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Food security

Less hunger, but more health hazards

by J. Jackson Ewing

In depth

Sweets department in a Shanghai supermarket in 2007.

Sweets department in a Shanghai supermarket in 2007.

Human nutrition has improved markedly in the Asia-Pacific region in the past half century, thanks to green-revolution technologies and the prioritisation of food production. Price volatility still hurts poor people however. Moreover, new health concerns arise due to greater fat intake or hazardous pesticide levels for instance.

In the past 50 years, the Asia-Pacific region has been brought from acute food insecurity to levels of relatively good access to sufficient and nutritious foods. Asian wheat, rice and maize yields enjoyed decades of growth. The reasons included new crop varieties and more effective irrigation systems, which led to greater profitability levels for grain farmers.

Yield increases facilitated significantly more food production. They were the key to providing millions of people with affordable and nutritious food. It is a compelling indicator of progress that the calories available per person increased by 30 % while the population of the Asia-Pacific region grew by 60 % from in the years 1970 to 1995. Wheat and rice even became cheaper in real terms.

Because of such resounding achievements, Asia is considered a model for food-security progress from which other continents should learn. Within this larger success story, however, some challenges linger on. Malnourishment continues to haunt communities throughout the region. According to recent Global Hunger Index figures, which were compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide, hunger levels are “moderate” in China, Thailand and Malaysia, “serious” in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar, and even “alarming” in Cambodia, Laos and Timor-Leste. Such findings reveal structural impediments to accessing food.

 

Panic-driven price hikes

Macroeconomic trends sometimes result in food-price inflation which blocks poor people’s access to affordable food. Past food crises offer examples. In 2007/2008, international prices for wheat rose fast because of lower production. Corn prices rose too, but not because of lower production. The major reason was increased demand from the biofuel industry.

The prices of rice in Asian markets spiked in response to price hikes for other grains in the world maket, even though there was no shortage. Rice-exporting countries restricted trade in order to ensure supply for their domestic markets in a time of volatile prices. At the same time, importing countries responded by trying to increase their rice stocks by buying on international markets, which in turn drove the prices ever higher in a vicious cycle of panic buying and climbing prices.  

Such food-price inflation severly affected poor people in the Asia-Pacific region. Such rapid price increases have been observed once more in 2011/2012. Far from being a mere academic issue, these systemic economic forces have the capacity to abruptly affect the quality of life of millions of individuals. The most vulnerable people – especially children and the elderly – are most at risk. 

 

Shifting consumer choices

Food habits are changing. One reason is interantional trade. It is driven, among other things, by foreign direct investment in agriculture and food processing. New kinds of food are becoming available, prices change, and so do marketing channels and even the location of markets. Advertising and branding are becoming more important, shaping global food preferences. The global trade volume for processed food grew more than four-fold from 1970 to 2005. In this category, the imports grew fastest (more than five-fold) in developing countries.

Processed-food items tend to be sugary, salty and fatty, but low in micronutrients. They are becoming increasingly popular in the Asia-Pacific region. The international food industry has been driving this trend, and is responding to growing demand by supplying ever more products at affordable prices. Coinciding trends include rapid urbanisation, more global trade and the advent of more sedentary, less physically-active lifestyles. 

Fat and sugar consumption has increased dramatically in the Asia-Pacific region in the latter half of the 20th century. The consequences include serious health risks. Diabetes and heart disease are becoming more common. These risks are compounded by the fact that most people are unaware of them. In rich countries, public authorities, scholars and consumer-action groups inform people of these matters. In Asian countries, more needs to happen in this respect. 

 

New Health Concerns

Today’s food-production methods lead to further health concerns. Production-related chemicals, for instance, pose a range of food safety issues. Some toxic chemicals (such as cadmium or lead) are naturally present in certain crops due to their occurrence in soil. They are not the main concern. In the context of food safety, pesticides, veterinary drugs and other artificial contaminants are more prevaltent and, accordingly, more worrisome.

At the international level, UN organisations such the WHO and FAO have developed food-safety standards to protect consumer health and facilite international trade. Such standards exist for animal feed too. Expert groups such as the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) give advice on acceptable levels of chemical substances in food.

The food safety standards developed by these groups serve as guidelines for harmonising food-safety standards internationally. They are being incorporated in agreements of the World Trade Organisation, for instance. However, many developing areas of the Asia-Pacific region still have a long way to go in terms of regulatory processes to ensure that such food- safety protocols are actually met. Where government institutions are weak, they cannot deliver good governance and enforce all rules. Awareness raising in civil society would help.

The production of genetically-modified (GM) crops is another relevant issue. GM plants are those in which genetic material has been altered in ways that do not occur by mating or through natural recombinations. To date, GM traits have been primarily introduced in the agricultural systems of the developed world to increase herbicide tolerance or improve resistance to pests and diseases. There has also been significant research on using GM technologies to enhance the health benefits of staple crops. Pervasive health concerns relating to the safety of GM plants, however, mean that balanced assessments of their overall contribution to public health are needed.

GM sceptics are primarily concerned about allergenicity, toxicity, carcinogenicity and altered nutritional quality of foods. They link the application of GM technologies to allergic reactions, the development of antibiotic resistance and liver failures for instance. They similarly argue that GM approaches lead to re-productive health problems, sterility and infant mortality. So far, they have not proven their cases convincingly, but the overall safety of some GM technologies has not been proven either. There is clearly need for more research.

Other experts, for instance those of the WHO, are more confident. They accept that attention to health implications is warranted for any food product, and but they emphasise the benefits of GM crops. Nutritional improvements are an example. Much GM research has focussed on vitamins and other nutrients. The idea is to improve the diets of people in developing nations. Results include Golden Rice and Golden Rice II. These varieties have been genetically enhanced to synthesise beta-carotene so that they can serve as a fortified staple food. Where people tend to lack vitamin A, these rice varieties can make an important difference.

Additionally, some evidence suggests that specific dietary components called nutraceutical metabolites may help prevent or control particular diseases and disorders. GM technologies might serve to enhance food by developing plants with improved metabolite profiles. For such technological possibilities to bear fruit, however, rigorous GM safety testing must be in place to ensure food safety and communicate necessary information to consumers.

The regulation of GM technologies, however, is not the most acute food-related health challenge in the Asia-Pacific region. Malnutrition and the increasing consumption of food with poor nutritional content are affecting more people. Policies are needed to promote access to nutritious food for those who struggle with deficiencies and to educate people on healthy food choices. Moreover, capacities must be developed to enforce international food-safety standards.

 

J. Jackson Ewing is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. [email protected]