Navigating paths to food security: diagnosing the system in Central and East Asia

Over the past decade, “Food Security” has become a trendy term used in a variety of contexts from hunger to national security. Assuming we agree on what the term entails, what would be the best approach to achieve food security in Central and East Asia?

According to FAO, over 200 definitions exist in the world to date with “availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” being the official one, set at the 1996 Food Summit.

System innovation approach, developed by the School of System Change might come in handy. The approach offers simple and clear set of proceedings that allow for a systemic understanding of food security challenges the region faces today. Understanding the challenges of today would enable systemic approach to addressing them.

The six-pillar approach includes Diagnosis of the System, the Creation of Pioneering Practices, and Enabling the Tipping Point as steps 2, 3 and 4. Together, they form a basis for enabling the system change we expect to happen. This article will elaborate of the step 2 — Diagnosing the system. Diagnosing include several aspects: Identifying main characteristics of the system, looking at the past events that shaped the system and setting criteria for the system’s outlook.

Let’s start from the beginning.

In the world, about three-fourth of the poor live in rural areas. Agriculture is the main source of income and food security to about two-thirds of those people. As of 2015, about 795 million people in the world were food insecure — a decline of about 8 percent since 1991. Despite a visible improvement, high susceptance to climate change, lack of access to improved agricultural tools and practices, absence of developed and sustainable supply chains and infrastructure, as well as low land productivity continue to negatively affect food security in rural areas, and subsequently, urban areas too. Moreover, population growth and growth in food demand accompanied by declining poverty and improving access to food further disrupt global food security system as obesity, micronutrients deficiency, and associated health issues become a widespread phenomenon. Finally, although the number of poor is falling, the gap between the rich and the poor widens reviling underlying issues in broad socio-economic development trends that have to be solved to achieve food security.

The Sustainable Development Goal # 2: “Zero Hunger” sets targets to address global food security distortions by 2020–30. Those targets aim to “end hunger and ensure access by all people…to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food all year around; end all forms of malnutrition and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women, and older persons”. It also identifies strong links between achieving zero hunger and improving sustainable management of agricultural sector and ecosystems within and beyond it.

We now have set the characteristics of a current global food security system and identified what we want it to look like in the future. Where does the Central and East Asia region come in?

The Central and East Asia food security system of today is characterized by prevalence of rural population with numbers as high as 44 percent in China (2015), 65 percent in Kyrgyz Republic (2015) and 73 percent in Tajikistan (2015). At the same time, to date the region is leading the global fight with hunger, poverty, and undernourishment, and China attributes to about two-thirds of the food security improvement rates worldwide.

However, many countries of the region lack coherent and systematic approach to development efforts aimed at reducing national and regional food insecurity to the levels set by SDG 2. High population growth, growing gap between poor and rich, rapidly changing diets and growing food demand; little efforts to date to address environmental challenges in agriculture and related industries; and lack of effective structural reforms in many countries of the region prevent efforts to accelerate the food security improvement and undermine the region’s ability to meet the set targets.

What drove the change within the system in the past and enabled the region’s success to-date?

Prior to SDGs, the world had Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a voluntary reference tool to evaluating success of the national and international development initiatives conducted mainly by donor institutions. Goal #1 “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015 emphasized the link between hunger and poverty. Goal # 7 “Ensure Environmental Sustainability” focused on access to clean water and sanitation, biodiversity loss, fish stock degradation, deforestation, and, surprisingly, slum dwellers. None of the eight MDGs emphasized the role of agriculture in achieving set targets, nor did they underpinned food security as a notion strongly linked to improving global wellbeing. The system was poorly defined, and as a result, most of the goals have failed to progress.

Despite heavy criticism, the projects implemented under the MDGs have served as drivers of change in Central and East Asia. According to recent data from the World Bank and FAO, Central and East Asia achieved significant progress in eradicating

hunger by 2015 (indicators D and I in a pie chart). The region managed to succeed targeting, among other things, its food security challenges and addressing associated issues in agri-sector.

Despite political and economic turmoil that brock out after the collapse of Soviet Union, Central Asia rapidly recovered and proceeded to meeting MDG 1 in almost all countries of the region. Number of factors contributed to the success: ability to utilize natural resources available in the region, economic reforms, and access to rapidly developing neighboring markets. The region, rich with natural resources, engaged in commodity market trade. Job market opportunities at the neighboring economies enabled families at home to receive additional — often significant — income in a form of remittances. According to the 2015 FAO report, the Prevalence of Undernourishment, or PoU, across the region “contracted from 14.1 percent in 1990–92 to 7.0 percent for 2014–16”. By 2014–2016, the region managed to reduce the number of undernourished people from 9.6 million in 1990–92 to 5.8 million in 2014–16.

Most countries have attained PoU levels close to, or below, the 5 percent threshold. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have achieved the WFS goal, while Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have achieved the MDG 1 (hunger) target.” (FAO, 2015). Unfortunately, the country most affected by hunger and malnutrition, Tajikistan, is lagging behind with PoU over 30 percent.

