Executive Summary:   On September 11, 1998, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) held a one-day seminar entitled "Food Security and Political Stability in the Asia-Pacific Region." The purpose of the seminar was to assess the current and future food security situation in the Asia-Pacific region and to identify factors that would likely influence food security in the future. In particular, the panel focused on three case studies: Indonesia, North Korea and China. The seminar also explored linkages between food security and traditional national security and national sovereignty. The seminar was divided into 4 sessions: (1) Defining "Food Security" (2) Food Security Case Studies: Indonesia, North Korea, and China; (3) Future Challenges to Food Security; and (4) the Security Implications of Food Security Problems. The following is a brief overview of some key findings:

Defining Food Security: Food security can be defined as "access by all to sufficient food for an active, healthy life." Food security depends more on demand, than supply (since there is currently no problem with growing enough food); agriculture is the world’s largest employer. Factors that influence sustainable food security include: literacy rates; levels of farmer education; agricultural research and extension capacity; transport infrastructure; non-agricultural income opportunities; social support systems; international security and confidence in international trade; domestic civil strife; international capital movements, etc.

The World’s High Capacity for Growing Food: Recent pessimistic assessments in the popular press tend to ignore the basic proposition that yields have steadily increased in recent years and the potential for further increase is huge. However, there are some problems (these problems tend to be local, instead of global) such as loss of genetic diversity; pest migration and pesticide resistance; land degradation; limited water availability. The global agricultural situation has a built-in protector known as the "meat buffer": beef and animal products require large amounts of feed grain. In the event of a "true" food emergency, people could just eat the grain (primary calories) and dispense with the animal products.

Food Security in terms of "Accessibility" vs. "Availability": Food security is almost always a matter of "access" instead of "availability" (in other words, food is often available--and the global agricultural system is capable of assuring this availability—but people cannot always get access for various reasons: economic, social or political). Overall, the seminar participants were very optimistic about "availability" of food (i.e. the actual growing of the food), but they were more pessimistic about "accessibility" to food, which is more dependent on political, economic and social factors.

Food Security and Particular Political Systems: The cause of sudden famines is very complicated, but evidence suggests a correlation between famine and non-democratic political systems. In democratic societies, there is more accountability and powerful interest groups (which lessens the chance for famine). This explains why many democratic countries, even after experiencing successive periods of poor harvests, rarely have experienced famines.

The Use of Food as a Weapon: Food security would be possible if countries would be willing to rely on international markets--however, many countries do not "trust" international markets. One reason for this distrust is the propensity of the United States and other countries to apply economic embargoes against countries for various political reasons. When countries perceive that their food security may be jeopardized by such international economic sanctions (or embargoes resulting from wars), they feel vulnerable; thus, they insist on pursuing "self-sufficiency" policies even in the face of total lack of comparative advantage. Another aspect of the "food as a weapon" thesis concerns the manipulation of food supplies by interests within certain countries. Certain privileged and powerful groups may restrict food supplies (directly or indirectly by controlling distribution systems, etc) to segments of the population that are out of favor.

The Linkage Between Food Security and Political Stability: Food security and political stability are often linked, although the relationship is complicated and not necessarily direct or causal. However, evidence suggests that food security can be upset by a lack of political or social stability. Similarly, the lack of food security resulting from a sudden jolt (i.e. international embargo, poor climate) can lead to political instability. "Food riots", when they occur, are often instigated by urban residents; poorer rural residents rarely have a political voice.


Recent food shortages in several Asian and Pacific countries have raised questions about the long-term prospects for food security throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Many governments are concerned that as population growth increases—combined with the effects of rapid urbanization—food availability may emerge as one of the key security issues of the 21st Century. During the past two years, a number of countries in the region, among them Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea, have experienced food shortages caused by droughts brought on by the El Nino weather phenomenon. Indonesia’s problems, moreover, can also be attributed to economic collapse and major civil unrest—including violence against ethnic Chinese—that disrupted food distribution channels and led to serious food shortages. Additionally, a continued spate of poor harvests in North Korea has caused unprecedented starvation in this politically isolated country, resulting in widespread malnutrition and thousands of deaths. In the long-term, experts are questioning whether the region’s demographic giants—China and India—will continue to maintain their food security in the next century despite continued population growth, environmental degradation, and reductions in arable land.

To explore this complex issue, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) held a one-day seminar on September 11, 1998 entitled "Food Security and Political Stability in the Asia- Pacific Region." The purpose of the seminar was to assess the current and future food security situation in the Asia-Pacific region and to identify factors that would likely influence food security in the future. In particular, the panel focused on three case studies: Indonesia, North Korea, and China. The seminar also explored linkages between food security and traditional national security and national sovereignty. The seminar was divided into four sessions: (1) Defining "Food Security" and identifying those factors that either add to it or detract from it; (2) Analyzing Food Security Case Studies: Indonesia, North Korea, and China; (3) Assessing Future Challenges to Food Security; and (4) Identifying the Security Implications of Food Security Problems. This report serves simultaneously as a seminar report and a research survey to explore the current and potential reality of food security problems in the Asia-Pacific region.

