Asia's looming hunger catastrophe | Global Eyes
When families get less, women and girls within families get significantly less. As early as 2014, we already saw a big U-turn in undernourishment levels globally. In South Asia, we've had the hottest April ever already and we God knows what will happen in May. That is the challenge. How do we feed this many people and while taking care of the planet? This is Global Eyes, where we take a new look at security policy and break it down for you so you understand how it affects your life. And today we are asking the question.
A hunger catastrophe. How close are we to one or are we already in one? I am Isha Bhatia Sanan. I'm senir editor here at DW. I'm William Glucroft, a security reporter at DW. And when you go to supermarkets, you realize that they are getting bigger and bigger no matter what, weather it is it's summer or winter, no matter where you are, you'll get your fresh fruits and vegetables all year round. But in contrast to that, 45% of people in Asia, they do not get a single nutritious meal. That's about
2 billion people. India, that is hosting the G20 this year has made food security an agenda in G20. And there are plenty of good reasons for that. The war in Ukraine has thrown food supply into chaos. Of course, the rising cost of living in all kinds of sectors. We're still suffering
from supply chain issues from the pandemic. There are so many reasons. And of course, lingering in the background is climate change. All of this has a massive impact on the food we eat, how we get it and how we grow it. So to understand that, we'll have our first guest will be Jayati Ghosh. She is chairperson of the Center for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. And later in the show from Singapore,
we're going to have Jose Montesclaros. He's a research fellow at the Center for Non-traditional Security Studies. Global Eyesby DW. So Jayathi, thank you so much for joining us all the way from the US state of Massachusetts at UMass Amherst. You know, we're going from winter to summer now in many parts of the world, especially parts of the world that we're talking about, Southern Asia. And, you know,
the last few summers we've seen massive floods, we've seen droughts, we've seen, you know, soaring temperatures. All of this, scientists say, is a result or at least partially a result of climate change. I guess my first question to you is, you know, how close are we or what's what needs to happen or what could happen before we're just, you know, a few steps away from a real massive catastrophe that can lead to massive hunger, massive starvation for for potentially billions of people, a part of the world where where so much of humanity lives. Very, very close. In fact, I would say it's not even a few steps away. The trouble is that somehow people are just not taking seriously this very, very major crisis that is already engulfing us.
It's not just the impact on agricultural supply, which of course, you've mentioned, but the fact that extreme heat conditions are absolutely killing people, making it harder to work, making it harder for them to earn livelihoods from where they can buy money. And so, yes, climate change has already been very severe in South Asia. We've had the hottest April ever already. And we God knows what will happen in May. And all of this happens yet people are not taking adequate precautions, nor are we doing the right adaptation measures either for cultivation or for basic production or for all of the work manual work That remains still a very major part of people's existence. Can you tell us a bit more because of course, climate change is a massive topic on its own. It has impacts in so many different parts of our life and our societies, but specifically with food security and food production, How is climate change in India impacting the ability to grow and deliver and provide food for enough people for almost, you know, for 1.4 billion people? Every year we are seeing this impact, for example,
with the wheat harvest. And when it gets very, very hot in March, it affects the standing crop and it affects the ability to harvest before the crop is fully ripe. So this happened last year. It's happening right now as we speak once again. So last year we got about 12% less wheat output than anticipated. This year we don't know what will happen. We are finding that the changes in rainfall patterns, especially during the monsoon, the greater interspel variation as it's called, and the fact that it doesn't come regularly, it comes in big spurts of huge amounts of rain and then no rain for several days. That in turn is impacting the sowing for the next season. The Kharif season in which rice and a bunch of other major grains and other crops are produced.