The 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) goal was “… to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.”

Among the sectors targeted by the reforms introduced in countries leading hunger eradication in the region, agriculture had (and still does) a special place. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, the Land reform of 1990-early 2000s allowed for the formation of a strong private sector that by 2008 utilized 75 percent of nation’s arable land (up from just 2 percent in the early 1990s). The nature of food production also change dramatically with smallholder farmers contributing by 2008 up to 98 percent of the Gross Agricultural Output (GAO) (up from just 45 percent in early 1990s). With such a shift, the country saw a rapid improvement in its food security and a decline in PoU.

China, the largest country of the East Asia region, is leading the effort to reduce the number of undernourished across all developing countries accounting for almost two-thirds of the reduction between 1990–92 and 2014–16. Together with the Republic of Korea, China achieved both the MDG 1 (hunger) target and the WFS goal. It’s PoU went down from 23 percent in 1990–92 to 9.3 percent by 2015.

Rigid domestic reforms in both China and Republic of Korea led to rapid economic growth and significant poverty reduction. Agriculture sector reforms, although addressing different goals with respect to the sector, contributed significantly to meeting the targets in both countries. Thus, the agricultural reform in China allowed for the development of private smallholder farms and boost technological innovation in the sector. This led to improvement in the sector’s productivity, and rapid growth of rural income contributing to food security and poverty reduction and supporting nation’s efforts to meet the MDG 1.

With such a success meeting MDGs, Central and East Asia seem to be well set to meet SDG 2 targets easily and to enable the food security system of the future we defined earlier.

However, if analyzed from a systems perspective, the task might not be as easy as it seems. Unlike MDGs, SDGs require more holistic and, yes, systemic, approach to meeting the targets. To meet SDG 2, the world have to provide for a “secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities to value edition and non-farm employment; increase investment; correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions”, and improve food commodity markets.” Moreover, agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers has to double; the reforms undertaken have to “ensure sustainable food production systems” while maintaining the diversity of seeds, plants, and animals. This means a whole range of coherent change across not only national agricultural sectors, but also industrial and social. The change would have to address undernourishment, poverty, food security, and environmental issues across all sectors at all levels coherently and simultaneously. Taking into account current trend towards the decline in the rates of poverty, malnutrition, and food insecurity reduction, coherent and systematic approach becomes ever more valuable.

Why? Going back to Kyrgyzstan example, the state was able to achieve impressive results in meeting hunger goals by introducing Land reform. Unfortunately, the failure to accompany this reform with farm support services, infrastructure development in agricultural and service industries led to a slowdown of GAO in the late 2000 early 2010s. It is true that the state interventions to address those shortcomings stabilized the situation enabling the country to meet 2015 targets. However, for Kyrgyz Republic to meet SDG 2 by 2020–30, further structural reforms needed to address all targets and reduce the exposure of the country to external economic shocks and global environmental changes. Country’s vulnerability to such shocks has already affected national development efforts leading to a drop in GDP growth from 10.9 percent in 2013 to 3.8 percent in 2016.

China on the other hand appears to implementing coherent and systemic approach to meeting the SDG 2 simultaneously addressing its targets across multiple sectors of the economy. The agricultural sector reforms to date included infrastructure development for agricultural and related sectors, linking the sector to domestic and international markets, introducing technological advancements (including e-commerce), boosting domestic R&D, addressing rural unemployment and poverty, while making commitments to address environmental and pollution challenges associated with the sector and China’s overall economy. However, overweight and obesity are on the rise in both urban and rural areas, with 23 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls under 20 being overweight. Agricultural sector productivity is low in terms of value added per worker with cereal yield productivity on the decline. Social reforms that would improve food security of, for instance, in-country migrants have yet to prove successful. Those issues flag possible gaps in coherent and systemic approach the country is implementing.

So what our diagnosis of the Central and East Asia the Food Security system of today tell us?

We now know that the system is characterized by regional success in achieving system-related targets. However, it is currently under multiple pressures created by new global regime of SDGs and economic challenges the region is dealing with over the past three to five years. Our system operates within the landscape of global climate change and economic tall of pollution; growing regional cooperation confronted by national protectionism (the last two were not discussed in the article and will be addressed in a separate piece). We also know that the governments by far were the main drivers of change within the system, yet private sector contributed massively to achieving targets set within the system. It would be fair to say that international institutions played a significant role in shaping the system too as they were the ones creating a space and action for MDGs first and later for SDGs. Furthermore, we have identified a number of gaps, such as poor performing Tajikistan and growing obesity and income inequality problems that prevent our system to accelerate towards SDG 2 targets.

We now might start speculating about possible actions and interventions within the current system that would help us turn it into the desired system of the future. It is easier now to start identifying potential “Whos” — power, sources, and innovation holders that help the change to happen. This will help us to proceed to the next phase — building pioneering practices. What will it take? I will find out when writing the next article.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article are my own and do not reflect any of the positions of my employer on related topics.