Food security: Higher economic growth has not been fully translated into higher food consumption, let alone better diets

faoRelevant excerpts related to India from the just released volume, “State of Food Security in the World: Meeting the 2015
international hunger targets, taking stock of uneven progress
”, prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and World Food Programme:

Changes in large populous countries, notably China and India, play a large part in explaining the overall hunger reduction trends in the developing regions. Rapid progress was achieved during the 1990s, when the developing regions as a whole experienced a steady decline in both the number of undernourished and the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU). This was followed by a slowdown in the PoU in the early 2000s before a renewed acceleration in the latter part of the decade, with the PoU falling from 17.3 percent in 2005–07 to 14.1 percent in 2010–12.

Estimates for the most recent period, partly based on projections, have seen a phase of slower progress, with the PoU declining to 12.9 percent by 2014–16. The highest burden of hunger in absolute terms is to be found in Southern Asia. Estimates for 2014–16 suggest that about 281 million people are undernourished in the region, marking only a slight reduction from the number in 1990–92. But there has been noticeable progress in relative terms: the PoU has declined from 23.9 percent in 1990–92 to 15.7 percent in 2014–16. The region is on a trajectory towards a more manageable hunger burden. Most importantly, progress has accelerated over the last decade, notwithstanding higher prices on international commodity markets.

fao1The evolution of hunger trends in India, in particular, has a significant influence on results for the region. Higher world food prices, observed since the late 2000s, have not been entirely transmitted into domestic prices, especially in large countries such as India. In this country, the extended food distribution programme also contributed to this positive outcome. Higher economic growth has not been fully translated into higher food consumption, let alone better diets overall, suggesting that the poor and hungry may have failed to benefit much from overall growth.

Most countries in Southern Asia have made progress towards the international hunger targets, even if the pace has been too slow for them to reach either the World Food Summit (WFS) or the millennium development goal) MDG targets, including, for example, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. As these countries constitute a large share of the region’s population, they account for the low overall performance – India still has the second-highest estimated number of undernourished people in the world.

fao2A notable exception in terms of performance is Bangladesh, which has made faster progress and has already reached the MDG 1c (halve, between 1990 and 2015) hunger target, thanks also to the comprehensive National Food Policy framework adopted in the mid-2000s. Nepal, also, has not only reached the MDG 1c hunger target, but has almost reached the 5 percent threshold.

China’s achievements in reducing hunger dominate the overall performance of Eastern Asia. The country accounts for almost two-thirds of the reduction in the number of undernourished people in the developing regions between 1990–92 and 2014–16. Nevertheless, given the sheer size of its population, China is still home to an estimated 134 million people facing hunger, and the country with the highest number of undernourished people. The prospects of continued growth, the increasing orientation of the economy towards the domestic market, the expansion of economic opportunities in internal areas of the country and the growing ability of the poor to benefit from these developments, have been and will continue to be key factors in hunger reduction. Again, given its size, this also holds at the regional level and has a marked influence on global results.

fao3Southern Asia is the region with the highest historical children under five (CU5) levels, but is also the region where rapid progress has been made in reducing underweight among young children. The prevalence of underweight children declined from 49.2 percent in 1990 to 30.0 percent in 2013, with a 39.0 percent reduction over the MDG monitoring period.

By contrast, the PoU in Southern Asia made less progress overall, resulting in a convergence between the two indicators over time. There is growing evidence that helps explain the relatively rapid decline of the CU5. Many countries in the region have experienced robust economic growth over the past 25 years, bringing down poverty rates. While the steady decline in child underweight is consistent with the decrease in poverty, undernourishment only went down from 23.9 percent to 15.7 percent between 1990–92 and 2014–16.

This different pattern is largely due to India, the country that more directly affects the regional picture as a result of its large population. Explanations offered for the inconsistency between food consumption and income levels in India range from increasing inequalities, to poor data, to the challenges of capturing the changing energy requirements of the population. But the puzzle still seems to be unresolved; and, as noted in the previous section, calorie consumption is lower than what per capita incomes and poverty rates would suggest.

fao4The reasons for CU5 progress include enhanced access to safe water and sanitation and, as a consequence, better hygiene and health conditions. For instance, household access to improved sanitation nearly doubled from 23 percent to 42 percent between 1990 and 2012. Over the same period, access to safe water rose from 73 percent to 91 percent. In addition, targeted nutrition programmes in key countries in the region, aimed at young children, pregnant women and women of reproductive age, likely contributed to a rapidly declining CU5.

Examples include, among others, the Integrated Child Development Scheme, implemented in India since 1975, and the Bangladesh Integrated Nutrition Programme, funded by the World Bank. Despite the rapid decrease in the CU5, the indicator was still much higher compared with those of all other Asian subregions. This suggests that much more progress can be achieved in the future by combining policy interventions that enhance both food availability and utilization.

fao5While trade in itself is not intrinsically detrimental to food security, for many countries, particularly those at earlier levels of development, trade reforms can have negative effects on food security in the short-to-medium term. Recent research shows that countries supporting the primary sector tend to be better off on most dimensions of food security (food availability, access, and utilization), while taxation of this sector is detrimental to food security. However, the evidence also shows that excessive support can also lead to poor performances on all dimensions of food security. As countries become more open to international trade in agricultural products, they become more exposed and potentially more vulnerable to sudden changes in global agricultural markets.

For example, import surges – sudden increases in the volume of imports from one year to the next – can hinder the development of agriculture in developing countries. Food sectors in developing countries that are characterized by low productivity and lack of competitiveness are especially vulnerable to import surges.

A sudden disruption of domestic production can have disastrous impacts on domestic farmers and workers – loss of jobs and reduced incomes, with potentially negative consequences for food security. During the period 1984–2013, China, Ecuador, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe were prone to sudden increases in imports (defined as imports exceeding the average of the previous three years by more than 30 percent), registering more than a hundred surges.

Note: Except the first chart, all other charts prepared on the basis of the data provided in the document

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