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The Future of Asia: Forces of Change and Potential Surprises – Supplementary Report

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Spiraling Complexity of Food Security

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What is it?
Why is it important?

What is it?

A global structural shift to higher food prices occurred late in the first decade of the 2000s, as longstanding food security issues came to a head. In response to and in anticipation of social unrest, many Asian countries reacted with a variety of protectionist measures.1 Despite these initial initiatives, the food price hike and a long list of ongoing, worsening and anticipated challenges to food security continue.3  4 The food security challenges facing Asia include, among others, water quality and availability issues, competition for land from cities and biofuels, increased storm damages, pollinator decline, pesticide resistance, ocean acidification, and increased meat consumption. In response, countries are beginning to shift their approaches from reactive to more proactive food policies. The more recent policies largely take the form of top-down approaches such as further agricultural industrialization, foreign land purchasing or leasing, grain stockpiling, major infrastructure projects and more use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).5  6  7However, while they superficially assist in remedying the situation, the actions are introducing new risks or enhancing existing ones, further increasing the complexity of the food security situation.

Why is it important?

A host of new risks have been introduced or increased.

  • Greater industrialized agriculture can pose challenges to or even usurp subsistence and small-hold farmers.
  • Industrialized farming can be resource ­intensive (e.g., fossil fuels, pesticides, fertilizers), increase monoculture (the production of a single crop or plant over a wide area) and degrade soils over time.
  • When such large farms are foreign-owned there can be domestic discontent.
  • Foreign land agreements may lead to foreign relations challenges and import dependence.
  • Grain stockpiles are vulnerable to different threats (e.g., pests, terrorism).
  • Major infrastructure projects can pit regions against each other, within or across countries.8
  • GMOs are divisive and present a number of known, unknown and debated risks.

Many food security experts argue that holistic, bottom-up solutions involving the education, empowerment and broader social support of individuals and communities have a better chance at resulting in food resilience.9 This is not happening as much as they suggest is required. Consequently, hunger, under-nourishment and food unpredictability still exist for tens of millions of Asians. As a result of both this and the continued underlying issues listed above, chronic food and water-related crises will still be a significant risk to the health and stability of the region in the coming 10-15 years.

A good illustration of the spiraling complexity and consequences of decreasing food security in Asia is the case study of fish. Fish and seafood are a main staple in the Asian diet. In fact, the Chinese eat roughly twice the amount of fish in kilograms per person per year than the global average.10 Around 85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited or in recovery from exploitation.11 Scientists commonly predict and agree that based on current practices and trends, 2050 will be the “end of the world” for the oceans.12 Some are now predicting it will be sooner – in the 2020s.13  14  15 This prediction is more dire than many current commonly held assumptions and the impact of the loss of fish on food security and livelihoods in the Asia-Pacific region has not been adequately considered in relation to:

  • Food security: The loss of fish as a food supply in Asia will be significant. It is estimated that at least one billion people depend on fish in Asia as their only source of meat/protein.16
  • Loss of livelihoods: Millions of people in Asia depend upon the fishing industry for their livelihoods. Artisanal fishing (small-scale fishing) catches half of the world’s fish, yet provides 90% of the sector’s jobs.17 In Southeast Asia alone, nearly 100 million people are directly dependent on fishing industries and their related service sectors.18

In addition to these concerns, little consideration has been given to other potential negative impacts of such an eventuation on energy supply and security threats in the region.

  • Security threats: Dwindling fish stocks and increasingly aggressive action to ensure access to bountiful fishing grounds serve to highlight growing concerns about fisheries as an aspect of Asia-Pacific security.19 20  21
  • Energy supply: Over-fishing and environmental degradation of the oceans will pose a threat to energy supply in the region. Water-related energy technology is becoming an increasing source of Asia’s energy supply, such as hydro-electricity and nuclear energy.22 Over-fishing and degradation of the ocean and fresh water supplies result in “dead zones” that are commonly infested with algae and jelly fish blooms. Clogging of these water supplies with algal and other infestations hampers their use for water-based energy supplies. 23

Many of these negative effects will still occur even if the wild fish supply is not totally eliminated by 2025.


