More than 1.1 billion people lacked access to adequate food in Asia last year as the pandemic, war and climate change stoked an escalating crisis in the world’s most populous region, new UN research has warned. The latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report illustrates the far-reaching effects of the pressure on agricultural supplies, and lays bare the long-term food security risks that threaten the region’s growing population.
According to Nikkei Asia, hunger is spreading again across Asia as the simultaneous and interlocking threats of the past few years have reversed years of progress in which access to food had generally improved. The worsening undernourishment is part of a global trend that the UN’s World Food Program says has left large parts of the world facing an “unprecedented food emergency” this year.
More than 424 million faced hunger in Asia in 2021, according to the SOFI report, which is published jointly by five UN agencies. This is up from 398.2 million in 2020 and 339.9 million in 2019. While hunger increased, so did the prevalence of severe food insecurity that meant at some point people had run out of provisions. More than 489 million people in Asia were severely food insecure last year. That is an increase of 112.3 million people in just two years – in this region alone.
International food prices are expected to soar still further this year, driven by further supply disruptions, higher agriculture input costs, and policy restrictions on exports and trade tariffs.
The COVID-19 pandemic, reaction to Russia’s special operation in Ukraine and extreme climate changes have driven prices of staples including vegetable oils and cereals to record highs, according to the UN’S Food and Agriculture Organization’s annual Food Price index. The Index, which tracks monthly changes in the international prices of a basket of commonly traded food commodities, has climbed 23% in the last 12 months alone.
The Covid-19 pandemic that began at the end of 2019 triggered price rises as it disrupted the supply chain from planting and harvesting to distribution. The events in Ukraine delivered another hammer blow. The two countries together supply around 30% of global wheat exports and around a fifth of the world’s maize. Following a sudden heatwave that hammered yields in India, the world’s second-largest producer of wheat has banned exports after saying it was ready to fill part of the gap left by Ukraine.
Sugar prices are also on the rise as Brazilian sugar cane mills are diverting production to ethanol to cash in on high energy prices. This comes on the heels of record droughts that shortened the harvest season in Brazil, the world’s largest sugar exporter. Poultry prices are climbing on disruption of exports from Ukraine, rising bird flu outbreaks in the Northern hemisphere, and most recently, the curbs on chicken exports by Malaysia. Dairy costs are also mounting, with record highs for butter attributed to declining cow herds, labor shortages, higher packaging material costs and a shortage of cooking oils. Rice, despite being stockpiled, could be next if wheat-reliant nations begin to pivot to cheaper alternatives, financial services group Nomura Holdings said in a report published last month.
“The Food Price Index is still 22.8% above its value in the corresponding month last year,” said Jose Rosero Moncayo, Director of the FAO’s Statistics Division. In Asia, consumers are yet to see the worst. The region is home to more than 320 million who live in “extreme poverty” (on less than $1.90 a day), according to the World Bank.
With 4.6 billion, it is already the most populous continent by a massive margin and expected to grow by 700,000 people in the next three decades. In India, Asia’s second-most populous nation, record inflation has been driven by price increases in food and fuel. In neighboring Sri Lanka, an economic crisis has left the island nation without sufficient food reserves or the currency to import more. Singapore, South Korea and the Philippines will see the sharpest price increases in the months to come, according to the Nomura report.
Agricultural prices are soaring, supply chains are in chaos, and several nations have moved to curb outgoing trade. India is restricting wheat and sugar sales, Indonesia is limiting palm oil exports, and Singapore is facing a chicken shortage as Malaysia restrains overseas chicken shipments. Issues like China’s pandemic lockdowns, Thailand’s swine fever outbreak and India’s heat wave are expected to make the situation worse. “Consumers’ perception of inflation is strongly influenced by the prices of frequently purchased necessities, such as food, and can lead to higher inflation expectations,” Nomura said, noting Jakarta and Manila have already had to raise minimum wage levels to account for the higher cost of living.
The World Bank’s Food Commodity Price Index, which reached a record high in nominal terms during March-April 2022, is up more than 80% from two years ago. Energy prices, especially coal and natural gas in Europe, surged in 2021 and are expected to increase further this year. That has taken a toll on fertilizer markets. Several chemical companies curtailed output or temporarily shut production facilities due to surging input prices. Russia announced restrictions on fertilizer exports that, combined with sanctions on exports from Belarus, further destabilized the market.
If energy and fertilizer prices do not moderate next year, food prices will be subject to significant further upward pressure, the World Bank said. Home to 418 million undernourished, Asia will have to think outside the box to feed its growing billions.