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Seminar on 'Food Security in Asia'

Date: 25 February 2013 (Monday)
Time: 2.30–4.00pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)

Speaker: Dr Monika Barthwal-Datta, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Formerly leader of the ‘Food Security in Asia’ project at the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS), University of Sydney, Australia.
Chair: Professor Paul Teng, Senior Fellow and Advisor to the Food Security Programme, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies; and Dean of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning, National Institute of Education (NIE), NTU.


Food security has emerged as one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century. Food price fluctuations in 2007–2008 and again in 2010–2011 have brought about unexpected challenges and served as reminders of the potential volatility of regional food systems. Population growth, urbanisation, economic development and greater affluence, changing food preferences, price volatility and the effects of climate change affect food systems in major ways. The ability of countries to meet food security needs depends on their capacity to cope with and respond to these pressures. Asia is central to meeting these challenges at the global level, and has made significant but uneven progress in this regard. The region is also home to 60 per cent of the world’s hungry.

Against this backdrop, the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS) at the University of Sydney conducted a two-year MacArthur Foundation project on ‘Food Security in Asia’ (2011–2013). Six researchers were involved in the project; each of them bringing their different areas of expertise and interest to their sections. This seminar outlined the findings of the project, which will be published in a report in 2013.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s (FAO) definition that ‘food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ is a key point of reference for the project. This is a more complex definition compared to earlier versions where the focus was solely on food availability and supply. Even so, despite the mention of access, the availability of food remains a priority.

The definition also does not draw attention to inequalities in access to resources, trade policies, policy planning and governance (e.g., corruption). Without serious consideration of these issues, policies to improve food security may even exacerbate hunger and malnutrition. Furthermore, the language of food security has been co-opted by various actors who may not have the same understanding of food security as that outlined in the FAO definition. This again can contribute to worsening food security and can come at the expense of the hungry. The CISS team therefore took a bottom-up approach to the study of food security. The tackling of social, governance and economic issues formed the bulk of the researchers’ strategies and solutions.

The research project focused on four areas: (1) demographic change, rural development and urbanisation; (2) land acquisitions and access to land; (3) freshwater resources in the context of climate change, aquifer depletion and energy security; and (4) fisheries and food security in littoral Asia. Key findings from the first three areas were shared at the seminar.


Population and development

Asia is home to 55 per cent of the world’s population and the number continues to grow. Longer life expectancies and declining fertility rates are contributing to a growing aged population. There has also been a surge of rural-urban migration in recent decades, with China alone experiencing the movement of 150 million people to cities in the past decade. This has significant implications for vulnerable populations in rural and urban areas.

The movement of people to urban areas has resulted in increased pressure on food systems, due to the decline in the agricultural workforce and growing demand for high-value food items including meat and dairy products. The majority of people moving to cities are men, meaning that an increasing number of rural households are headed by women. However, women’s ability to contribute to food security is curtailed because, in many instances, women are not given equal access to land rights. In addition, the expansion of cities also means that land and water previously used for agriculture is being diverted to housing and industrial developments. It is expected that, over the next few decades, these trends will have a significant impact on food security. The potential for conflict and unrest resulting from food insecurity is therefore of concern.

The project has the following key recommendations for policymakers:

  • Policies need to be framed within the context of demographic trends.
  • Rural populations need to be empowered and supported to maintain a viable and productive agricultural labour force.
  • Land-use policies need to be sensitive to the need to protect agricultural land.
  • Investments in rural areas – in irrigation and other infrastructure, education, healthcare and financial support – are needed to boost productivity.


Land and equity

On the issue of land and equity, CISS researchers took as a starting point the observation that the FAO food security definition does not take into account the way in which food gets to the table and who controls how it gets there. They thus identified tenure insecurity as one of the main impediments to food security.

When farmers have security of land tenure, they can and will use the land to their best ability, and are more open to making investments and adopting sustainable environmental practices. Without a clear land title, there is a risk that people will get thrown off the land without compensation, a disincentive to investment. The problem of tenure insecurity is compounded in Asia where growing numbers of women are becoming heads of rural households but are not accorded the same land rights as men.