  1. Jayasuriya, S. et al. “Food Security in Asia: Recent Experiences, Issues and Challenges.” Economic Papers. September 2013. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1759-3441.12051/abstract(link is external)
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization. “Food Outlook. Biannual Report on Global Food Markets.” United Nations. November 2013. http://www.fao.org/docrep/019/i3473e/i3473e.pdf(link is external)
  3. Dobbs, R. et al. “Resource revolution: Tracking global commodity markets.” McKinsey Global Institute. September 2013. http://www.mckinsey.com/Insights/Energy_Resources_Materials/Resource_revolution_Tracking_global_commodity_markets?cid=other-eml-alt-mgi-mck-oth-1309(link is external)
  4. Centre for International Security Studies. “Food Security in Asia – A Report for Policymakers.” University of Sydney. February 2013. http://sydney.edu.au/arts/ciss/downloads/CISS_Food_Security_Policy_Report.pdf(link is external)
  5. Mann, H. and C. Smaller. “Foreign land purchases for agriculture: what impact on sustainable development?” United Nations – Sustainable Development Innovation Briefs, Issue 8. January 2010. http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/resources/res_pdfs/publications/ib/no8.pdf(link is external)
  6. Thukral, N. “Asia Grain ‘Mountains’ Swell as Governments Fret Over Food Security.” Reuters. October 2013. http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/10/02/us-asia-food-stocks-idINBRE99118H20131002(link is external)
  7. “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012.” International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. 2012. http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/44/executivesummary/default.asp(link is external)
  8. “South–North Water Transfer Project.” Wikipedia.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South%E2%80%93North_Water_Transfer_Project#Project_controversy(link is external)
  9. Idem. “Food Security in Asia – A Report for Policymakers.” University of Sydney. February 2013.
  10. Food and Aquaculture Organization – Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012.” United Nations. 2012. http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i2727e/i2727e00.htm(link is external)
  11. Vince, G. “How the world’s oceans could be running out of fish.” BBC Future. September 2012. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120920-are-we-running-out-of-fish(link is external)
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Delgado, C.L. et al. “Outlook for Fish to 2020: Meeting Global Demand.” International Food Policy Research Institute, World Bank. October 2003. http://www.hubrural.org/IMG/pdf/ifpri-fish2020-3.pdf(link is external)
  15. Sielen, A.B. “The Devolution of the Seas: The Consequences of Oceanic Destruction.” Foreign Affairs. November/December 2013. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/140164/alan-b-sielen/the-devolution-of-the-seas(link is external)
  16. Safina, C. “World’s Imperilled Fish (Global Fish Declines).” Scientific American. November 1995. http://www.seaweb.org/resources/articles/writings/safina6.php(link is external)
  17. “Small-scale and artisanal fisheries: Key features of small-scale and artisanal fishing.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2013. http://www.fao.org/fishery/topic/14753/en(link is external)
  18. Williams, M.J. “Enmeshed: Australia and Southeast Asia’s Fisheries.” Lowy Institute. November 2007. http://www.lowyinstitute.org/files/pubfiles/LIP20_EnmeshedWEB.pdf(link is external)
  19. Yardley, J. “Two Hungry Nations Collide Over Fishing.” International New York Times. September 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/05/world/asia/sri-lanka-and-india-battle-over-fishing-grounds.html?_r=0(link is external)
  20. “Fishing trips: attempts fail to get a relationship off the rocks.” The Economist. August 2013. http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21583272-attempts-fail-get-relationship-rocks-fishing-trips(link is external)
  21. Schiffman, H.S. “Out of the Frying Pan: Pacific Fisheries and a Fresh Take on Security in Asia.” Centre for Strategic & International Studies. July 2013. http://cogitasia.com/out-of-the-frying-pan-pacific-fisheries-and-a-fresh-take-on-security-in-asia(link is external)
  22. Daly, J. “Russia Builds Floating Nuclear Power Plants.” Environment News Service. July 2013. http://ens-newswire.com/2013/07/17/russia-builds-floating-nuclear-power-plants/(link is external)
  23. “Jellyfish shuts down nuclear reactor.” Sky News. October 2013. http://www.skynews.com.au/offbeat/article.aspx?id=912064
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Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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