Food Security and "Availability" vs. "Accessibility"

Food security, as one seminar participant noted, can be defined as "access by all to sufficient food for an active, healthy life." A very useful way of analyzing food security is to differentiate the concepts of food availability and food accessibility. Availability refers to the physical presence of adequate food supplies; for instance, the physical ability of a particular area of land to produce food. Availability can also refer to the presence of food throughout the world, which can be distributed through the international trading system or as food aid. In general, adequate availability of food depends on effective agricultural production. There are four basic sets of factors that influence agricultural productivity and availability (either by hindering or enhancing its development); (1) soil factors (including such things as the physical properties of soil, its texture, slope, chemical properties, nutrient content, etc.); (2) plant factors (referring to species and the genetic variation that may exist within species); (3) climatic factors (includes such factors as moisture supply, temperature, solar radiation and carbon dioxide concentration); and (4) socioeconomic factors (refers to the price of agricultural inputs and products, farm income, availability of credit, and infrastructure for disseminating information about new knowledge and practices.)1

Accessibility, on the other hand, refers to the ability of people within a particular country or region to actually receive or gain access to the food (for example, by having the financial means to purchase adequate food). In fact, as several seminar participants noted, the basic cause of chronic malnourishment is not the lack of food in the world, but the fact that the food is not getting to the people who need it most. This seems to contradict a common and widespread perception that human population growth has outstripped agricultural production worldwide. As one writer has noted: "Food distribution systems are largely shaped by political and economic forces that prevent the food from getting where it is most needed."2 Thus, the availability of food does not necessarily address the problem of accessibility to food; famines occur—and have occurred—in countries in which food is readily available and plentiful.

Nevertheless, as the world’s population grows by around 80 million per year, political and scientific leaders around the world are increasingly raising questions about the viability of the global food system in accommodating this unprecedented demographic change. Although population growth is not the only determinant of food security, it is an issue that focuses popular concern—and even alarm—about the sustainability of global food production. This is because intuitively it would seem that food shortages occur when "human populations outstrip the production capacity of the agricultural system on which they rely."3  But food shortages can also occur because of inequitable food distribution or a breakdown—perhaps resulting from war or civil strife—of the distribution systems that provide food. One study suggests that three major factors disrupt the ability of people to have access to food: inequitable food distribution, poverty, and political unrest.

Clearly, therefore, population growth is just one factor that can influence food security. As several seminar participants noted, food security can also be influenced by such basic factors as literacy rates, levels of farmer education, agricultural research and extension capacity, transport infrastructure, international capital movements, and international labor movements. Responsive political systems and the presence of viable opposition political forces and a free press can also influence food security in a positive way. As Dr. Amartya Sen, the recent Nobel Prize winner, has stated: "One remarkable fact in the terrible history of famine is that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press."4  Indeed, two of Asia’s most severe famines of the 20th century—China during the Great Leap Forward era and North Korea today—have occurred within totalitarian government systems where centralized planning and poorly-conceived economic policies have led to massive food scarcity and human carnage.

In summary, food security is a multi-faceted issue that is influenced by multiple social, political, economic, and technical variables—purchasing power of consumers, dietary patterns, soil quality, climate factors, among others. Nevertheless, a powerful debate has begun to emerge among experts who believe the world is headed for food insecurity in the future versus those who believe the future will feature plentiful and inexpensive food. These positions may be divided into two diametrically opposed schools of thought.

The School of Food Security Pessimism

Today, more than 800 million people around the world are malnourished, despite the fact that food production has doubled during the past three decades. Some experts are warning that the number of malnourished could rise substantially as global demographic pressures clash with such limits as diminishing arable land and growing water scarcity. For this reason, so-called food security pessimists have become more vocal in recent years and have grabbed international headlines with their predictions of food shortages in the not-so-distant future. One pessimist who has gained considerable prominence in recent years is Lester Brown of the Washington D.C-based Worldwatch Institute. Brown argues that the food system is the "missing link" that connects global environmental degradation to loss of food security—and its economic consequences. Brown also asserts that as the pressures of diminishing arable land and decreasing water supplies become more acute, food prices will likely rise. For affluent nations, this will not influence food security much at all, since such a small proportion of disposable income goes to purchase food. But for the 1.3 billion people in the world who live on less than $1 per day, such price rises—even if they are very small—could have a devastating impact.5

Food security pessimists are particularly alarmed by what they view as the strong linkage between food insecurity and global population growth. Some of them have revived a neo-Malthusian thesis (Thomas R. Malthus, author of Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798) that views population growth as a root cause of famine. Malthus argued, among other things, that populations tend to outstrip food supply because food supplies tend to grow arithmetically whereas populations tend to grow geometrically. Food security pessimists are concerned about the widely-accepted fact that within the next 30 years, the world’s population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion. Even more significant, they argue, is the fact that most of this population growth will occur in the poorer, developing regions of the world—many areas that are already experiencing serious food shortages. By the year 2040, the world’s population may increase to more than 9 billion. If this does occur, world agricultural output would need to increase by at least 250%.6   Consequently, many proponents of a neo-Malthusian viewpoint anticipate that rapid population growth in the future will cause or exacerbate food shortages.

