Urbanization quickens in Asia-Pacific, so does threat of urban food insecurity

With 55 percent of the Asia- Pacific region’s enormous population expected to live in urban areas by 2030, the region will face threat of urban food insecurity, which not addreressed would be devastating, according to a latest UN report. 

In the report – ‘Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2022 – Urban Food Systems and Nutrition’- by four United Nations agencies, the authors said that Asia’s cities are growing at such a fast pace and will have equally enormous consequences for urban food security and nutrition.

The report also mentioned that threat was not only a future concern but it was felt now. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are the four UN organisations that brought out the report.

THE CHALLENGES

The convergence of an increase in low-income settlements, the rising costs of food and the need for developing an urban food agenda that takes into account infrastructure, transport, clean water and waste management are posing new challenges to planners and national policy makers across the Asia-Pacific region. 

The report captures the challenges and system-level determinants of unhealthy diets in urban areas, both with regard to under nutrition and overweight and obesity. The report profiles various urban environments, interventions, experiences and the opportunities to innovate at multiple levels to transform urban areas into sustainable cities. Increasingly, food security and nutrition in the urban context will determine progress, or lack thereof, towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate hunger (SDG2) and the World Health Assembly (WHA) 2030 targets on food security and nutrition.

BACKSLIDING IN FOOD SECURITY TARGETS

The previous Asia-Pacific regional SOFI report had stated that progress in the fight against hunger and all forms of malnutrition was stalling, then regressing and more recently pushing further off track from achieving the SDGs.

This reverse was evident even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020. But as the pandemic continued, albeit in a milder form in most parts of the region by 2022, the 5F crisis emerged (lack of food, feed, fuel, fertilizer and finance), as did the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s major agricultural producers. The convergence of these and other issues during the past year resulted in unprecedented food and energy price rises that have hit households and livelihoods hard and pushed additional millions more into hunger and poverty, the report said.

In March 2022, the FAO Food Price Index (FPI) capped a steady rise through the previous two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and rose to the highest level since its inception.  Since then the FPI has fallen somewhat but remains significantly higher by 28 percent over 2020. High agricultural input prices, concerns about the weather and climate, and increased market uncertainties stemming from the continuing war in Ukraine, are contributing to a tightening of food markets. Food import bills are likely to touch a new record of USD 1.94 trillion this year, according to FAO’s latest Food Outlook published in November. Without doubt, the convergence of these negative factors will exacerbate hunger and poverty in Asia and the Pacific, the world’s most populous region.

UNDERNOURISHED

The report points out that 396 million people in the region were undernourished in 2021, and an estimated 1.05 billion people suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity. Nearly 75 million children below the age of five in Asia and the Pacific are stunted, amounting to half of the world’s total. Ten percent are affected by wasting, while poor diet quality also drives overall increases in child overweight and obesity.

Among older children and adults, obesity continues to rise in every country of this region. The Pacific Island Countries have the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity in the world. Obesity is a risk factor for many non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs) and it has a major impact on national economies by reducing productivity and life expectancy and increasing disability and health care costs. No country in Asia and the Pacific is on track to meet the WHA target of no increase in adult obesity.

Making the situation worse is the cost of attaining a healthy diet. In this region, a healthy diet is unaffordable in most countries for nearly two billion inhabitants (1.9 billion persons, which is 44.5 percent of the region’s population). The combined impacts of the pandemic and ongoing inflation have pushed up the average cost of a healthy diet to nearly USD 4 per day (USD 3.98 per person, per day), the report finds.

A CALL TO ACTION

The UN Bodies said that they called upon all country representatives and directors in 2022 to synergize their efforts to address the short-term effects as well as the medium- to long-term impacts, the crisis will have on economies, households and individuals, particularly women and children, in the region.

At the same time, the key principals of the report pointed out that the crisis is an opportunity to build on the momentum of the UN Food Systems Summit of 2021. Together, the agencies are intensifying efforts with member countries to reshape and re-imagine food systems across the region to make them more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable, leaving no one behind. However, governments, civil society, the private sector, funding and development agencies will need to continue to demonstrate leadership and partnership to bring about transformative change in agrifood systems and show improved figures in this flagship report in the years to come

KEY MESSAGES

MALNUTRITION IN ASIA AND THE PACIFIC

  • Progress in eliminating hunger in Asia and the Pacific has continuously slowed during the past few years, as undernourished people increased by 26 million between 2020 and 2021.
  • As has been shown in previous reports, the regression in numbers of the undernourished
  • continued through 2021 (e.g. period of latest data). Though this period coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic, this deterioration began in the years preceding it – powered by conflict and climate change
  • The impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war – especially the price rise in food, energy and agricultural inputs – are likely to worsen the situation and will be elaborated in the 2023 report
  • In 2021, 396 million people in Asia and the Pacific were undernourished, and people living in South Asian countries are the most affected (331.6 million)
  • Given the size of its population, Asia accounts for half the people facing moderate or severe food insecurity in the world . FAO estimates that 460 million people in the region suffered from severe food insecurity in 2021, while an additional 586 million suffered moderate food insecurity.
  • More than a billion people are suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity
  • Malnutrition affects all segments of the population and is multidimensional
  • Nearly 23 percent of children in the region are stunted
  • Almost a third (32.9 percent) of women aged 15 to 49 years suffer from anemia (2019)
  • Adult obesity is at 6.1 percent and has been rising in every country in the region; child obesity is rising too – it is a problem everywhere, but the prevalence is highest in the Pacific

EVEN FEWER CAN AFFORD A HEALTHY DIET

  • The effects of inflation in consumer food prices stemming from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to contain it, have increased the costs and the unaffordability of a healthy diet around the world.
  • Between 2019 and 2020, Asia and the Pacific experienced the highest surge in the cost of a healthy diet (4.5 percent).
  • Healthy diets are a crucial requirement to reduce malnutrition, but are unaffordable at USD 3.98 per person per day for nearly 2 billion inhabitants of Asia and the Pacific (1.9 billion persons, which is 44.5 percent of the region’s population)
  • Reforming our agrifood systems to produce nutritious food and ensure equitable access to healthy diets is critical.
  • The commitments made at the UN Food Systems Summit and the Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2021 provide an agreed framework for systemic change across agrifood systems
  • There are solutions – policy, process, technological and traditional – that can accelerate this change but this process needs time and we need to start now
  • Promoting a healthy food environment is also a key component of reducing malnutrition and NCD risk

URBAN FOOD SYSTEMS UNDER PRESSURE

  • The 2022 SOFI report has a special focus on the urban poor living in Asia’s mega cities and urban food security
  • More than 50 percent of Asia’s population now live in the cities and that migration is continuing apace. Improving urban food security and nutrition among them will increasingly contribute towards achieving SDG targets
  • Countries have rolled out initiatives and programmes to tackle food insecurity and malnutrition in urban areas, some of them in large and densely populated cities, a common feature in Asia

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