The achievement of food security, where all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, is a complex and evolving problem facing the Indo-Pacific region. The region is home to 62 per cent of the world’s undernourished, with 490 million experiencing chronic hunger as a result of food insecurity. Conversely, the region is experiencing a rapid increase in obesity stemming from changing diets and insufficient nutritious food supply, specifically in South-West Pacific and middle-income Asian countries.
By 2050 the Indo-Pacific will have a population of five billion people, with Asia’s share of the global GDP doubling to 52 per cent. This growth will result in an increased middle-class population and urbanisation, rapid changing dietary patterns and rising inequality, all contributing towards escalating food insecurity and malnutrition in the region.
The Indo-Pacific region contains some of the most challenging environments for the achievement of food security, with countries experiencing severe weather events, complex supply chains and large populations. Insufficient access to safe and nutritious food has traditionally resulted in under-nourishment and malnutrition, but of increasing concern for the region is the increase of obesity and diet related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
The Double Burden of Malnutrition
The Double Burden of Malnutrition (DBM) is characterised by the coexistence of undernutrition with obesity and NCDs, occurring at an individual, household or population level. As the rate of undernutrition continues to decline throughout the region, the rapid increase of overnutrition poses a significant threat to undermine economies, health care systems and individual wellbeing. In 2018, it was estimated the direct cost of overweight and obesity in the Indo-Pacific equates to 0.56 per cent of the combined GDP in the region.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 6.6 million children under five years old and one in five adults are currently overweight in the Indo-Pacific. An increasing middle-class population is causing diets to shift away from traditional diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables towards those rich in sugar, fat, salt and animal proteins. In regions where fresh food is not easily accessible due to low income or location; cheap, highly processed and energy dense foods are favoured.
Food insecurity often impacts the most vulnerable members of the population, resulting in significant societal costs though unrealised human potential and lost economic productivity, denying those affected the benefits of economic growth. As the prevalence of the DBM increases, funding for low-cost solutions to prevent undernutrition, such as breastfeeding promotion and micronutrient supplementation will be diverted towards expensive treatments for obesity and related NCDs. The DBM needs to be a key point of investment in the region, with the achievement of food security playing a pivotal role in its reduction.
Future policy, programs and interventions that address the simultaneous reduction of undernutrition and obesity should be a key focus point.
To reduce the burden of food insecurity and therefore the prevalence of the DBM, international collaboration in innovative policy must be addressed. Australia and the US need to lead regional efforts to combat the DBM. With over 22 million Americans suffering from the NCD diabetes and 67 per cent of Australian adults overweight or obese, our advances and losses in health promotion should be evidenced for successful implementation in the region. For example, clear food labels with visual representation and a universal nutrition rating system should be mandatory on all processed foods.
The Australian government needs to enhance the promotion of effective policy, governance and reform in the region, encouraging sustainable growth, open trade and investment in agribusiness. The CSIRO should extend their collaborative agribusiness and agtech collaboration in the region, working with local smallholder farmers to develop specific solutions that enhance agricultural outputs.
Innovative technologies utilising international and regional research and expertise must be made accessible and implemented throughout the food supply chain. Policies including food fortification and taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages are also important in reaching vulnerable groups, reducing food insecurity and therefore the prevalence of the DBM.