So we're already seeing this impact on agricultural production. Then of course, there are the new pests that are coming about because of climate change in northern Africa, in the Arab region. These pests then travel and they have already travelled not grasshoppers were never a big issue in terms of the impact on crops. A whole range of other pests are emerging which are impacting harvests. Jayati 2023 is being celebrated as the Year of Millets. Now, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has been pushing for it for quite some time. And the idea behind it is that they use less water, they can feed more people and
so millets should be used and they are having a comeback now. But I would like to understand, is that really sustainable and is it as easy done as it is being said? Well, it's really a question of changing the approach of people to consumption, because many people now see millets as an inferior grain. Wheat and rice were seen as the preferred grains, the grains of better off people. And so even though this was traditionally consumed, and
especially the rural poor and the farmers consumed it in large parts of central and southern India, it was not seen as a desirable food for many decades. So shifting that orientation is going to take some time. But also these are relatively lower productivity. Once again, because we didn't put emphasis on this, they didn't have the kind of high yielding variety type of technological changes that we have seen in some of the other crops. And they are not they are more resistant by their own nature to different kinds of climate and particularly more drought resistant and rely on less rainfall. But they are not as shall we say, immune to climate change as everyone likes to think. So it will be a longer process and it's not something that will solve this problem.
You've mentioned a couple of times that the right decisions haven't been made, that in terms of climate response, there's not the right tools in place, the right methods in place to really try to keep up with how quickly the climate is changing, to maintain food security, to maintain food production. So what are the policies, especially of the Modi government? I mean, when something like 70% of of Indians can't get a nutritious meal, according to some statistics, isn't that a is that a political problem? You would think that there would be, you know, a massive unrest or dissatisfaction with the policies and the politics. So what's the sort of the policy response in that regard? Yes. You know, this is the FAO statistic. 72% of Indians cannot afford the FAO's basic nutritious diet, which is tailored to the South Asian conditions. And that's appalling. Right. And that if you compare that with the
claims on income poverty, it really shows you that there is some basic problem with the way in which we are using our metrics or even creating metrics for GDP and poverty and things like that. The issue, however, is not just about supply. The big issue in India today, the reason why so many people are hungry is really because of affordability and because incomes have come down. So one of the big things that is not adequately realized across the world is that we suffered very badly during the pandemic. The population as a whole, because of pandemic, because of lockdown, because of inadequate social protection, that the recovery thereafter has been incredibly k-shaped. So the upper part of the K has gone off the map in terms of extreme prosperity of very few people, 10% of the population at most, and the rest of the population has really been much more vulnerable and worse off. Real wages are lower than they were pre-pandemic.
Casual workers are earning less and having less days of employment. Self-employed incomes have come down, so people in money wages are lower. In real wages, they're significantly lower. They really can't afford food anymore. There are so many micro surveys that have found that people are eating less, that children are getting a less varied diet, that they're not being given milk or eggs or things that families could afford otherwise, that families are moving from three meals to two, in some cases from 2 to 1 and a half or even one that school meals, which were one of the major sources for child nutrition, those were stopped during the pandemic and, you know, haven't been sufficiently revived thereafter. So there are many other reasons. It's, I would say, the real nutrition problem in India today. It's not just the overall supply issue, which is a concern, but, you know, it could still be managed. It is an issue of distribution and
livelihoods not being sufficient to pay for food. And that is something which requires a much broader type of intervention. It requires significant expansion of the employment guarantee program, the rural employment guarantee, which would provide incomes, and it requires efforts to make sure farmers are viable. Farmers have been protesting, as you know, for years and have been demanding many things. The only thing they succeeded in doing was to prevent some very bad laws from being passed. But they haven't got the progressive changes that they wanted. You've just talked about children. When it comes to statistics,
we've seen that food security impacts women much more than it impacts men. Why is that so? This is a very significant issue in large parts of the world, but especially in South Asia, where gender relations, as you know, are very unequal. And what has been now widely documented for decades is that when families get less, women and girls within families get significantly less. And it's not just because, you know, the patriarchs say that you have to eat less, it's because there's self-denial there. Women tend to deny themselves nutrition and they tend to give less to girl children. And this has been a survey after survey finds this. So there is of course, there are many aspects of this. It's also the fact that poverty is much greater in
