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Feeding Ourselves

The sidewalks of Bangkok. (SlapAyoda/Flickr)

The sidewalks of Bangkok. (SlapAyoda/Flickr)

New York: January 29, 2001

Keynote Speaker:
Nitin Desai, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs

Roy Prosterman, President, Rural Development Institute
Jaimie Cloud, Director, Sustainability Education Center at The American Forum for Global Education
Malcolm Bale, Sector Manager, Rural Development Unit, East Asia and Pacific Region, World Bank

Introducing the Panelists:
Brian Halweil, Research Associate, Worldwatch Institute

Dr. Mahnaz Ispahani, Deputy Director of Human Rights and International Cooperation, Ford Foundation


Program is followed by a Question and Answer Session

Nicholas Platt

Good evening. I'm Nick Platt. I'm president of the Asia Society and I'm just delighted to welcome all of you here. The Society is honored to host this evening's event, “Feeding Ourselves: Strategies and Solutions to End Hunger in Asia.” This is being held in conjunction with the opening of a major photo exhibition on hunger in Asia by the renowned Japanese photographer Hiroji Kubota. This program is part of Asia Society's new and exciting initiative entitled the "Asian Social Issues Program," a public-education initiative which looks at critical social challenges like poverty, environmental degradation and human rights violations in various parts of Asia and considers the solutions and the responses that are being generated in the region to address these challenges in a sustainable and a coherent manner.

This evening's panel event examines the critical issue of hunger that exists across the globe, as well as relative solutions and the commitment and vision that is required to address this challenge. Major funding for this evening's event was made possible by generous grants from the Ford Foundation, Ward Woods, NHK Joho Network, Ronald Anderson, David Hirsch, and Fuji Film. We'd also like to thank State Senator Roy Goodman for making possible a grant from the New York State Offices of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and also Magnum Photos for helping to organize and support Mr. Kubota's work.

I hope you'll all join us after this panel event for a reception and a viewing of the photographs that will be held at the Asia Society offices across the street on Park Avenue. Mr. Kubota, where are you? Please stand and take a bow. We're delighted you're here. I've long been an admirer of your work. That said, I would like now to welcome Dr. Mahnaz Ispahani, the Deputy Director of Human Rights and International Cooperation at the Ford Foundation, who will preside this evening and introduce the speakers. Mahnaz, the floor is yours.

Dr. Mahnaz Ispahani

Thank you, Nick. I will be brief because I think we have a very interesting and important discussion ahead, but would like to add my welcome to Nick's this evening. Hunger, as we all know, is not a new phenomenon, nor is famine, but, as Amartya Sen says, it is intolerable in the modern world. We live in an age of potential abundance of food, of wealth, and of innovation, where it is actually possible to feed all of us in the North and the South and the city and in rural communities.

Obviously, the problem of hunger is an urgent one, but when we begin to consider the strategies and policies to combat it, to eradicate it, the choices are very complex. The issues raised, and which I'm sure you will hear about today, from land rights and use to biotechnology, from the type and extent of government regulation to public action, from the connections of hunger to population growth and to the environment, to the rootedness of hunger in economic and in social inequalities, particularly as they affect poor women, I think these are issues that require solutions based on political will, cultural and environmental knowledge, and the costing out of the costs and benefits of scientific innovation.

Our main speaker today is Mr. Nitin Desai. I'm very pleased to introduce him. He has a distinguished record of public service, which you can read about in the bio that you have with you. He began his career first with the government of India and then continued at the United Nations. He has served in many capacities. Since 1973, in India's Planning Commission, in its Ministry of Finance and most recently as Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs at the UN.

Nitin Desai

Ms. Ispahani, Mr. Platt, ladies and gentlemen, it's a pleasure for me to be here to participate in this panel which the Asia Society has organized on ending hunger in Asia on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition of photographs by Hiroji Kubota. We've been looking at those photographs and they truly are stunning and astounding. We're also meeting at a very sad time for one part of Asia, the part I come from, which has had to cope with one of the most horrendous earthquakes that it has known, ever, and we still do not know how bad the situation is likely to be. So at this time, when we meet on this issue of hunger in Asia, our hearts should also be with the people particularly in Gujarat who are at the moment suffering from this great catastrophe which has hit them, and deserve not just our sympathies, but our help, also--more substantial material assistance.

The theme that we have before us for today is essentially on hunger in Asia, one of the most densely populated, but also one of the fastest-growing parts of the world. My job as a keynote speaker is like that of an overture in music--not to try to spell the full problem out, but to basically list the themes which I'm sure the other speakers will pick up and elaborate with far greater competence than I possibly could.

