Food security an issue in the Indo-Pacific

If left unchecked food shortages will damage human security in the Indo-Pacifc, writes Jazmin Wright

Jazmin Wright is a second-year Bachelor of Security Studies student at Macquarie University.

Food insecurity is one of the most significant challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region. While it does not get the same attention as other regional security issues such as the South China Sea, the current state of food (in)security is grim.

The Asia and the Pacific Overview of Food Security and Nutrition estimate that 945 million people in the region have experienced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019, due to limited food availability or insufficient means to access food.

On an individual level, this means more people suffering from hunger and reduced productivity, and in the long term, can result in undernourishment and related ailments. This is projected to increase in the future, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing population in the Indo-Pacific, and the impacts of climate change.

Current food systems are not equipped to tackle the complexities that climate change creates and will struggle to provide for the region’s population. This is already being felt and the region must reconsider its current food practices and pivot towards climate resilience.

Simple, yet effective, measures can be implemented to reduce climate change risks to food systems and improve productivity, such as strengthening warning systems to prepare for severe climatic events and possible supply disruptions.

To mitigate current impacts, farmers can increase agroforestry on farmlands to improve soil nutrients, while governments can mandate responsible fishing laws to prevent overexploitation of aquacultures. Ensuring resilience in food systems is a multi-dimensional challenge, as it includes sustainable adaptation of current systems, preventing future damage, and improving the environment for future. The region cannot afford to prioritise one area – all dimensions must be considered in order to support the population.

While neither the COVID-19 pandemic or an increasing regional population are solely responsible for food insecurity, both elements exacerbate the issue and highlight accessibility issues.

According to UN News, the region will be home to nearly 5 billion people by 2050, meaning more people will be at risk of food insecurity and food systems will struggle to effectively support the region. Current food systems are too fragile to handle a larger population or other disruptive events, which emphasises the need for resilience and sustainable practices in the region’s food systems.

Food insecurity and its effects can be witnessed across the region, with South Asia countries reporting the highest prevalence of undernourishment and food insecurity in Asia. One of the most affected is Bangladesh, with a quarter of the population experiencing food insecurity.

Population factors, geography of watercourses and low elevation makes addressing Bangladesh’s food security problematic, as food cultivation and distribution is impacted by natural disaster disruptions. This has led to various health issues, ranging from malnutrition to stunted child development, which would bring challenges for the next generation. Food insecurity has also perpetuated a gender imbalance, as adult women are expected to forfeit or reduce their consumption to provide for their children.

The implications of food insecurity reach beyond individual and community wellbeing, as it can be the catalyst for migration. On a domestic level, rural producers that experience farming challenges due to unfavourable environmental conditions may be forced to relocate to urban centres for income. In these instances, the influx in rural-to-urban migrants means infrastructure in urban centres become strained, while the remaining farmers are pressured to produce enough for the population. It can lead to international migration and put pressures on the region. Incoming migrants may become food insecure or increase the strain on food systems in the new country, perpetuating the cycle to other countries.

To prevent food insecurity-induced migration, governments should support their producers and work towards instilling resilience in food systems. Short-term assistance may see grants for farmers, while long-term could involve subsidising agroforestry or natural pest management systems. Similarly, governments could support urban agriculture initiatives, such as community gardens, to
alleviate pressures on rural producers. Government support is critical to ensure that food insecurity does not escalate to famine or produce a migration crisis.

There is no perfect solution to tackle food insecurity in the region – it is an unprecedented challenge that must be
proactively addressed. Every Indo-Pacific nation must recognise the detrimental impacts that food insecurity presents to the people of each nation and to the region.

If left unchecked it creates damaging impacts to human security and has detrimental impacts on individuals and communities. When considering climate change and the region’s growing population, food insecurity can prove to be the region’s most pressing challenge.