Food shortages are a distant memory for many people in Asia. But as the region struggles to feed a booming population, they could become a fact of life again.
Asia is the world’s largest food market, and by 2050 its population is expected to grow to five billion — an increase of 900 million people. Owing to its expanding middle class, the region will likely account for half of the global increase in annual beef and poultry consumption and over three quarters of the rise in fish consumption between now and 2030. And by then, more than 60 percent of total cereal demand in the developing world will come from South and East Asia.
To keep up with this growing demand, food production will have to increase by 60-70 percent compared to a decade ago. Ideally, Asia’s farms could simply expand their production. But they are ill equipped to do so. To produce a sufficient amount of food, Asia’s farms will need to undergo a 21st century transformation.
Helping Asia’s farmers cope with climate change should be a central part of this effort. Although a warming planet could boost agricultural output in a few areas, it will limit production, and possibly trigger prolonged food crises, throughout the rest of the region.
As water becomes increasingly scarce in traditionally fertile zones such as the Indo-Gangetic Plain, rising seas will ruin vast swathes of farmland. If sea levels were to rise by one meter, the resulting saltwater intrusion would threaten 70 percent of Vietnam’s coastal farmlands.
According to Asian Development Bank research, by 2050, irrigated rice and wheat yields could fall by as much as 20 percent and 44 percent, respectively. This would drive up the price for cereals, soybeans, and wheat by 70 percent, causing the number of malnourished children in the region to rise by 11 million.
But this doesn’t have to be Asia’s future, if its farmers can adapt. For starters, the region’s governments can promote farm cooperatives. Not to be confused with old-style collectivized farming, today’s cooperatives are thoroughly commercial, prioritizing efficiency and profits. They comprise agricultural enterprises as well as farmers, all of whom pool their resources to create economies of scale, reduce costs, and lift incomes.
When bought in bulk by a cooperative, inputs such as fertilizer and equipment are less expensive, as is the harvesting process. By coming together to coordinate planting, cooperatives in India and Nepal have made it possible for every member’s crops to be sown and harvested together by a machine, rather than individually by hand.
China is already modernizing farms through cooperatives, and by using digital e-commerce platforms to tap into high-value markets. In Vietnam, a cooperative program has improved the quality of produce for urban consumers, and boosted tea, fruit, and vegetable revenues by nearly one third.
Most of the region’s cooperatives are informal arrangements. But with the right legal framework in place, they could become far more efficient. China’s 2007 Farmers’ Cooperative Law serves as a good model. By offering incentives such as value-added-tax exemptions, the law has encouraged cooperatives and other agricultural organizations to collaborate and create economies of scale. Within three years of the law’s enactment, the number of cooperatives in China had increased ninefold, to nearly 400,000.
By using less labor, and more capital and technology, Asia’s future farms can grow enough food to feed everyone in the region. Cooperatives are one way to make this vision a reality. Only then will food shortages truly be a thing of the past.
Mahfuz Ahmed is an adviser at the Asian Development Bank on agriculture, rural development, and food security.© Project Syndicate 1995–2017. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.