women headed households. So even when women are making decisions for the entire family, they are at lower levels of income. Women, as you know, in in India, in particular, in India and Pakistan, we have very, very low rates of employment for women. That is paid work, even though they're all doing huge amounts of unpaid work within homes and communities, and the general lack of empowerment of women and the low status of women, a lack of political voice and the lack of social voice within their families and communities has meant that they are much worse affected by the inadequate livelihoods and the inadequate access to food grain within and basic food. You know, I'm interested. You know, so far we've talked a lot about and for very good reason, the bottom end of the scale, people who are too poor or too malnourished to get the food that they need. I want to talk also about
the other side of the scale, the flip side of this coin. You know, as incomes do rise, at least for a certain segment of the population, as people have more expendable income to buy things. And this applies much more not only to food, it applies to leisure, to housing, to cars, etcetera, but specifically with food, you do see food and eating habits changing and more demands on meat, on dairy, on fish. I'm wondering, you know, from your perspective, from the Indian perspective as well,
how does that look? Do you see a change in demands of food production and on the food supply system as people some people, at least in society, do have more money to spend on food and what might be considered nicer food or more luxurious food that before they might not have been able to afford. Well, yes, there is definitely an increase, especially as I said, in the top 10% of a much more varied and as you put it, luxurious diet, more meat, more fish, more eggs, more dairy products and so on. But it's not very large relative to what could have been if you actually had greater wealth and expansion of the what is called the middle class in a significant way. Instead, what you really do see is a big increase in processed foods. And that's quite interesting because it has very bad health implications. So instead of, you know, home produced wheat products, people buy biscuits. And that's not just the rich day laborers,
casual workers find it easier to just, you know, have biscuits and give kids processed foods quickly before they head off to school because there's no time, because they also have to travel long distances to get to work or have to work long hours and so on. So there's a very big increase in processed foods and that has already had very large health implications as India is one of the countries with the largest, most rapid increase in diabetes and cholesterol. Because we are getting into diets that, you know, our bodies are not really prepared for. And and there's a range of other nutrition related malnutrition from the wrong side, as you put it, related diseases that are emerging. So it is really the much greater significance of processed foods among a wide swathe of the population, not just the rich. That has been a major change.
Right. And I'd like to come back to millets over there because you mentioned that they are more nutritious. And then there was this one phase where they were frowned upon and people thought that this is the food that only poor eat. And now all of a sudden it has becom hthis Superfood, and at least the elite really wants to have it. nd from there it comes down to the middle class
who think, okay, this is the new in thing. So what really happened? I would really like to understand that. How was it that Millets went away from India and why are they really making a comeback now? Is it just one of those phases where you have those, you know, some new trend comes in, stays for a few months and it's going to go away, or is that really going to stay? Do you see this is going to have an impact both on nutrition and on climate change in any positive manner? Well, I really hope it does. I think it's important, essential, really, to have much greater
consumption of millets. I mean, our traditional food basket contained a lot of ragi, Jowar, bajra, etcetera. You know, the millets that were more suited to large parts of the semi-arid regions as well. And there was very significant consumption of those. Now the thing about those
is that they are as grains, they are lower productivity and as I said, there hasn't really been much technological progress in terms of increasing yields on those crops, but they are also heavier. They are they tend to fill you up more, which is a good thing. Okay. They also contain more fiber. All that is fine, but therefore they're not seen as more easy to digest or more, you know, just more fun to eat in many ways that so there's the demand side, but there is also the production side that while they are more resistant to major changes in climate and weather and so on, they are lower productivity right now. So farmers don't feel very
impelled to get into those. Also, they have been not beneficiaries of procurement prices before, only in some states now they are introducing procurement prices for farmers to protect the bottom line in terms of the costs and minimum viable returns on cultivating these so farmers are also less interested. It's true that there is a very small segment of the population that is now seeing it as a luxury good. You will find them in five star hotels. You'll find them advertised by film stars. I have been for several decades now actually asking for significant public awareness about millets. And I've been saying, you know, get film stars, get sports stars, get other people to talk about the advantages of millets because they really were seen as inferior grains. I
