Too many hungry people in the world

For the past decade, most talks on Asia Pacific focused on its dramatic economic rise, on China and India’s new status as global super powers, on Vietnam and Cambodia’s staggering growth, and on how the region is fast becoming a magnet for serious foreign investment.

Pictures and articles of the region focuses on Shanghai’s skyscrapers, Vietnam’s sea of traffic and India’s billionaires.

Yet few talk about the equally dramatic rise in inequality between the rich and the poor which has led to some of the worst child mortality rates and poverty levels in the world’s most populous region.

Now the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says the region is also home to the largest number of hungry people in the world – two-thirds of the over 1 billion people who are hungry are in this region. FAO made this statement last week, while launching the 1BillionHungry campaign in Bangkok.

By contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 265 million chronically hungry people (although at 32 percent, it has the largest prevalence of undernourishment compared to its population) and Latin America and the Caribbean 53 million.

In a way, the number isn’t surprising, considering Asia’s population, but to many people, including my friends – both locals and expatriate – for whom my region denotes rapid development, it is still a shock.

FAO blames this on the neglect of agriculture, where investment both within and outside of the main agricultural societies have plummeted in the past couple of decades. There have been pledges and headline-making statements by world leaders after social unrest in places like Somalia over food crisis, but nothing has really changed.

The agency adds unless developing countries invest $209billion annually in agriculture the global food needs in 2050, when the population in Asia Pacific is expected to reach 5 billion, will not be met.

FAO estimates that last year alone, an additional 54 million people in Asia Pacific were pushed into chronic malnutrition. Food, fuel and economic crisis in the past four years have pushed domestic food prices which remained high, it says. For example, rice is now 35 percent and 62 percent more expensive in Cambodia and Thailand compared to before the crisis.

South Asia makes up the bulk of the 640 million hungry in Asia.

There are many reasons as to why people are hungry and it isn’t always because there isn’t enough food being produced.

In many places, it’s a matter of not having access to food – people who live in remote places, people who live on the margins of society, people who are oppressed… no wonder Asia also has two-thirds of the world’s poorest.

But it is also about governance – certain countries in the region are net producers of food, but because they are so inefficient, highly corrupt or oppressive (usually all three), the food doesn’t get to places it should.

Similarly, there are myriad of accusations and finger pointing (changing dietary habits of developing countries towards more meat products and the bio-fuel industry having an impact on farm land, shrinking resources for food production, extreme weather events, chronic poverty and an increase in population, et al) as well as suggestions (eat less meat, have less children, invest more in agriculture and technology).

I don’t have all the answers and I don’t profess to know everything… but there are just far too many hungry people in the world, and these numbers (courtesy of FAO) should make all of us, who live in this world and consume its finite resources, pause for at least a moment and have a re-think of our habits.

– Under the Millennium Development Goals, the UN committed to half the proportion of people suffering from absolute hunger and poverty by 2015. At that time, in 2000, the number was 20%. Five years to the deadline and we are still at about 17%.

– The number of hungry people increased by 10% between 2008 and 2009 in both Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

– By the time 2050 comes, the population of the world is expected to reach around 9 billion. To feed this rapidly growing population, we have to increase food production by 70% worldwide.

– In developing countries, we have to increase food production by 100% by 2050. From now to 2050, more than 90% of growth will occur in developing countries where hunger and poverty problems already exist.

And last but definitely not the least:-

– Every six seconds, one child die from hunger. Every day, 14,000 children die as a  result of hunger. Every year 5 million children die from going hungry.