Modernization of Staple Food Value Chains Ensuring a Food-Secure Asia

Cross-posted from the Food Security Portal's Food for Thought blog

Asia is home to more than two-thirds of the world's poor and hungry. And as populations around the world continue to grow, the region's most vulnerable people will be faced with even greater challenges in the coming decades. Climate change and unsustainable resource use are likely to impede agricultural productivity, exacerbating already high and volatile food prices and presenting significant barriers to poor populations' access to affordable food supplies. But the news is not all bad. Governments, private sector actors, and development agencies across Asia are finding new ways to protect the region's food security and drive economic growth. A new book from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and IFPRI looks at how the changing face of staple food value chains is helping ensure a food-secure future.

The Quiet Revolution in Staple Food Value Chains: Enter the Dragon, the Elephant, and the Tiger examines domestic rice and potato value chains in three countries since the 2007-2008 food price crisis: Bangladesh, China, and India. Domestic value chains supply 98% of food staples in these countries, giving them a primary role in the region's food security.

The book's authors find that, contrary to expectations, these staple food value chains are no longer constrained by the lengthy, disjointed methods of the traditional value chain process. Rather, domestic value chains have been steadily transforming and modernizing, leading to fewer middlemen, better rural-urban integration, and more effective use of new technologies.

The authors surveyed 3,500 farmers, traders, millers, storage facilities, and retailers (both modern and traditional) throughout the three study countries and found that this "quiet revolution" is largely grassroots in nature. Farmers have increased their use of on-farm inputs, such as fertilizer, and have embraced technology such as mobile phones to improve their access to market information. Small and mid-sized actors have led the way in streamlining post-harvest processes, including the consolidation and modernization of rice mills and increased usage of cold storage facilities (CSFs) for potatoes. Such changes allow farmers to link directly to markets, reducing lost time, increasing farmer profits, and providing urban consumers with steadier, less costly food supplies.

Of course, governments also play a critical role in improving and modernizing food chains. Government interventions have helped spur transformation in the three study countries through investment in agricultural extension services, rural infrastructure, and agricultural productivity. Government subsidies for inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, as well as incentives for mills and storage facilities to adopt modern practices, appear to have encouraged investment in and use of these productive technologies in the region; however, the study finds that government subsidies often do not reach small-scale actors and thus need to be better targeted in order to benefit the most vulnerable populations.

The Quiet Revolution in Staple Food Value Chains highlights the need for increased attention to important post-harvest segments of staple food value chains. While focus is often placed on farm productivity and crop yields, post-harvest techniques such as storage and marketing are just as critical to overall food security. The book also points out that there is no "silver bullet" for ensuring food security in Asia. The region is characterized by a wide range of agro-ecological zones, political environments, and farm sizes. This varied environment calls for policies and programs that can be adapted and tailored to fit a wide variety of needs.