remember in Andhra Pradesh when we suggested that this should be introduced in the school meals, the mothers of poor children protested, saying, You want to give our children bad food. So it's really there's a lot of work to be done there. But I would say that it's an essential move. We really have to move to millets for multiple reasons,
for supply reasons, but also for health reasons. Well, film stars are starting to promote millets. I guess you're maybe your dreams come true or it's coming true, I suppose. Are you're saying that there has not been much technological. Proagress because the markets were not making enough profit out of them, is that right? Well, in India the in agricultural technology have really been through public labs that started and the public labs also tended to ignore these millets. They also tended to ignore a lot of pests until it was too late and so on. The private companies have
been moving in only when it's already been seen to be viable and profitable. And that is absolutely the case also with millets globally and within South Asia. Before we let you go, I'd like to ask one last thing that we haven't touched upon at all food wastage. Now a lot of food that is produced in India that gets
wasted in storage and transportation- Is anything being done in that sector? Once again, this is one of those things that governments have known about, have talked about, have been saying for I remember, at least 25 years governments come up with statements saying, you know, we need more warehousing, we need more cold storage. We're going to do the following things. Very little seems to happen. And I cannot understand why. It's clear it's a no brainer, right, that you need much more decentralized storage facilities and cold storage facilities, not only to make sure that food is not wasted, but to make sure that farmers can get decent returns so that they can store for the off season. And somehow we are not getting adequate development of these things, even though, you know, government after government has been talking about this and clearly this needs there are some states that have made much more active efforts in this regard, some state governments, but there isn't a national policy. And that
is something that is absolutely essential. Jayati Ghosh, we know that you have to get going so we want to thank you very much for your time. We want to turn over to Jose Montesclaros, who's been on the line listening in from Massachusetts all the way around the world to Singapore. Jose can give us maybe a step back and give us more of a regional look at things. For as big as India is, of course, it's just one country in southern Asia. Jose, I want to first ask, you know, a question I just asked a little bit earlier about increasing diets, wealthier diets, as more people move into the middle class in many countries in the Asian region, how that might be impacting demand for meat, for fish, for for dairy, the and the climate impact on that.
Okay. Thanks for that excellent question. Indeed, it's I think it's a paradox indeed. Like what's good for you is hardly what you would like to have more of. And this applies to many things. It applies to food as well. I agree with Jayati when she mentioned about the urban disease of a poor consumer habits. As societies urbanize. I see that. I see that. And I also see that you mentioned this trend towards, let's say, healthier eating. But whether they can go from, let's say, the current markets for these
healthier products, which are higher priced or as you say, maybe most likely the more affluent ones, how they can go from posh to mass will be the biggest challenge for most of these new green industries like sustainable proteins, alternative proteins and more of these salads. So that's just to quickly answer your your question on the evolution of of habits. And. Yes. And the sad thing about food is as people's incomes increase,
they really spend more a bigger share of it on other products. You know, as many. As many as 45% of people are said to not be able to get nutritious, regularly get nutritious food. So how do we feed billions of people and more and more people as the world population goes up, but and especially in Asia, how do we feed billions of people without wrecking the planet? Okay. I think that this requires a second green revolution. The first Green Revolution happened in the 1960sto 1980s, where there was an increase in use of modern seed varieties, more inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, chemical pesticides. And. Right now. The problem is that because of climate change, the productivity of most of these products has been going down. I mean, the growth rate for Rice, if you compare 1960 to 1990, to more recently, 1990 to 2020, you can see that the annual growth rate has slowed down. And population growth is
not slowing down as fast. Given that you have a mix of higher income and lower income countries. So that is the challenge. How do we feed this many people? And while taking care of the planet, as he added. And I think on this end, what does a second green revolution mean or what might it mean
in the current context? And I think that this has a lot to do with digitalization. Digitalizing the way farming is done. This has several benefits. When you have digitalization, you have better traceability, meaning you can know where food came from, what processes were used in these. By having more traceability across the food supply chain from inputs to the farm to the consumers, you can better inform the consumers and consumers themselves can make more informed choices on where to purchase their toothpaste from, where to purchase their their rice from. Are the standards ethical?
