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April 17, 2018

The zero-hunger challenge


April 17, 2018

According to the latest estimate, there are still nearly half a billion people who either go hungry or are undernourished in the countries that fall within Asia and the Pacific. Some 490 million people do not obtain the daily nutrients that are required to lead a healthy and productive life.

The region made a considerable amount of progress during the 1990s and 2000s in dealing with the problems created by malnutrition and hunger. But in recent years, we have found that the fight against hunger has slowed down in recent years and, in some cases, its effects have been reversed.

This comes as bad news for all of us because various governments had pledged to wipe out hunger, in all its forms, by 2030. In other words, in little more than 12 years, no one should suffer from hunger and malnutrition. The reality is that we have 152 months (give or take) or around 4,560 days to achieve this task.

As an economist, I have done the math that can guide us in handling this issue. As per my own estimates, we must pull 107,456 people out of hunger every day in Asia and the Pacific. So, this means we need to help around 107,000 or more people on a daily basis for a long time until our target is met.

Of course, we must do this against the backdrop of limited natural resources; climate change; an aging populations; and urbanisation. Hunger must also be eradicated amid conflicts; natural disasters; and humanitarian crises.

The growing demand for protein-rich foods can be viewed as one factor that can help defeat hunger. But in some countries, this trend has led to obesity, which must be tackled simultaneously. After all, the challenge is to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious foods at all times.

But when you consider the alarming statistics and the challenges before us, the situation appears to be depressing. But no one is ready to throw in the towel. In fact, they are willing to do just the opposite. The good news is that governments across this region are acutely aware of these challenges and aren’t giving up at any cost. They have recently reaffirmed their pledge to go the extra mile and eradicate hunger in all its forms from their respective countries.

Last week, government ministers and senior officials from 40 countries across this region came together in Fiji to provide strategic direction and assign priorities for the FAO to tackle these issues. This was the first time in more than two decades that such an event – the Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) – had been convened in the Pacific.

The passion and intensity with which discussions were held and ideas were shared was particularly striking. There was a clear edge to the talks: the effects of climate change on food and agriculture were now being realised. While the delegates engaged in productive discussions, a category-3 cyclone battered the conference venue – as if to remind delegates of the urgency of the tasks at hand.

The countries called upon the FAO to further assist them in strengthening their sector-specific contributions and help them monitor progress toward meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). They also wanted further support to integrate agriculture into their national policies, strategies and programmes for climate change and disaster risk reduction management.

To meet these SDG goals, and as part of their nationally-determined contributions, countries have highlighted the need for improved and more resilient crops; more efficient irrigation; improved animal and fisheries management; enhanced fertilisers; low-emission rice; and sustainable forest management as suitable measures that ought to be implemented.

The FAO is supporting governments to scale-up climate action for food and agriculture under the 2030 Agenda by mobilising finance and expertise at the field level and advocating for a more prominent role for food and agriculture in the global climate change agenda.

But climate change is not the only cause for concern. The countries acknowledged that food systems need to be addressed to tackle the growing rates of obesity – especially in the Pacific, where it has reached epidemic proportions. A great deal of concern was also evident because the number of people suffering from hunger has once again been on the rise in some parts of Asia. This trend has emerged after decades of reductions in the continent.

Civil society organisations that participated in the Fiji conference reminded governments that decisions made in meetings like these must be inclusive. The result must be in everyone’s best interest – particularly the most disadvantaged and food-insecure groups in society.

Adapting agriculture to climate change; improving nutrition for all; and eradicating hunger in all its forms will require teamwork. This form of teamwork was evident at the APRC. The FAO and its member countries and partners can collectively score the winning goal – the zero hunger goal. We can do this within the allotted time because we know that it isn’t impossible.

The writer is the assistant director-general and regional representative at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.