Summit spotlights Asia’s food and nutrition security

Representatives of the UN, governments, NGOs and private sector farming are expected to gather in Bangkok, Thailand, on 26 November for a two-day forum on how to fill the Asia-Pacific’s growing food demands and nutrition gaps in a region more devastated by natural disasters than any other worldwide.

“In order to feed a population of nine billion by 2025, we will need a new vision for agriculture… producing more food with fewer resources, while reinvigorating rural economies,” said Radwan Chowdury, founder and chief executive officer of the Udion Foundation a Bangladeshi non-profit child poverty alleviation NGO.

“Farmers may be at risk of getting squeezed at the bottom of the value chain,” said Bas Bouman, director of the Global Rice Science Partnership at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the capital of the Philippines, Manila.

Though up to 80 percent of Asia-Pacific’s poor now live in rural areas, UN projections have half the region’s population living in cities by 2020.

Rapidly expanding cities make satisfying the need for urban food security as well as rural livelihoods a precarious balance for policymakers, according to IRRI, which warned that boosting urban food security requires reducing costs – and profits for rural producers – during the “farm-to-fork” trajectory of food.

Nutrition security highlighted

Experts have long pointed to the need for a marriage between health experts, who have the knowledge, and policymakers in the agricultural sector, who could expand programmes that raise the nutritional content of crops by adding micronutrients, to reduce malnutrition.

“Food security is still thought about too much in terms of quantity… the nutritional aspects of food are recognized, but it’s not enough,” said Bouman.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other agencies and donors have gradually moved to address “food and nutrition security” rather than food security and nutrition, to emphasize the central role of nutrition in survival.

The UK-based Aid and International Development Forum (AIDF), which is organizing the event, is looking to create a cross-disciplinary forum to tackle the region’s food – and nutrition – challenges. An August 2013 meta-study by the Asian Development Bank estimated that 537 million people in the region are undernourished.

“It is crucial that private and public partnerships are formed, [with] the summit providing a uniting international platform,” said event organizer Sonja Reutzel.

Forum topics will range from best health interventions in the critical first 1,000 days of a child’s life (conception to age two) to the potential of oil and rice fortification for boosting micronutrient intake.

FAO notes that two decades ago, developing countries worldwide were already consuming up to 140 million tons of cooking oil per year, making oil a promising food group for nutrition interventions, say advocates.

But IRRI’s Bouman said various sectors first need to work together more closely. “A key priority is to get nutrition and health sectors to collaborate with the traditional agricultural sectors, in the government, NGO and private sectors.”