The evidence is well known. The part of Asia that we normally talk of when we discuss agriculture is not actually the geographic Asia. When you hear the term “Asian statistics on agriculture, ” it actually refers to Asia east of Afghanistan. Asia west of Afghanistan is grouped together always with North Africa, into something called the “Near East.” I don't know near to what, but it's called ”Near East,” and this is the normal terminology. So, most of the numbers that you hear when they say “Asia,” they really mean Asia east of Afghanistan. The greater part of this mass, which has a little over 3 billion people, is essentially a rice-growing, rice-consuming area, with some wheat-growing, wheat-producing areas to the western and northern fringes. It has an agricultural ecosystem which is truly unique, monsoon-dependent, stretching out over virtually the entire year in terms of the crop cycles.

Amongst these 3 billion people, in terms of the latest assessments made by the FAO, something like over 500 million are undernourished. The numbers can be broken down. Most of them, as you would expect, are in two countries, China and India. Most of the population happens to be in these two countries, China and India. But something more can be said about these numbers. First, the trends. Over the past 20 years, the extent of hunger in Asia has come down. If we look at the numbers which the FAO projects, then over this time period, the extent of hunger in Asia as I've defined it, has come down from, roughly 32% of the population in '79-'81--let's say 1980--to around 17% of the population in the period '96-'98, which is a very substantial achievement and it's more or less reflected in most parts of Asia. Second, the depth of hunger. This is one of the other things that we tend to look at, also, in our statistics now--not just how many people do not have a diet which is adequate in terms of daily dietary energy requirements, but also how far are they below this? This assessment has also been given by FAO and one sees that basically, for most parts of Asia, particularly the very densely populated countries of China and India, what one is talking of is a relatively small deficiency in the daily kilocalorie requirements amongst the people who go hungry.

If we look at the trend a little more closely, one finds that the greater part of this gain was realized in the '80s, and that in the '90s, progress has been significantly slower. In fact, the year 2000 was a year when, in South Asia, per capita food availability actually declined and we also had, in the late '90s, the experience of this terrible famine in the DPR Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. So it's not as if the broad picture that I described of declining hunger necessarily is something that one can take great comfort in. You must also recognize something else. This is what the numbers were: 32 to 17. But when one starts looking at it a different way, what we call anthropometric measurement, actually going and looking at children, particularly, and seeing what the weight relative to age and height is, and plotting that, then the numbers look very different. If you look at the anthropometric measurement of undernourishment, Asia has very high numbers, numbers much higher than the incidence of kilocalorie deficiency which I just gave. In places like South Asia you get numbers like 50% of the children are underweight. Even in Southeast Asia, you get numbers like 30% are underweight, and that's the sort of number you get in sub-Saharan Africa. China is a bit lower. And this is a puzzle. Why should this be, even now--these are not old data. These are data for the '90s, late '90s. Why is it that despite these numbers, which show that more people seem to be in a situation where they're getting enough food, why is it that the anthropometric measurements do not necessarily show the same results? They show similar trends, but not as much.

Perhaps the answer lies in the measurement. Perhaps, in a sense, a small person is not necessarily a weak person. But there may be other factors, like the intra-family distribution of food and this is one which we may have to look at. Just to give you a sense of this, I want to just describe to you one case. One of the very interesting things that the FAO has done is they actually went and observed some people for 24 hours, or days, and then tried to write a description of a particular person's diet, and then analyzed that. The story I'm going to read to you is about a Pakistani adolescent girl, Tahira Khan. Her name is obviously not her real name. Tahira Khan is a newly married 15-year-old in an isolated hill community in Pakistan. In the morning, she fetches water to boil for chai tea, which she drinks with milk and sugar. She and her mother-in-law prepare the family breakfast. After the men leave for the fields, Tahira eats her share, generally one parotta, which is a type of pancake, made of whole-wheat flour and ghee, which is clarified butter. Once or twice a week, she also has an egg fried in ghee. She and her mother-in-law spend most of the day on household chores, and in the afternoon, Tahira eats one chapati--a light, white bread--with a vegetable preparation made of potatoes and eggplants. When the men return from the fields, Tahira serves the evening meal, and then eats herself. This is usually, one chapati and, again, some vegetables. As the village is difficult to reach, the family depends on the gardens for most of their food, so the variety is limited. When her diet was analyzed, she probably has an adequate level of protein, but of low quality, because it comes mostly from the wheat. Pulses would improve it, but she doesn't get enough of that, and she, of course, has a very low intake of fat. Her limited diet is a concern because she is still growing and, in particular, she needs more calcium for herself and her children. When one analyzes her diet, what one finds is that she had a diet which is roughly in the region of around 1,600 kilocalories, as against what she should have, which is around 2,200.