Given these demographic constraints, food security pessimists argue that there are essentially two ways to increase food production—increasing yield per hectare or expanding the amount of land to be cultivated. Given the trend of disappearing arable land in much of the world—including Asia—the emphasis must be on creating more efficiency (i.e., more yield per hectare). But, as some seminar participants noted, there are questions about how much more efficiency can be achieved. As one study noted: "many of the techniques used to increase yields over the past few decades, such as increased fertilizer use, crop breeding, and irrigation, have been known for a century or more, and may not bring much additional growth."7  Other factors that suggest a less than optimistic food availability scenario in the future include loss of genetic diversity, pest migration, and pesticide resistance. Pessimists are also alarmed by the general lack of investment in agricultural technology throughout the world. Several seminar participants noted that diminishing budgets for agricultural research will have a negative long-term impact on agricultural sustainability. In the past, the green revolution enabled governments to avoid food shortages. However, with research funds dwindling, it is doubtful that such "technical fixes" will be available in the future. Consistent with this trend is the general anti-agricultural bias that exists among many governments around the world. In many developing countries, farmers are abandoning their farms in search of work in urban areas. This reflects the fact that, in general, agricultural work often commands little income. Finally, food security pessimists are worried about social, climatic, and economic threats to food security. A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. warned in 1997 that "El Nino weather disturbances, civil strife, low grain stocks, and declining foreign aid" could cause dramatic fluctuations in the global food supply and threaten food security for the next 25 years in poor countries with rapidly growing populations.8

Food security pessimists are also concerned by the gradual change of dietary habits occurring in many parts of the developing world. In East Asia, for instance, a notable trend has been the transition from a largely vegetarian diet to a Western-style meat-based diet. Most experts agree that a meat-based diet places a much greater strain on agricultural resources. Stated another way, strictly vegetarian diets can support a much larger human population than a meat-based diet. As one study noted, grain and other foodstuffs produced in 1990 would only support 2.3 billion people on a North American-type diet (i.e. a diet high in fats and animal products) but it would support more than 10.9 billion people on a diet that is common in many developing nations (i.e. a diet that primarily consists of beans, rice and other carbohydrates). Pessimists believe that as wealthier countries of the developing world—such as China—turn increasingly toward a Western-style diet, such change might result in shortages in grain or other foodstuffs. Moreover, this dietary transition might also increase grain prices, thereby making grain prohibitively expensive for many developing countries.

The School of Food Security Optimism

At the other extreme, food security optimists tend to be more sanguine about the prospects for global food security in the future. Although they recognize that there are real challenges that must be overcome both now and in the future, they also believe that effective and enlightened policy responses can prevent any disasters. One clearly positive trend, they would argue, is the fact that global population growth is diminishing (in percentage terms), although absolute increases are expected to continue until the year 2050 primarily as a result of population momentum. Moreover, the challenges to food security (for instance land degradation) tend to be local, rather than global, suggesting that policy changes or improvements at the local level could dramatically increase agricultural yields. Food security optimists also believe that technology and research can create abundant food supplies in the future. Research in biotechnology, for instance, can lead to the creation of plant breeds that are resistant to pest species and other threats. Technology, moreover, is also key to the development of high-yield plant species.9   Food security optimists argue that there is much evidence that crop yields in many developing countries could be expanded significantly. China, for instance, has much room to increase its grain yields, despite the fact that such yields are high by developing-country standards. Chinese farmers could achieve higher yields by using high-yielding seed varieties, applying improved chemical fertilizers, and practicing greater efficiency in the use of pesticides and irrigation water.10 Norman Borlaug, father of the "Green Revolution", has recently argued that small farmers in many developing countries are capable of doubling or tripling their yields if they would integrate technology into their agricultural production.11 To bolster their case for the effects of technology and greater efficiency in food production, food security optimists point to the fact that food prices have fallen substantially in recent decades (real 1992 food prices are just 22% of food prices in 1950). Another indicator of greater food security is evidence that the per capita calorie supply of food has increased in every region of the world from the early 1960s until the late 1980s.

Also in reference to food availability, food security optimists point to the so-called "meat buffer"—ironically a positive response to the pessimists’ concerns about the gradual adoption of a animal-based diet that is occurring in many developing countries. If a food crisis became a reality, the argument goes, human beings could adopt a vegetarian diet, thus freeing up millions of calories that are expended to feed animals which are later used for human consumption. Currently, livestock consume nearly 40 percent of world grain production. Moreover, the amount of grain being diverted to livestock is increasing as more affluent societies incorporate animal products into their diet.12 Vegetarian diets, in contrast, tend to be more efficient. For instance, grain consumed directly by humans produces at least twice as much food energy than when it is fed to livestock for the production of animal or dairy products.13   As one recent study noted: "If everyone adopted a vegetarian diet and no food were wasted, current production would theoretically feed 10 billion people, more than the projected population for the year 2050."14  (However, currently the opposite trend is occurring; between 1990 and 2020, the amount of meat consumed is expected to increase by 75 percent.15) For policymakers, therefore, the "meat buffer" provides some flexibility to offset any unexpected global food shortages.

Related to the "meat buffer" is the implied buffer that would exist if food was not wasted. As several seminar participants noted, tremendous amounts of food are wasted annually through the effects of rat or insect infestation, spoilage, and losses that occur during the transportation process. In China, for instance, an estimated 25% of grain collected is wasted; much of it is consumed by rats or other pests. Similarly, according to the Vietnamese government, about 13-16% of rice and 20% of vegetables harvested in Vietnam are wasted because of poor preservation conditions and practices.16   Effective policy responses, in theory, could result in less wasted food, thus freeing up more food supplies for global consumption.

Food security optimists do not deny that the world is experiencing food shortages or famines. However, they generally argue that the causes are due to access problems, not availability problems. Barriers to access can include poverty or simply the lack of purchasing power to buy food. As one study has noted, the "lack of access to food due to inadequate purchasing power has been identified as the prime cause of food insecurity."17  One seminar participant noted that in many countries, the most important role for agriculture is to serve as a provider of income and employment. Ideally, if farmers face crop failures or other disasters, their income would enable them to purchase food on the open market—even food that is imported from abroad.

