Food security and growth in Asia

Geetika Dang and Raghav Gaiha | Published: June 03, 2018 21:38:45 | Updated: June 14, 2018 20:40:42


A disquieting finding of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017, Building Resilience for Peace and Food Security, or (SFSN2017), Rome, is that, in 2016, the number of chronically undernourished people in the world increased to 815 million, up from 777 million in 2015 although still lower than about 900 million in 2000. Similarly, while the prevalence of undernourishment rose to 11 per cent in 2016, this is still well below the level attained a decade ago. Whether this recent rise in hunger and food-insecurity levels signals the beginning of an upward trend, or whether it reflects an acute transient situation calls for a close scrutiny.

Undernourishment is associated with lower productivity. More importantly, in an agrarian economy with surplus labour and efficiency wages, a weather or market shock could result in rationing out of those lacking adequate physical stamina and dexterity from the labour market. This could perpetuate the poverty of the undernourished, often referred to as nutrition-poverty trap.

By contrast, other indicators of food security have registered improvement. Stunting refers to children who are too short for their age. It is a reflection of a chronic state of undernutrition. When children are stunted before the age of two, they are at higher risk of illness and more likely than adequately nourished children to lack cognitive skills and learning abilities in later childhood and adolescence. Globally, the prevalence of stunting of children under five years fell from 29.5 per cent to 22.9 per cent between 2005 and 2016. The global average of the prevalence of anaemia in women of reproductive age increased slightly between 2005 and 2016. When anaemia occurs during pregnancy, it causes fatigue, lowered productivity, increased risk of maternal and perinatal mortality, and low birth weight babies.

Has Asia's experience been different? It is argued below on the basis of Table 1 that it has been more mixed.

Although proportion of undernourished in different sub-regions of Asia varied within a narrow range in 2004-06, it became narrower in 2014-16. In all sub-regions, the proportion of undernourished fell during this period but slowly, as in Asia as a whole. Under-five stunting is a key indicator of child malnutrition. The range was large in 2005, with a high of 44.6 per cent in Southern Asia and a low of 9.4 per cent in Central Asia. The range became narrower in 2016 but Southern Asia continued to have the highest prevalence of over 34 per cent (but lower than in 2005) and Eastern Asia the lowest of 5.5 per cent (substantially lower than in 2005). So except for Central Asia which witnessed a slight rise, all other sub-regions recorded reductions in stunting. Prevalence of anaemia among women of reproductive age was widespread with a high of 50 per cent in Southern Asia and a low of about 19 per cent in Eastern Asia in 2005. While the prevalence of anaemic women fell in Southern Asia from 50 per cent to 43.7 per cent in 2016, this sub-region still had the highest prevalence.

Eastern Asia saw a more than moderate rise, South Eastern Asia experienced a negligible reduction, and Central Asia a small reduction. As a result, there was a bunching of high prevalence rate in Central Asia, Eastern Asia and South Eastern Asia, and a consequent rise in prevalence of anaemic women from a high of 33.3 per cent to 36.6 per cent.

SFSN (2017) attributes much of the worsening in food security - especially in Sub-Saharan Africa - to frequency of conflicts, droughts, and fragility of governance, but the analysis is largely conjectural.

As Asia was not so prone to conflicts, we sought to unravel the relationship between these indicators of food security and income growth, allowing for unobservable country-level heterogeneity and residual time effect. Whether the political regime of a country is more inclined to protect the poor and vulnerable - especially children and women in the reproductive age-group -  against the risks of undernourishment from weather and market shocks is unobservable but crucial for isolating the effect of income.

Our analysis shows that there are robust relationships between these indicators and per capita income (PPP2011) and the residual time effect. Assessing the effect of income in terms of elasticities, proportionate change in say prevalence of undernourishment/proportionate change in income, we find that the elasticity of undernourishment to income is -0.28, implying that a 1.0 per cent higher income will lower prevalence of undernourishment by 0.28 per cent. A related finding is that the elasticity (in absolute value) rose substantially during 2005-16, implying that a 1.0 per cent higher income will be far more effective in curbing undernourishment. Moreover, there was a substantial negative residual time effect, implying that controlling for income, other time related factors led to reduction in prevalence of undernourishment.

The elasticity of under-five stunting with respect to income was also robust, with an elasticity of -0.045, implying that a 1.0 per cent higher income will translate into a reduction of stunting by -0.045 per cent. Compared to the elasticity of undernourishment with respect to income, this is considerably lower. This is not surprising given that stunting is the result of persistent undernourishment over time. In addition, there was a significant negative residual time effect, implying presumably better hygiene and sanitary conditions. The elasticity (in absolute value) rose more than moderately between 2005 and 2016, implying greater sensitivity of under-five stunting to income. Finally, the elasticity of prevalence of anaemia among women in reproductive phase with respect to income was negative but also low (-0.075). So a 1.0 per cent higher income is likely to be associated with a reduction in prevalence of anaemia of 0.075 per cent. The (absolute) elasticity rose slightly between 2005 and 2016. The residual time effect was negative, implying better access to medical services, hygiene and sanitary conditions for women in reproductive phase over time.

Although limited in scope, our analysis confirms that income growth is key to food security in Asia. This is not to suggest that other factors (e.g. social safety nets, greater nutritional awareness-especially among women-and education) do not matter. They matter too but call for a broader investigation.

Geetika Dang is an independent researcher; and Raghav Gaiha is currently (Hon.) Professorial Research Fellow, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, England, and Visiting Scientist, Department of Global Health, Harvard School of Public Health (2015 and 2016).

The views expressed are personal.

—Inter Press Service

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