The reason I'm reading this story out to you is essentially to reflect something else, that hunger is more than a matter of simple food availability. Hunger is also how food gets distributed. How food gets distributed amongst people within a country, which is largely a matter of entitlements--do people have the income to be able to buy the food which is available--and how food gets distributed within the family. Let me mention here that in the aggregate, Asia right now produces enough food to insure everybody a diet which is adequate in terms of daily energy supply requirements. The problem is that there are 500 million people who do not have the income which would allow them to buy the food which is available in Asia, and within families there's a story of tight rations. There are problems of how food which the family consumes is distributed amongst these people [family members].

What this leads to is some categorization of who are the hungry people in Asia. Who are the vulnerable? In terms of categories in all parts of the country: children, women and the elderly. In terms of occupations: nomads, artisans, landless laborers, small farmers, people living on the fringes of the informal sector in urban areas. Where are these people who are vulnerable to hunger? Typically in ecologically stressed areas--dry lands, mountains, coastal areas, somewhere deep in the interior. When do they suffer most? Typically in periods of production stress, when you have a severe drought or immediately before the harvest comes in, when local food stocks are always at their lowest. I've given this description of the evidence as I call it, because I think this is what should help us to define what measures are required, what the structural reforms required are, what the strategies required are.

The first category of strategies that one should look for are what I would loosely describe as food nutrition interventions, interventions which seek to modify the way in which available food and nutrition is distributed amongst the people in the country. This has to refer not just to the big, big area of energy and proteins, but also micronutrients, because micronutrient deficiencies in things like iron, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin C and calcium are also very widespread. The sorts of things that one can do here, which governments have tried, is to modify the distribution of food which would take place under normal circumstances. I will just list them and I hope that the panelists later will pick up some of these.

One, typically, food-for-work type activities. Whenever you get a drought, then you organize food-for-work activities so that the people who are in need of food are given work which allows them to buy food which you presumably get from other parts of the country or abroad. I would say one of the success stories of Asia, particularly in South Asia, has been the way in which a very organized system of famine relief has been put in place so that it has not had a major famine--the types of cases of famines which you got in pre-independence days. I was involved a bit in the 1987 drought and the whole system kicks in fast. You don't wait until people are dying of starvation. You start moving with food-for-work schemes when people can go out for work. You don't wait until they are starving, as they do in many other parts of the world. But I hope somebody else will pick up some of these themes.

The second, food for work is typically something that you do in situations of special stress, when you have a major drought which affects an area. Not that that's the only time you need to do it. In many parts of India it has been used also under normal circumstances like an employment-guarantee program so that people who have a deficiency of employment in their dry season or the agricultural off-season have a source of income. This is not as if it's strictly only a drought-relief measure. It can be a part of the welfare policy. Through the UN, through the World Food Programme, we do support a lot of this type of activity, food-for-work activity.

Third, food supplementation, particularly for vulnerable groups, like children, women and elderly. This is a major class of interventions which can be done--a midday meals program for children in schools to ensure that they get at least one nutritious meal a day. Supplemental feeding programs to take care of micronutrient deficiencies. Supplemental programs to deliver extra nutrition to pregnant and lactating mothers. This is what I call food supplementation, and it has an important role.

Fourth, overall a system of either outright subsidies or publicly managed distribution to ensure that poor people have access to food at affordable prices, what's often called a public-distribution system or a food subsidy. Many of my colleagues in the economics profession don't like it, but I promise you, it plays an important role in ensuring food security for a lot of households. The challenge is to design it so it doesn't get misused.

There are other areas that one can talk of: Nutrition surveillance and education, and related areas of health and sanitation. Take sanitation. There is a study in India which shows that improving water supply does more for children's health than supplemental nutrition because, by reducing diarrheal diseases, their uptake of nutrition from water consumed increases so much that you really don't have to have the supplemental nutrition and there are studies which show that this is probably often a better intervention than direct supplemental feeding. There is an example of Thailand, which did this. Early in the '80s, it identified around 286 districts and if you look at them, they're all remote districts--way up in the north, bordering on Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, and deep, way down in the south. They identified these, they studied them, and they put in a program--not food for work, but supplemental feeding, nutrition education, production of nutritious foods--with dramatic results. What we're talking of is between '82 and '92. In anthropometric terms, undernourishment declined from 35% to 8%. Moderate undernourishment from 8% to 2%, and severe undernourishment from 2% to practically nothing. This is from '82 to '98. So it can be done and this is something that was done in Asia.