And I think that this is an interesting trend to watch, especially in South and Southeast Asia. Just recently I was interviewing. Jose accordJoseing to that trend, you put the onus on the consumer because the consumer has to track everything where things are coming from. But we're talking about where the production really starts. You mentioned climate change. You mentioned rice. So talking specifically about rice, now most ASEAN countries, rice is staple. They produce a lot of rice, and that is also sent out to other countries. That's the major export. And we know that rice needs a lot of water. We know that when rice is produced,
then there's a lot of methane that is released, which is a greenhouse gas so that leads to climate change. So is there anything that the ASEAN member states are doing to address this problem? Well, I would talk more at the well, at the ASEAN level. Of course, they've they've expressed the need for digitalization, digitalization. In fact, there is an Southeast
Asian Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, ASEAN India Working Group in agriculture, and also the ASEAN India ministerial meetings in agriculture, where they do look at these important issues of sustainability, and they have seen digitalization as a means to address it. If I may tell the next the other half of the digitalization story to address your point. Yes, please. Hello. Thanks so. I was interviewing this company in actually an India based company and an Indonesia based company, and both of them were providing these technologies to the farmers themselves. They were getting the big companies that sell the like the Nestlé of this world and getting these companies to pay for to allow the consumer, the farmers to access these technologies. And they would also have field
agents to help the farmers track their performance and to provide them feedback on how to improve their practices. Because actually, even from a farmers perspective, overusing fertilizers is not a good thing. I mean, it's an additional cost that not all farmers can afford. So I think it's it's also it would also be in farmers interest. But the onus is based on the many interviews I've done. It seems that the onus really is on the demand side. If people were quite selective. If people were more selective and if governments gave a stronger push saying that the kind of food or production methods that we will accept moving forward will only be those that meet the sustainable sustainability standards as what the EU is doing. I think such an approach,
if applied to more countries in Asia or to regional bodies in Asia, it might make an impact. I understand your point. But coming back to the specific example of Rice, I'm really interested in understanding that if producing rice is so difficult or difficult in the sense that it is problematic for the climate, then you can't really ask people to stop eating rice altogether. It is a staple there and you can't ask farmers that. Okay, here's a QR code. If you scan it, you'll realize that this product has this many gallons of water and the other product you were not using as much water. So maybe start producing this. It can't be an individual choice. That is something
that the policymakers have to decide. That is something that the governments have to decide. So just saying that eating this is bad for climate change is for the consumers. That is what I meant in the beginning. That the onus is mostly on the consumers. You know, if I buy something, I read it, there's a QR code, I scan it and I'm like, Oh, okay. So if I eat this salmon, this is
the carbon footprint and maybe I should not do it and I should eat something that has a lesser carbon footprint that's for the consumer. But what are the policymakers really doing? Because these things you can't just expect that farmers will go on producing, but consumers will not consume. The balance doesn't strike there. Obviously, you rice is there because people need to consume it.
So is there anything being done? Is there any discussion or is this just a vicious circle? You know that okay, Rice will continue and people will continue eating it. Buying it. But at the same time, we'll also continue talking about climate change. Are there any specific steps? Okay. So I guess your question is, are people putting their money where their mouth is? More than people, I´m asking about the policymakers? I'm asking about the governments. Yes, sorry and governments. I think it's this is an interesting question. The recent FAO report on the state of food insecurity actually refers to how governments should repurpose their support mechanisms for agriculture towards more nutritious and more sustainable consumption patterns. And what I found interesting in this was.
