World Food Day is Saturday, October 16 and there have been numerous stories about the large number of hungry people in the world. There have been estimates that as many as a hundred million more people were pushed into hunger by the recent global financial crisis and its accompanying energy and food price spikes. But, in Asia, the financial crisis was less harmful than in other parts of the world. We spoke with Homi Kharas, senior fellow and director for the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution who told us that that's because Asia coped rather well with the recession and is recovering faster.
Despite the improving economy in much of Asia, why are there are still so many hungry people?
Although the growth rate that is being registered across Asia is impressive, these are, at the end of the day, very large and still quite poor countries. You know, when one talks about Asia it's important to remember that there is a huge diversity in the experiences of countries and a huge diversity of the experiences within countries. In India, for example, people who live in cities are doing rather well, jobs are being created, wages are going up, but those who live in the countryside and that's probably still a majority of Indians, are facing much slower growth.
It would be similar, I would assume, in say, Bangladesh?
This would also be true across Asia. It is the urban industrial sectors, both manufacturing and now to a great extent, service sectors where jobs are being created. That said, many rural families in Asia are still benefitting from this because there is more and more migration from rural areas to cities and correspondingly larger and larger reflows of remittance money back from those family members back to the rest of the households who are still living in rural areas.
Urbanization helps people purchase food; there is a growing decrease in the number of small farms which produce much of a country's foodstuffs. Isn't that one of the problems of the future?
I think that at the moment land productivity and labor productivity in agriculture in Asia continues to rise. So, absolute production of food in Asia is probably still on the increase. Of course, there are specific circumstances, as with these terrible floods in Pakistan where you have significant amounts of crops that were destroyed. But, by and large agricultural output is rising, thanks to better productivity. There is still a big gap between the average productivity of farmers and what the potential is in Asia and the scope for productivity increases for all farmers remains enormous. Sometimes that happens by consolidating their land holdings with others in the move towards a larger farm size. But, a great deal of it happens just by investing in better irrigation, better farming techniques, improved seeds, improved use of fertilizer, by which I don't just mean more fertilizer, but better use of fertilizer. The really big issues for agriculture in Asia, I think at the moment stem from climate change which is potentially affecting some of the big rice producing areas, in Vietnam, in the Mekong. Water is a major issue all across India, all across China. Without water we will not have the same kind of agricultural productivity increases as we've seen recently. So, this combination of climate change and the growing depletion of water resources really do pose a serious long-term challenge for Asia and that, I think, should be something that policy makers should focus on.