These are all measures to improve the distribution of food, but if you look at the longer term in Asia, and particularly if you look at some of the material which has been put here in the article by Gordon Conway, which Lester Brown has often written about, if you look ahead, it's not clear that Asia does not have a production problem. It's not clear that what we have had over this green-revolution period which has helped us to sustain the food economy, which has helped to maintain the availability of food so that the governments have to focus mainly on issues of distribution and entitlement, will remain. I'm sure that many of the panelists will pick up what are the prospects for a substantial expansion of food production in Asia in order to keep hunger away.

Our present trends--we believe that we can meet the Food Summit target of having the people end hunger by 2015. But much more is going to be required than just food-distribution policies. Trade can be only a marginal element in meeting Asia's food needs. They are too large. We've got 3 billion people, half the population of the world. One cannot design a food production system in land-surplus countries and expect to move what would be astronomical quantities of food across the seas into these Asian countries. Asian countries will have to basically grow their own food. I'm not talking of the Near East, some of the smaller population countries with oil wells, which is a different matter. But the Asian countries that I'm talking of, which is monsoon Asia, rice Asia, will have to depend essentially on their own production.

The key areas of concern here are, one: land and water management. Asia's land availability is way below the world's. So in the world as a whole, we have roughly one and a half hectares per person. In Asia you have something like between 0.3 and 0.5 hectares per person. It's lower than, say, Europe. So you have an extremely low level of land availability. There are severe problems of water stress, much of which has been described here in the prefaces, the preface to the book by Mr. Hiroji and water stress may be the key problem in Asia in the future. Yet, we need intensification. So one great challenge is, can we really have an integrated management of our land and water systems in Asia so that we maximize the productivity and do what Gordon Conway describes as a doubly green revolution--a green revolution which is green in that it produces more, but a green revolution which is green in that it also conserves and protects the resource base. He describes it as a doubly green revolution. So there's one great challenge. There are experiments, there are examples where this has been done, and this is one area we need to look at, along with some ownership issues, both on land and water.

Second, markets. The message of liberalization has been given in Asia. It's certainly liberalizing very rapidly. But I do not believe that Asian countries can rely essentially on the international trade for meeting their food needs. Nothing against liberalization, but I would say that the primary focus of agricultural policy in Asia must be food security, rather than just creating efficiency. This, for an economist, is a heretical view, but I do believe this. I'm not sure that the focus of policy in Asia should be in terms of creating efficiency. It should be in terms of long-term food sufficiency and long-term resource management, because I do not think that neither Asia nor the world can have an Asia dependent on the rest of the world for feeding itself.

Finally, the other area which we will have to focus on is issues of technology, clearly issues of technological research, and that has certainly been one of the major advantages and gains of international cooperation for the past decades--the whole CGIAR mechanism, which has released between 70 and 100 new varieties. The capacities available in the Asian countries for agricultural research are substantial, but there are problems cropping up. I don't know how many of you saw the article in the New York Times on Saturday, “Rice Genome Breakthrough.” It's interesting. Read this article. Two private companies have decoded the rice genome, sequenced the rice genome. They're still a long way from actually using it for manipulating this, but the worrying thing here is the privatization of this knowledge. The whole system of agricultural research on which not just Asia's but the whole world's food security depends was a publicly funded, publicly available research system. You would not have had the maize breakthroughs you got in the United States in the 1920s with this. You got it with public research on hybrid maize, and that's true even in Europe. The great breakthroughs of agriculture in the 20th century have come from public research, publicly funded. One of the fears many of us have is the decline in support for such publicly funded research; the privatization of what should be public knowledge.But are we really gaining in terms of more, quicker results through privatization? What's the difference between this and the public project to decode the genome? Two years. The public project will have the same information available by 2003. It's two years' difference, and those two years, this leads to privatization. Even more disturbing that they're not really interested in rice. They decoded the thing because they want to use the genetic information from rice to improve the crop varieties which are of interest in the industrial countries. So they're not even really interested, it appears, in rice itself, but in using this information for crops which are really meant for other purposes. It's the equivalent in series of making redder, rounder tomatoes. It's, in some sense, almost an abuse of biotechnology. So there are problems here, problems of fealty which will have to be looked at. I would say that this is going to be the difficult area of policy in the years to come.

I believe between this, food and nutrition policy, agricultural production policy are the complex things we are to get right if we are to meet the problem of hunger in Asia. I do not want to go on at this point and I really would look forward to listening to this. Let me just conclude by inviting you to look at the photographs of Mr. Kubota. They're very, very interesting. They are photographs of the people in Asia working in the fields, the land in Asia, the markets in Asia, and a few photographs, even, of the rubbish heaps in Asia and I think this is what we need to look at, because in the final analysis, this is not about numbers. This is about people, their livelihood, their security, and their well being. So I hope that we can address these issues in a compassionate, meaningful way which really addresses the concerns of the people like Tahira that I was talking about. So I thank you very much and I look forward to listening to your comments.