Food Security in the Asia-Pacific Region

East Asia’s food security can be characterized as generally manageable, reflecting the overall trend of rising incomes and increased affluence. The region’s per capita food availability, for instance, has increased substantially since the advent of the Green Revolution.18 However, in other regions, notably South Asia, malnutrition has continued to be a challenge. For example, in South Asia, the average calorie intake of 2,300 kilocalories is only marginally higher than sub-Saharan Africa (2,100 kilocalories). But the greatest impact of malnutrition is felt among children where, in South Asia, nearly 17 percent of children suffer from wasting (in which their weight is disproportionately low compared with their height).19  Moreover, over 60 percent of South Asian children suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition—compared to 39 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa.20

More recently, however, East Asia’s food security has been challenged by the region’s financial crisis that began in July 1997. Unfortunately for many Asian countries, this economic crisis followed an extraordinarily unstable period of weather caused, at least partly, by the El Nino weather phenomenon. For some countries, such as the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, it appears that poor weather—including droughts—was the main cause of food insecurity, with the region’s economic crisis serving as a secondary factor. In other countries, such as Indonesia, the region’s financial crisis seems to have had a more substantial impact on food security, although these countries were also afflicted by poor weather and, in the case of North Korea, poor political and economic decisions.

Clearly, a mixture of factors—some climatic, some economic or political—have conspired to challenge East Asia’s food security during the past one and a half years. To understand the unique food security circumstances in the region, the seminar chose to focus on three countries—North Korea, Indonesia, and China. The first two countries were chosen because they have recently, or are currently, experiencing severe food shortages. China, in contrast, was included in the examination because of its potential for experiencing food shortages in the future and because of its famine experience during the late 1950s "Great Leap Forward" era.

North Korea and Food Security

North Korea is undergoing an unprecedented famine. The presenter on North Korea stated that North Korea has experienced food shortages since 1995 and harvest yields have declined steadily throughout the 1990s. In 1998, domestic production is estimated to have left a shortfall of between 1.3 million to 2 million tons. As a result of the production shortfalls, relief operations and foreign governments have contributed hundreds of thousands of tons of food to the DPRK. Western governments have pressed for economic liberalization and reform, but Pyongyang has offered little response.

Regarding mortality resulting from food shortages, there are no firm or official statistics. The presenter noted that common estimates of mortality range between 300,000 to 800,000 per year for the past three years, or a maximum of 2.4 million people. Chinese surveys apparently have assessed a 27% mortality rate, but there is also evidence that these surveys are flawed. The pattern of death, it was noted, is consistent with what would be expected; i.e., lowest in the capital city, Pyongyang, and in the areas bordering China, where trade is most active. Those North Koreans who are politically powerful or economically relevant are being spared from the famine. Imported food, the presenter noted, is largely being used to feed the elites and the politically important. Another long-term health impact of North Korea’s famine is the stunting of children’s growth. A recent study by the World Food Program (WFP), Unicef, and the European Union (EU) has found that because of the long-term food shortages, 62% of North Korea’s children under 7 years old suffer from stunted growth.21

The presenter on North Korea noted that there are six major factors that have contributed to the DPRK famine. The first factor is economics. North Korea has seen its agriculture and industrial base deteriorate significantly during the past five years, primarily because of high investment in the military, centrally controlled economic management, environmental mismanagement, economic isolation, and the end of the Cold War (and subsequent loss of a client relationship with the former Soviet Union which traditionally provided Pyongyang with substantial economic and military aid). Moreover, the Asian economic crisis has also had an impact by hindering progress on the creation of joint ventures and free trade zones.

The second major factor relates to North Korea’s domestic political choices. The totalitarian nature of North Korea’s political system has probably exacerbated the food crisis. Democratic (or semi-democratic) governments tend to be more responsive to famines or food shortages. In many ways, the famine in North Korea reflects what one seminar participant described as the social cause of famine--the failure of a political system to be accountable to the people that it governs. North Korea’s pattern of persistent food shortages reflects the experiences of other non-democratic countries such as China during the Great Leap Forward. The Chinese famine during the Great Leap Forward era lasted for more than 3 years. The Chinese government refused to admit that the country was suffering from massive food shortages—in many ways reflecting the pattern of North Korea’s leaders in more recent years. Pyongyang has consistently refused to publicly admit or recognize the magnitude of its food crisis. One seminar participant noted that "historically all countries in which famines occurred were and are non-democratic countries and tend especially to be dictatorial regimes." In addition to its internal political system, North Korea’s foreign policy has also brought little success. Currently North Korea has few friends in the international community and activities such as the firing of a Taepo Dong missile over Japan, for instance, only alienates the global community even further.

The third factor influencing North Korea’s food security situation is the environment. A series of back-to-back natural disasters (floods, drought, tidal waves, and a typhoon) have devastated North Korea’s agricultural infrastructure. One expert at the seminar noted that, ironically, the weather has given the North Korean leadership some cover to deflect attention from its own policy failures. North Korea now blames its massive crop failures on abnormal weather—and not on environmental mismanagement or other economic policy failures. This has also given the North Koreans an excuse to continue to request foreign assistance. The fourth factor relates to the absence of what the presenter described as "coping mechanisms" in North Korea that are often available to people experiencing food shortages. Internal domestic migration, for instance, is a coping mechanism; families will often send one of their members to find work in a local village or large city. This option is generally not available in North Korea. Additionally, other coping mechanisms—eating wild foods, breaking up of families, selling assets—are generally not available to most North Koreans. This has contributed to greater mortality.

