Industry Report: When you tuck into your next meal, spare a thought for those going hungry on World Food Day across Asia today.
Asia accounts for the bulk of people who are undernourished around the world today, with 418 million people making up over half of the hungry mouths worldwide.
The majority are in South Asia, which accounts for 305.7 million people. South-east Asia follows with 48.8 million people, and West Asia with 42.3 million, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, Asia was assessed to have 361.3 million undernourished people.
“Being in a state of acute food insecurity means that families are faced with really tough decisions – they may be forced to skip meals, eat less nutritious foods, prioritise children over adults at mealtimes, fall into debt to buy food, (or) sell off key assets to make ends meet,” the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman James Belgrave told The Straits Times.
“Their nutrition will likely suffer. Children may become wasted – too thin, or stunted, too short – with impacts that will last their whole lives,” he added.
Belgrave said most countries in Asia where the WFP operates have seen increased food insecurity due to the socio-economic fallout and economic impact of the pandemic, and extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms.
“This may have affected particular segments of the population, in particular urban centres, slums in major cities in the region,” he said.
Professor of applied economics Prabhu Pingali, director of the Tata-Cornell Institute at Cornell University, noted that global food production has not been affected by the pandemic and so hunger is being caused by loss of incomes.
“None of the major food exporting countries has seen a drop in production. India has seen record harvests of food grains in 2020 and 2021. Food supplies have not been a problem in most Asian countries.
“The primary problem has been access to food due to loss of employment, primarily among low-wage migrant workers who were forced to return to their home villages,” he said.
Prof Pingali also cautioned against over-reliance on hunger estimates.
“Global hunger estimates are best for looking at long-term trends but not for assessing the number of people affected by an immediate shock. Moreover, the hunger numbers provided by the UN agencies are based on calorie adequacy rather than a measure of a balanced diet which includes proteins, minerals and vitamins. So it does not measure ‘hidden hunger’ or micronutrient malnutrition,” he said.
The situation in some countries looks increasingly desperate. Over 20 million Filipinos – or one in five people – said they went hungry in the first three months of the year, twice as many before the pandemic, according to a survey by Social Weather Stations.
They said there were days when they did not have anything to eat, or they had just one meal a day.
“We can’t provide food for an entire family. Yet, people line up for food, even if they’ll just be getting enough for one serving. That means they’re desperate,” Mr Jomar Fleras, executive director of the non-profit Rise Against Hunger, told The Straits Times.
His organisation has the largest network of soup kitchens and feeding programmes in the Philippines.
Housewife Lara Villalon, 33, said her family went through a food security scare when her husband, a casino worker, lost his job during the pandemic.
“Luckily, we had our savings and a backyard garden. I also began to sell food online. Those helped tide us over,” she said.
The poverty rate in Malaysia has also considerably worsened after repeat lockdowns that have badly affected income streams for many informal workers.
The government revealed last month that Malaysia’s absolute poverty rate rose to 8.4 per cent last year compared to 5.6 per cent in 2019. This translated into 580,000 households slipping into the lower-income bracket.
Economist Muhammed Abdul Khalid, the managing director of research outfit DM Analytics, said that Malaysia is already facing a national crisis in terms of food access and malnutrition among vulnerable households. “20 per cent of Malaysian children are malnourished, this is the biggest issue that will impact us in the long run,” said Dr Muhammed.
Hunger is particularly acute in India, which slipped seven spots to be ranked 101 among 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2021 released this week.
It was placed in the “serious” hunger category and ranked behind Nepal (76), Pakistan (92) and Bangladesh (76). The report stated that 15.3 per cent of India’s population is undernourished and 17.3 per cent of children under five suffer from child wasting.
“People have been severely hit by Covid-19 and by pandemic-related restrictions in India, the country with the highest child wasting rate worldwide,” the report said.
Millions of people remain excluded from the public ration distribution system because the government uses outdated population data to calculate beneficiaries. A recent analysis showed that over 100 million people entitled to food rations are not getting them.
Another event that affected food security for some in India was the swarms of locusts that invaded several parts of the country and Iran, as well as neighbouring Pakistan, last year. Scientists say that extreme temperatures in the region assisted the breeding of the insects, which also devoured crops on a large-scale in Africa.
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For a number of low-income families in Thailand, food or daily necessities distributed by non-government organisations (NGOs) have been a godsend.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have anything to eat,” said Madam SompornBoonnoi, 46, a widow who has two children aged 10 and 15.
Gesturing to the bags of instant noodles and dry food in her home in the Klong Toey slums, Madam Somporn added: “It’s the only way we can survive.”
The pandemic pushed almost 800,000 more Thai people into poverty last year, a study by the Thailand Science Research and Innovation found.
And with Covid-19 curbs – only recently lifted – that locked down cities, shuttered businesses and restricted travel and movement, thousands have lost their jobs or had their working hours and wages cut.
While the government has implemented measures to cushion the financial blow, many grassroots groups and NGOs have been plugging the gaps by distributing food and necessities to the needy.
In Indonesia, the centuries-old, widely-believed notion that it is “a major sin to leave your neighbour hungry” has long made the country relatively resilient against hunger, but undernourishment affects a large swathe of the population.
“Indonesia doesn’t have any cases of famine. Our problem is undernourishment, which accounts for about 8 per cent of the population,” said Mr Agung Hendriadi, the head of Indonesia’s food security agency.
“Our challenge is distribution, not availability, of food. We are more than 17,000 islands and there are regions with surplus of food and others with deficits. We are consistently monitoring to fill any gap.”
Nevertheless, observers noted that unreported food shortages in the world’s largest archipelagic nation could be possible from time to time.
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