparent and reliable markets will create stronger, more resilient agriculture value chains, and empower agribusinesses to become more efficient.

There is also a need to promote a value-chain approach to transform systems and cover all activities related to food production and consumption.

Agrifood value chains comprise activities from seed- and fertilizer production to food products in various forms. They also support 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 improve efficiency in primary agriculture products, the use of energy, water, land and soil, and limit carbon footprints. It can also help to ensure food safety and traceability.

Digitalisation is an efficient and inclusive way of connecting various stakeholders on producer and consumer sides of the fence. Early warning systems for extreme climate events can help farmers to better manage crops.

Incentive mechanisms should be created to shift governmental support towards Nature-based solutions and infrastructure. This includes using lakes and wetlands to treat wastewater and improve storage, “sponge” villages to mitigate stormwater run-off and extreme heat, zero tillage to conserve soil quality, mangrove protection to reduce coastal erosion and flooding, and forest maintenance to support groundwater recharge.

These Nature-based solutions provide a range of added benefits, including carbon storage, climate moderation, food security, and eco-tourism. Small farmers need help transitioning to crops that are less dependent on chemical fertilizers, and using technologies such as drip-irrigation. Enhancing infrastructure such as road networks and port facilities can help farmers to connect with international markets. Improving access to adequate storage and transport systems can reduce food waste.

The food supply chain needs to be climate-resilient, with adequate cold storage, warehousing, rural connectivity, and digital services that are affordable to farmers. The recent Pakistan and Bangladesh floods showed the importance of climate-resilient food storage.

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

The greatest need is to improve the supply of healthy, nutritious food. This means more education, better labelling and regulation, fortification and diversification, an emphasis on food safety, and disease prevention.

There is a lot of pressure on Asia’s fragile food systems, and support must be scaled-up to help developing countries meet their challenges.

Such a method requires strong knowledge of adaptation solutions, available good-quality data, and support from development finance institutions.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asian Development Bank, its management, its Board of Directors, or its members.

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