The fifth factor relates to the tension that exists within the international community on how to respond to North Korea. On the one hand, there is a humanitarian imperative or moral responsibility to save lives. On the other hand, some foreign governments appear to be pursuing a policy of seeking to starve North Korea into submission. In other words, some political decisions to withhold food assistance to North Korea may be rooted in a perception that "you can starve people into behaving the way you want them to." But as one expert noted: "Mao and Stalin teach us that famine threatens the survival of the people of Communist nations but it does not threaten the dominant political regime." In fact, famine may offer a regime an opportunity to consolidate its power. The sixth factor relates to the failure of humanitarian agencies in their operations in North Korea. According to one scholar, "the involvement of humanitarian agencies has arguably also made the relief operation less efficient." The international humanitarian relief community and foreign governments have generated the impression that proper monitoring is occurring. However, in reality this is often not the case.

Indonesia’s Looming Food Security Crisis

The expert on Indonesia noted that Indonesia is undergoing an unprecedented political and economic collapse that has undermined the country’s food security. Half of Indonesia’s population of more than 200 million people are living below the poverty line due to the effects of an economic crisis that has spread throughout Southeast and East Asia since July 1997. By the middle of 1998, over 1.5 million Indonesian families were facing acute food shortages and malnutrition.22

The immediate causes of the collapse Indonesia’s economy include a weak banking system and a rapid increase in private short-term debt. Moreover, the rapid depreciation of the Indonesian rupiah spurred inflation and thus food imports became prohibitively expensive. Simultaneously, growing unemployment in the country undermined the purchasing power of large segments of the population. Thus fewer people had the ability to either buy or have access to food. The collapse of the food distribution system—the result of both political chaos and attacks against ethnic Chinese who operated many of the distribution channels—has further undermined food security.

Other problems have also contributed to Indonesia’s food crisis, including the fact that the economic crisis exacerbated the food shortage problems resulting from a major drought, caused largely by the El Nino weather phenomenon. This drought substantially reduced production of food, especially rice which is the country’s staple. Other factors contributing to food shortages—and lack of food accessibility—include the lack of agricultural inputs (such as fertilizers and pesticides) and the fact that late planning led to a late harvest.

A weak and ineffective government, moreover, has exacerbated Indonesia’s food crisis. What brought President Suharto down from power, the presenter noted, was an essential lack of confidence in the government’s ability to solve the nation’s economic problems. Suharto’s successor, President B.J. Habibie, unfortunately confronts the same lack of confidence. Thus, the political energy of the country is now focused on who will secede Habibie and what type of political system will evolve. As a result, the Indonesian government is ill-equipped to focus its energy on addressing the food shortage problem.

China and Food Security

Although China is not currently experiencing a major food crisis, it was included in this study because of its famine experience during the late 1950s. Additionally, much recent international attention has focused on questions of China’s food security and its potential need to rely on grain imports in the future.

The expert on China noted that the 1950s era famine occurred for two basic reasons: ideology and the rush toward collectivization. Moreover, the government stymied various famine coping mechanisms, such as internal migration. The presenter noted that since the army had taken over the train system, people were restricted from migrating to more prosperous or food-rich areas. Today, in contrast, internal migration in China is much more common and increasingly the government is reluctantly accepting it within certain limits.

The expert also noted that in order for China to ensure its food security in the future, it should introduce land use rights. This does not have to be total privatization, however. The government also needs to focus on confidence-building because Chinese farmers fundamentally do not trust their government. The presenter also noted that food security is related to unemployment. If unemployment surges in China—as has been predicted by a number of experts, both within and outside China—then food security could be undermined as the unemployed population’s purchasing power declines. China, moreover, has a very limited social safety net; in more than 90 of China’s cities, there is no formal social welfare system for unemployment compensation.23

Future Challenges to Food Security in the Asia-Pacific

The third session of the seminar looked toward the future. Presenters were asked to identify potential future challenges to food security in the Asia-Pacific region. Once again, the responses fell into two basic categories: challenges related to the availability of food and challenges related to access to food.

Challenges to Availability of Food

Several seminar participants noted that population growth in Asia will continue to be a major challenge to food security. Although growth rates are slowing down, the region’s population is expected to continue rising well into the 21st Century. For instance, by the year 2010, China’s population is expected to rise to 1.347 billion from 1.200 billion (in 1995); India’s will rise to 1.127 billion from 929 million; and Indonesia’s will rise to 235 million from 193 million.24    Simultaneously, Asia’s population is expected to become increasingly urban. By the year 2000, the world will have 20 cities with a population of 10 million or more and Asia will be the home of 12 of these cities. For this reason, some international agencies are concerned that growing urbanization may lead to greater food insecurity, as the millions of people who flock to cities fail to find jobs or other resources that would enable them to purchase adequate food.25

Another future challenge to food security in the Asia-Pacific region is the ratio of the region’s population to its amount of arable land. As one seminar participant noted, "Asia has a much larger fraction of the world’s population than of its arable land." China has 22 percent of the world’s population but only nine percent of its arable land.26  China’s arable land decreased from .10 hectares per capita in 1980 to .08 hectares per capita in 1994. Arable land in other Asian countries is also disappearing at an alarming pace. In India, for instance, arable land decreased from .25 hectares per capita in 1980 to .19 hectares per capita in 1994; Indonesia had .18 hectares per capita in 1980 compared with .16 hectares in 1994. Other Asian countries that have experienced proportional declines in the amount of arable land within the past 18 years include: North Korea, South Korea, Laos, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, and Bangladesh.27  Cropland is also being lost to erosion or other forms of degradation or conversion to non-farm uses.28  By the year 2030, Asia is expected to have eight or nine times as many people per acre of cropland as North America.29 This limitation is likely to place more pressure on Asian farmers to increase crop yields substantially.