Historically, we never talked about like the desirability of price support policies. Ever since the WTO, we've always seen any policies that distort how much one should produce as being negative. And now we are looking at we are looking at these support policies as a policy option. And I think this is very close to what you're suggesting, Isha, that. This government has. Governments normally do have funding to incentivize farmers and consumers to support them,
to make it easier for them to adopt sustainable production methods and patterns of production. So it's not just the the consumers who should pay the price for this. It is also the farmers. I'm sorry, it's also the governments who should question is whether they have the right approaches to do it. And I can share more about some examples, but for feedback from you first? Uh, okay. Yeah. If you mean if you can give us. I mean,
you're looking at a sort of an Asia, a regional situation. We're looking at Indonesia, we're looking at India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan. You know, these are major, major countries with big populations on the forefront of climate change. And many of their people are either malnourished or, as we're seeing increasingly, for example, in China, we're seeing with the urbanization and with wealthier, wealthier middle class, we're seeing also the other side, we're seeing obesity rates going up. So, yeah, if you have some examples of know our governments responding to these
situations, which are of course very different things, are they responding with what you would see as correct policies or helpful policies? I think that the government's directions nowadays what we are discussing is a bit on the forward side. The government in Asia, I think are a bit split. While there are some that are looking at the issues that we're talking about, such as Singapore, for the others, sustainability is there, but they have more pressing concerns to deal with, in particular producing enough food and also keeping their agricultural sectors vibrant and attractive. And so one example is, let's say in China, I'm not sure if you're aware, but in 2023, the number one or the latest number one central document in China was which normally talks about food. Right. Saw China becoming an agricultural power. This was noted by one of my colleagues here at Nanyang Technological University. Zhang Hongzhou. And how why China is doing this is is partly because
of the growing geopolitical tensions with the US. Perhaps preparing for tougher times ahead. But this project of increasing food, food security in China has involved things like purchasing the Syngenta company in 2017 because China realized that if in order to feed its growing population at that time, it needed to have a make over of its food security, of its food sector. And so by buying over the Swiss company Syngenta, China was able to have access to a lot of IP and a lot of new technologies, including digital technologies. Yeah. Now, before we wrap up, I'd like to ask you the same question that we asked Jayati in the beginning of the show. What is the future
like? Are you positive or do you think we are very close to a hunger catastrophe? Oh, yes. I think that the hunger, the hunger catastrophe has already started since 2014. Nowadays, we look at war in Ukraine and COVID and how they impacted the supply chains. But actually the FAO, UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that as early as 2014, we already saw a big U-turn in undernourishment levels globally as well as in Southeast Asia, in Southeast Asia. It used to see a constant declining trend in undernourishment. However, from 2013, it went up again from 60 million to 63.6 million by 2016. And and so I think it's already upon us. And the problem is sometimes you will not always see this.
I mean, if you go to the 2018 FAO report. Yes. You will see the trends that I saw, I mentioned. But if you go to the later reports, because they regularly revise the way they report on undernourishment, you will not see these trends anymore. And in effect, if you look at the 2020 version, it seems that undernourishment has been constantly going down. But the reality is 2014 was when it started going backwards. And so I think that what
we we need today is to stop hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock on climate change. To really call a spade a spade. And call growing undernourishment. I mean, to really call it as it is. And I think that the later reports by the FAO, such as the ones that you mentioned and JT mentioned as well on these statistics, on undernourishment, 45%, the figure that you mentioned. I think these these are a step forward. But the the problem is in the continuity, like we've always looked at things as in terms of undernourishment.
Now you're there mentioning mentioning new ways of measuring hunger, which I think the the most important thing to do, to have a sense of that urgency is to align our metrics. Because otherwise we'll we won't know where we are and we'll always think, oh, there's another, we have more time when actually we're late. As we know in the news business, we should always be very careful with the statistics because they can often say any story that we want to read into them. And stop putting the snooze button on climate change. Very important message. I want that on a T shirt Yes. Right.
Thank you so much. Thank you for your time. And thank you for your thoughts, Jose. Okay. Thanks for having me, both of you. Thank you. Thanks so much Jayati Ghosh for her time. And JoseMontesclaros. You just heard him say it. He thinks we are already in the midst of a hunger catastrophe,
at least in southern Asia. Now, he hopes that technology might be one policy tool for getting us out of it if governments make the right decisions. But no matter what, we don't want to hit the snooze button on the climate alarm. That was quite a strong statement and a s srong.
message that I think all of us should really remember Well, Jayati was of a different opinion. She said that we are very close to hunger catastrophe. Well, we're not in the middle of one, but either way, it's going to affect us. And as I said earlier, I always have this feeling that the onus is always on the consumers. It's the governments,
it's the policy makers that should really do more about these things. But at the end of the day, it's all of us who are goin to be affected by it. So even the consumers, they need to be aware of what they're eating, what they are buying. Where are those things coming from? And that's probably the only way we can save the planet. And who you're voting for. Exactly. So that's it. And if you are watching us on YouTube, then do let us know. What do you think? Leave a comment and tell us: Do you think we are in the middle of a hunger catastrophe or are we just going to face one? Do let us know. What do you
think? This is Isha Bhatia Sanan. I'm William Glucroft signing off. Thank you. Global Eyes: A new take on security policy by D.W..