Producing nutritious foods with dwindling natural resources
All members of the United Nations have committed to eradicating hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030 — a bold and ambitious move, but seemingly achievable after decades of decline in the number of hungry people worldwide. Here in the Asia-Pacific, we saw some of the most impressive declines until just recently. Yet, today, there are still some 490 million undernourished people in the region, far more than in any other part of the world.
Asia-Pacific countries can still reach the target of Zero Hunger by 2030, but the road ahead will be littered with obstacles. That means countries, UN organizations and other partners must prepare now for the roadworks and detours that are just around the bend.
Let’s face up to these challenges now. Let’s name the obstacles and let’s take action to overcome them.
First, we know the region’s population will continue to grow, leading to increased demand for food. Most of that population growth in Asia will be in the least developed countries. Urbanization, which infringes on agricultural land and encourages people to adopt different diets and lifestyles, is another challenge to meet. It requires investments in improved rural infrastructure to better link food producers with urban areas in terms of both transportation and communication.
But the challenge is not only about producing more food; the type of food also matters, too. In many countries, overweight and obesity are becoming major problems through overconsumption of processed foods high in salt and sugars. This is particularly true in the Pacific Islands, where imported processed foods are contributing to a public health crisis, with a spike in noncommunicable diseases like Type 2 diabetes.
On the positive side, some changing dietary patterns are to be welcomed. In Asia, demand for high-protein foods like meats and fish—and dairy products, consumption of which has been soaring for years—will increase even more with the growing population, particularly as livelihoods improve and give people more income to spend on food. Consumption of fruits and vegetables is also riding a steady incline.
While this type of dietary diversification is good news for improvements to nutrition, it evidently means that farmers must adapt and change what they grow to meet the shifting demands. Fortunately these new crops and products offer opportunities for greater incomes. But for an Asian smallholder farmer who has been growing nothing but rice for decades, it may seem risky to make the transition. This is where policymakers must step forward with better seeds and breeds for farmers to choose from, deliver more information on good crop management, and design social protection programs to manage risks. These interventions will need to target youth, as many farmers are getting older and will not be able to farm much longer.
Rural social protection programs in the Asia-Pacific are also important because climate change and, in particular, extreme weather events, have increasingly ravaged many countries in recent years.
That is why it is important to note that, this month in Fiji, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is convening its 34th Session of the Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific. The challenges, as well as a number of other major issues on food security and better nutrition will be discussed by 46 member-nations across the region. These countries and their policymakers are very aware of the challenges they face and are working with FAO to find solutions.
But with fewer than 12 years remaining to meet the 2030 Agenda of achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the countries of the Asia-Pacific have no time to waste. The next generation is counting on us all to fix the problems of hunger and malnutrition, while adapting our food production and natural resource base to withstand the negative effects of climate change. Our children want to ensure that their children will live in a world where safe, healthy, nutritious food is always available and accessible. It’s time to get on with the job.
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José Graziano da Silva is the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
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