Water shortages were also identified as a potential food security challenge. Water is a key determinant of crop yields. In Asia, there are serious questions about the future availability of water. Many countries in the region are already facing significant water scarcity issues. One study that examined the availability of water from a global perspective concluded that "water availability will be a serious constraint to achieving the food requirements projected for 2025. The need for irrigation water is likely to be greater than currently anticipated, and the available supply of it less than anticipated."30  Other studies have suggested that a larger proportion of water supplies in the future will be devoted to domestic and industrial uses—at the expense of agriculture. Thus, "rapid growth in water demand, coupled with escalating costs of development of new water sources, could be a serious threat to future growth in food production, especially if it requires meeting household and industrial water demand through water savings from irrigated agriculture."31 In China, water constraints seriously threaten food security; more than 70 of China’s grain is produced on irrigated land. But the water intended for irrigation is increasingly being depleted by three major trends: the diversion of water from rivers and reservoirs to cities, the depletion of underground water supplies in aquifers, and the impact of growing pollution caused by industrialization.32

Another challenge for the Asia-Pacific region in the future is likely to be the climate. Several participants noted that the climate—and particularly climate stability—is a key determinant of future food security. In recent years, the importance of climate stability has become more apparent in the wake of the devastating effects of the recent El Nino weather phenomenon. Agricultural experts generally agree that food security and climate change are inextricably linked. Consequently, there is great concern about the potential effects of climate change. The most immediate effects of climate change on food production will involve changes in temperature, precipitation, length of the growing season, and changes in C02 concentration. Viewing climate change from a global perspective, one study has suggested that "climate change will not pose a serious threat to global food production by 2020, but longer term implications for world agriculture, and even more so for individual regions, are highly uncertain."33   Most studies regarding the Asia-Pacific region suggest that the impact of climate change on food production will be mixed. Indeed, in some cases production increases can be expected. However, climate change may also result in negative changes, such as increased or new strains of diseases, pests, and weeds. One international study indicates that climate change impacts on rice yield, wheat yield, and sorghum yield "suggest that any increase in production associated with CO2 fertilization will be more than offset by reductions in yield from temperature or moisture changes."34 An effective policy response to climate change might include research into heat-resistant and low-water-using crops.35  Ironically, Asia-Pacific countries might contribute to climate change if they seek to increase food production by expanding areas of land under cultivation. One of the most harmful collateral effects of such an initiative may be deforestation. As one writer has observed: "the fact remains that poor people in developing countries will continue to chop down forests and kill wildlife to consume the calories they need to survive and prosper."36 Deforestation has been identified as a contributor to global warming because growing trees sequester carbon from the CO2 in the air, a major greenhouse gas. Increasing quantities of greenhouse gases have been identified as factors in climate change. Throughout Asia, deforestation is a major problem. For example, in Thailand, forest cover has shrunk from 55% to 28% during the period from 1961 to 1988.37  Similarly, in Cambodia roughly half of the forests have been felled within the past twenty years.38   The same trends, unfortunately, can be seen throughout the region.

Apart from climate change, other environmental influences on crop production are uncertain. Currently, many East Asian countries suffer from moderate to serious environmental degradation. Some analysts have suggested that such environmental degradation could negatively influence food production. In China, for instance, some have speculated that widespread air pollution might have a negative impact on crop production. But as Vaclav Smil has observed, "particulates and sulfur dioxide cause relatively little damage to crops. Most of the yield losses are seen in suburban vegetable farms."39  The impact of water pollution on food production and cultivation seems to be more clear and negative, however. A relatively recent survey of more than 900 major rivers in China found that more than 80% were polluted to some degree, and 20% were so badly polluted that their water could not be used for irrigation.40 Water pollution in China has also negatively affected fish catches and the shrimp aquaculture industry.41

Challenges to Food Access

As discussed earlier, availability of adequate food is one matter; access to this food is quite another. Due to the presence of international markets as a "food provider of last resort," some participants believed that the real challenge to food security lies not in food availability, but rather on access to food. Participants described several challenges to food accessibility, the most important of which dealt with relative purchasing power and the role of international markets.

Many seminar participants listed poverty as a major threat to food security in the Asia-Pacific region. As one participant noted, "when people don’t have incomes, they can’t buy enough food." Undernutrition in many of Asia’s low-income countries has been attributed to insufficient purchasing power among the poorer segments of the population.42  Many poor countries do not grow enough food to be self-sufficient and given their poverty, they are unable to import food to make up for the deficit. Related to this phenomenon is the observation, made during the seminar, that agriculture is more important as an employer (and hence provider of income) than it is as a supplier of food. Given the strong link between poverty and food insecurity, Asia’s dynamic economic growth—prior to July 1997—was probably a major factor in mitigating food security problems. In contrast, the economic crisis that has spread throughout the region since July 1997 has resulted in greater poverty and has, in many areas, undermined food security.

