HONG KONG, November 29, 2010 - The world can't afford to be complacent about rice supplies and rice productivity. This was the main message of Director-General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Robert Zeigler brought to a panel discussion on food security hosted here by the Asia Society Hong Kong Center and IRRI.
The event centered around a task force report, Never an Empty Bowl: Sustaining Food Security in Asia, a collaborative effort by Asia Society and IRRI, and foregrounded some alarming statistics. Among the latter is the prevalence of malnutrition in Asia, particularly in parts of South Asia. India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, for instance, account for half of the world's underweight children, despite having just 29 percent of the developing world's under-five population, according to UNICEF.
Xianbin Yao, Director General of Regional and Sustainable Development at the Asian Development Bank, said this was not just a food access issue but also an issue of food and nutrition security.
Panelist Brett Rierson, Senior Officer at the World Food Programme, added that more production isn't the solution. Private sector growth, he said, will have the biggest impact on poverty and malnutrition.
"There has been an amazing lack of innovation in food," Rierson argued. "The food companies themselves are trying to produce food products that are at a price point that are accessible to the poorest of the poor. These market forces are now looking at the developing economies beyond the simple supply of labor, but as key markets and you need to have robust nutrition in these markets. It's a great market opportunity for these private sector firms. It's not charity, it's an investment."
Representing the private sector on the panel was Frank Ning, Chairman of COFCO Corporation, one of China's largest food conglomerates. "Business is business, so we try to do better business to supply people," Ning said. He added that more people could be assisted if the market operated efficiently and that the focus should be agricultural programs. "The challenge is not whether we can produce. The challenge is to produce food at the right price."
While China is the world's largest rice producer and the third-largest food donor in the world, it is largely self-sufficient, supplying 90 to 95 percent of its own population. Still, with concerns over water and land supplies, Ning believes that the next big producers could be Brazil, Argentina, and Russia, while stressing that moving production elsewhere would result in higher prices.
While the food security issues of 2008 no longer make headlines, Zeigler cautioned, "We are not in any way out of the woods." To address this, Yao stated:"The market can be easily calmed down if coordinated work takes place." He pointed out that the Asian Development Bank has been working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as Japan, China and Korea to implement food security strategy work.
To read the full report, visit www.asiasociety.org/foodsecurity.
Reported by Arlene Vermylen, Asia Society Hong Kong Center