In addition, domestic and international investment has been taking place on land for agriculture and other uses. These investments often boost economic growth but there are controversies, particularly around foreign direct investment. Deals that are struck often favour the interests of wealthy investor countries as many recipient countries have poor governance structures.

The project has the following key recommendations for policymakers:

  • There should be a focus on smallholder farmers, especially women.
  • Agrarian reform needs to be sped up to address the issue of forced evictions.
  • There needs to be growing recognition of agriculture in respect to land deals.
  • In the context of land, policymakers need to be clear about whose food security they are talking about at the regional, state and individual level.


Food security and freshwater resources

Climate change, urbanisation and the building of dams will have an impact on freshwater resources. In terms of climate change, agriculture will be affected as rising sea levels lead to saltwater intrusion and increased salinity. While the yields of some crops might improve as the climate changes, this would not be the case for key staples.

Asia depends on groundwater for irrigation more than other regions. Aquifer depletion is a growing risk as rapid urbanisation competes with agriculture for groundwater, particularly in China and India. For example, if China does not reduce its use of aquifers, its water tables will deplete. However, slowing down agricultural production to address aquifer depletion will be a challenge, particularly with the increasing difficulty in acquiring grain in the world market.

Growing energy demand also has implications for water and food. Many countries see hydropower as the answer to their energy security needs, but dams have various negative impacts on environmental and food security. These include silt capture behind dams which is bad for agriculture, the flooding of riverside food gardens, and a decline in fisheries due to damaged fish stocks.

The project has the following key recommendations for policymakers:

  • The prioritisation of local-level climate change adaptation measures is vital, as is the improvement of disaster management mechanisms.
  • Governments need to establish better water management practices and infrastructure to protect and sustain groundwater resources.
  • The precautionary principle should underpin further hydropower development in Asia, with a focus on long-term food security and environmental concerns.


Concluding remarks

Food security is a complex, multifaceted issue with interconnected drivers. Policymakers must understand this rather than focus on production factors alone. There is a need to prioritise local-level food security issues in vulnerable populations, and a holistic approach needs to be taken.

At the local level, developing an understanding of a holistic food security approach by all stakeholders will be difficult, particularly in terms of engaging the marginalised. The rural poor are bogged down with the day-to-day and do not have the time, opportunity or resources to engage in such activities. There is a network of non-governmental organisations who believe in improving food security through engaging the marginalised (e.g., Via Campesina) and ensuring that their voices are heard in policy circles. However, there are actors (such as some private groups, governments and interest groups) who dominate such circles and do not want these voices to be included. Governments need to create neutral spaces in good faith in which marginalised voices in food security can be heard.

At the national level, agricultural departments are dominating food security. Mechanisms could be developed to bring multiple sectors closer together and encourage dialogue between them. Ultimately, to benefit those who are marginalised, all stakeholders who work within food security need to understand the contexts in which they work. Key to this is eliminating governance issues such as corruption and organisational inefficiencies.

At the regional level, actors need to arrive at a common definition of food security. Some countries continue to think of food security as food self-sufficiency. These countries do not necessarily need to open up to increased trade, but need to agree at the regional level what it means to be food secure so as to develop plans to deal with food insecurity. They should also work towards building trust with one another in the event of another food crisis.



About the Speaker:

Monika Barthwal-Datta is Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of NSW. She led the CISS ‘Food Security in Asia’ project at the University of Sydney where she was a post-doctoral fellow. Monika’s primary field of research is security studies, with a particular interest in critical security studies, securitisation theory and human security. Her recent book, Understanding Security Practices in South Asia: Securitization Theory and the Role of Non-State Actors, explores how non-state actors securitise and deal with ‘new’ or emerging security challenges, focusing on the sub-state level. She also has a strong interest in Indian foreign policy and the international politics of South Asia.

Posted on: 25/2/2013 2:30:00 PM  |  Topic: Food Security

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