Many countries could bolster their food security by relying more on international markets. One of the most important strategic considerations of food security is the increasing importance of the international trading system as a provider of food for many countries around the world. Today, more than 95 countries in the world import more food than they produce. The four leading food exporters—the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina—provide about 80 percent of cereal exports on the world market.43   However, importing countries must earn enough foreign exchange (by selling non-food commodities, for example) to be able to buy this food. This is increasingly difficult in the face of protectionist tendencies in many Western countries. Moreover, many Southeast and East Asian countries have witnessed wild fluctuations in their currency values, which have in turn affected their ability to purchase food on the international market.44   Another problem related to international markets is the issue of economic sanctions. Currently, the United States, as one of the world’s largest food exporters, applies economic sanctions to dozens of countries for a variety of reasons.45   Economic sanctions can undermine importing countries’ faith in international markets as a food provider of last resort. This may, in turn, spur countries to pursue food "self-sufficiency" policies that are inefficient and counterproductive.

Food as a Political and Security Concern

The final session of the seminar addressed the political and security aspects of food availability and accessibility. Food security and traditional national security have usually been viewed as separate and unrelated subjects. However, increasingly security experts are re-examining traditional notions of security and are, in some instances, expanding the definition to encompass non-military threats to the welfare of the nation-state. One writer has argued that "a ‘national security’ issue is any trend or event that (1) threatens the very survival of the nation; and/or (2) threatens to drastically reduce the welfare of the nation in a fashion that requires a centrally coordinated national mobilization of resources to mitigate or reverse."46  For many Asian countries, food security is a national security issue as evidenced by protectionist agricultural and other policies that reflects a sense of "national vulnerability" about the availability or lack of food supplies. In some Asian countries—China for instance—statistics about food are considered so sensitive that they are deemed state secrets.47

Perhaps out of concern about their own food security vulnerability, many Asian countries have attempted to pursue what they view as the ideal of "self-sufficiency" even in the face of evidence that such policies are extremely inefficient. North Korea, for instance, emphasizes the concept of "ju che"; Japan considers food security to be one of its six major policies designed to achieve comprehensive national security.48  China, similarly, issues public and official statements insisting that it should and can remain "self-sufficient" in food production in the coming century.49   The drive toward self-sufficiency has often been used by many leaders in the region as a justification for subsidizing inefficient domestic producers. Once again, this reflects a sentiment among many Asian countries that a minimum level of food self-sufficiency is a prerequisite for national security.50  This also may explain why most countries in the region have tended to restrict food imports in the interest of promoting food self-sufficiency.51 Ironically, however, the reality is that this region, with its large population and disproportionately small quantity of arable land, is increasingly turning to imports to satisfy its food needs. Some countries have quietly abandoned the idea of self-sufficiency altogether. China, for instance, has reduced its cereals self-sufficiency goal from 100 percent to 92 percent.52

Food Security and Political Stability

Food security and political stability are often inextricably linked in many countries. Historically, significant malnutrition and famine have been caused by the disruption of food supplies through wars and civil strife.53  Yet, the concepts of food security and political stability are often mutually dependent and reinforcing. Food security, for example, can influence the political stability of countries. Simultaneously, political instability (such as wars or other forms of civil strife) can influence food security, as can be seen recently in the case of Indonesia. One seminar participant noted that the greatest risk for regime stability is the risk of urban riots—riots that are sometimes sparked by food shortages or sudden price increases among food products. Generally, starvation in the countryside does not result in political instability. This is because those who experience the brunt of food shortages tend to be rural and have little political voice. A recent example of this phenomenon occurred in India where rising food prices led to urban riots directed at India’s ruling political party—the Bharatiya Janata Party. Similarly, when the price of rice soared in Indonesia, thereby making it prohibitively expensive for a large segment of the population, food riots erupted in eastern Java. The government deployed military forces around markets to prevent looting. Moreover, China’s sharp rejection of the Lester Brown thesis that China needs to import massive amounts of grain from the world market in the coming century was partially rooted in a persistent fear within the Chinese government that food insecurity could potentially provoke widespread anger against the Communist Party and perhaps lead to civil unrest. Thus, the sensitivity that many Asian governments have about food security may be linked to fears of social instability and perhaps even political revolution. Food security thus becomes an issue of regime survival.

Another security concern prominent in many Asian capitals is the prospect for increased economic migration as a result of food shortages. Internal migration is the first concern for many governments, especially as internal migration is often a natural "coping response" in times of famine. When North Korea experienced severe floods in September 1995, South Korea responded by creating refugee camps to deal with the possible flood of people who might have fled toward the south. Similarly, Indonesia’s food crisis in 1997 was partly responsible for the outflow of thousands of Indonesian migrants to Malaysia. As the crisis in Indonesia intensified in early 1998, many neighboring countries feared that many more "hungry Indonesians [would] take to boats in search of a better life."54 Many countries in East Asia are extremely sensitive and wary about immigration—especially mass migration or illegal migration. The recent surge in labor and economic migration throughout the region has catapulted the immigration issue to the highest levels of government. Immigration disputes, moreover, have broken out between nations—such as the in case of Singapore and the Philippines in 1995—regarding illegal immigration and repatriation policies. Few governments in the region officially desire more immigration. To the extent that food insecurity might spur greater migration, then it may be viewed by many governments in the region as a security concern.

