Bangladesh food

The pandemic has left millions of people in Asia fighting for food


Swift action by governments is needed to feed people during the pandemic – Photo: ADB

By Manisha Pradhananga, Matteo Lanzafame, Irfan A. Qureshi

ADB.ORG: COVID-19 has had broad impacts on food security in Asia. Policy makers must react quickly and aggressively to these challenges to avoid the long-term damage of this emerging crisis.

The pandemic has hit Asia’s food supply hard, causing a surge in the number of people unable to access enough food to stay healthy and feed their families. Women, children and the poor have suffered the most.

COVID-19 has disrupted food supply chains in a variety of ways. In the early days of the pandemic, uncertainty surrounding impending closures in the region led to panic buying, temporary shortages and price spikes. Disruptions to national and international food supply chains, which emerged as growing health risks resulted in severe travel restrictions, have undermined the availability and accessibility of food, especially perishable foods.

Micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises have been hit by lost sales, higher production costs to ensure safe working environments, and difficult access to inputs, equipment and food distribution systems in rural areas. Asian low- and middle-income economies.

These disruptions have led to a sharp increase in food insecurity – defined as physical, social and economic access to food that meets dietary needs and food preferences. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the number of severely food insecure people around the world increased by 148 million in 2020 to 928 million, or 12% of the world’s population.

The impact of the pandemic on food security has also been marked within economies. While the gap is clear between the income strata, new dividing lines have also emerged. For example, urban centers have been more severely affected due to higher population density, a disproportionately larger share of COVID-19 cases and outbreaks, and tighter movement restrictions. Among those most affected are the urban poor, who largely depend on precarious informal sector jobs and spend a substantial portion of their income on food.

The pandemic has also intensified the food insecurity of women and vulnerable groups. The share of women experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity was 10% higher than that of men in 2020, up from 6% in 2019. Combined with reduced availability of nutritious food and disrupted health and nutrition services , the income losses associated with the pandemic are expected to expose an additional 9.3 million children worldwide to wasting by 2022, 2.6 million to stunting and 168,000 to death, and induce 2, 1 million cases of maternal anemia.

It is still unclear whether – or to what extent – the economic recovery in 2021 will lead to reduced food insecurity. What we do know is that COVID-19 has exacerbated food insecurity in the region, which could have lasting impacts into 2021 and beyond. Policymakers must react quickly and forcefully to overcome these challenges.

In the short term, it is essential to protect the most vulnerable members of society through food aid and other social transfers. Many Asian economies are already implementing food aid programs. In the Philippines, the Department of Welfare and Development distributed food packages as part of a program targeting the poor, disabled and elderly living in hard-to-reach areas or far from shopping stores. food. Many other Asian economies are also implementing food aid programs, which may require active tax adjustments in several regional economies.

The COVID-19 pandemic also underscores the importance of building capacity to address the challenges of food security in the medium and long term. A proactive response is particularly needed in the context of climate change and the expected increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events.

Asia is home to 350 million smallholder farmers, who have access to limited resources, especially in the face of adverse events. FAO estimates suggest that between 2008 and 2018, agriculture absorbed 63% of damage and loss from climate-related disasters in all economic sectors in developing countries.

Alarmingly, between 2003 and 2013, six of the ten most damaging global climate disasters for agriculture occurred in Asia. These include the floods in agrarian economies such as Pakistan, which caused an estimated $ 5.3 billion in agricultural damage and loss in 2010 and $ 1.9 billion in 2011.

Policy actions should focus on building resilient food systems and agricultural livelihoods, helping farmers to prevent, prepare for and adapt more effectively to climate shocks. Investing in early warning systems, based on advanced spatial information technology combined with detailed crop models, machine learning algorithms, field data on agricultural production and management, can help farmers anticipate extreme weather events and plan accordingly. In 2019, timely information on the floods in northern Bangladesh helped communities and the government prepare and secure needed supplies, dramatically reducing economic losses.

Finally, food security issues are inexorably linked to agricultural policies. To provide affordable nutritious food for all, agricultural policy in the region will need to promote productivity growth while ensuring environmental sustainability.

Manisha Pradhananga is economist – Department of Economic Research and Regional Cooperation, AfDB

Matteo Lanzafame is Senior Economist – Department of Economic Research and Regional Cooperation, AfDB

Irfan A. Qureshi is Economist – Department of Economic Research and Regional Cooperation, AfDB