Food as a Weapon

Another way in which food can be linked to security is when it is used as a "weapon" or even a tool for gaining political leverage of some sort. In some cases, governments will use food as a weapon—by restricting its access, for instance—against segments of its own population, such as political opposition groups. In Sri Lanka, for example, several hundred Tamils recently demonstrated in the northern Vanni region against what they alleged to be an official government policy of restricting food supplies to the region.55  In contrast, some governments may assure access to food in exchange for promises of political support. In Indonesia, for instance, the ruling Golkar Party has reportedly engaged in "food politicking" by handing out bags of rice and money in exchange for political support.56   In the case of North Korea, one writer has suggested that the current North Korean regime has sought to consolidate its power by restricting food aid to its population out of concern that such aid might result in some degree of "foreign penetration" of the country which could somehow threaten the regime’s absolute hold over the country.57

Nation-states may also be tempted by the prospect of using food as a weapon. One military scholar has noted that recent notions of food as a weapon can be traced to the 1970s during the height of the oil crisis. During this period, "food was sometimes called the green weapon, apparently on the assumption that the embargo of one commodity could be countered by the embargo of another."58  Under these circumstances, the question of food—who has it and who can produce it—can become a legitimate strategic consideration.59  Food can also be an effective weapon in the relations between nation-states. For example, food may become a subject for international economic sanctions; a nation that is a major food producer may refuse to sell grain to another country in order to assert its own power and perhaps even influence the policies of other countries. Similarly, a food exporting country might use its abundant food resources as a means of tempering relations with a foreign power that might otherwise be acrimonious. For example, some have argued that the former Soviet Union’s reliance on American food imports during the Cold War helped strengthen relations between the two adversaries—despite their obvious and extensive political differences.60  A possible future corollary of this might be the Sino-American relationship in the next century. China’s growing dependence on the United States as a provider of food (particularly grain) may temper Beijing’s often turbulent relations with Washington which are often dominated by contentious disagreements on a number of policy questions (i.e. the question of Taiwan’s status, weapons proliferation, and human rights). Finally, a country might even use its own lack of food security to attempt to influence outside powers. North Korea, for example, has cleverly used its own famine as a tool for political leverage with outside countries. Recognizing the humanitarian impulses of the outside world, North Korea has sought to gain significant concessions in exchange for having outside organizations and governments distribute food aid to its own population.

Food Security: Implications for Military Forces

One of the clearest linkages between food security and traditional national security occurs when it affects a nation’s armed forces. First, in order for a country to have a viable military force, it must be able to provide that force with adequate food supplies. As one military study has noted "soldiers are probably more easily exhausted and demoralized by the absence of food (and water) than almost anything else apart from severe sleep deprivation."61  Therefore, governments eager on maintaining their power and influence will probably ensure that their armed forces receive adequate food supplies, even when the entire country faces severe food shortages. This has particular relevance to East Asia, especially with regard to North Korea and the status of its army during the recent food crisis. Allegations have surfaced that a significant portion of international food aid intended for the general North Korean population has been diverted to North Korean military forces.62   Given that the North Korean government relies on its military to maintain internal control and order—in addition to warding off all foreign threats—it would seem only logical that the government would view food security for the military as a key component of regime survival.

Food security can also affect military forces in another way. In food shortage emergencies, governments may call upon their military forces to distribute food within a country or region. Military forces often have logistical capabilities that are unmatched by other domestic agencies. In China, when the Great Leap Forward famine worsened—and developed into an undeniable crisis for the government—the Chinese government ultimately responded by deploying the People’s Liberation Army throughout the country to distribute food supplies. In addition to reliance on the military for domestic missions, governments may also deploy military forces in international food relief operations. When Indonesia faced a shortage of food supplies in 1998, the government reportedly requested (and received) military-distributed humanitarian aid from Singapore. Similarly, when Papua New Guinea experienced a severe drought in early 1998 that resulted in food shortages, the French government deployed troops based in New Caledonia to ship more than 100 tons of food aid to Papua New Guinea.63  Australia deployed its defense force in this case as well and at the height of its relief operation, Australian forces were reportedly delivering nearly 1,000 tons of food a month by air.64   This demonstrates the positive role that military forces can play in providing immediate food aid, aid that in many cases may fend off civil unrest or even a collapse of the government.


Throughout the seminar, one theme remained constant: food security is an extremely complex phenomenon that is as much dependent on social and political systems as environmental factors—such as land, weather, soil conditions, and water availability. It is also clear that the simple existence of plentiful food either in a particular country or throughout the world does not guarantee in any way that people will have access to adequate food supplies. This is where social, economic, and political factors play a major role in determining who has and who does not have food security.

For the Asia-Pacific region, food security is likely to emerge as a major security concern in the coming century, especially given the fact that so many Asian countries already consider food security to be an essential ingredient of their national sovereignty or national security. Moreover, for some countries—such as North Korea and China—food security is likely to be intertwined with future prospects of political stability and regime survival. Similarly, if Asian countries increasingly rely on the international trading system to maintain their food security, these trading relationships—such as with the United States and other major exporters—will likely have collateral political effects that will in turn have long-term strategic implications. Finally, rapid population growth in the Asia-Pacific region, while not necessarily a direct cause of food insecurity, will certainly reduce the margin of error for policymakers in the event that they indulge in poor agricultural planning or engage in other forms of food security miscalculation.

This report was prepared by Paul Smith, Research Fellow of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. For more information, please contact him at 808-971-8976


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Mr. Richard Baker
East-West Center

Dr. William Bender

Dr. F.A. Bernardo
International Rice Research Institute

Dr. Lee Endress
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Mr. Arthur Getz
World Resources Institute

Dr. Dru Gladney
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Mr. Chris Johnstone
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Ms. Sue Lautze
Tufts University

Dr. Satu Limaye
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Dr. Chad Raymond
University of Hawaii

Amb. Charles Salmon
U.S. Pacific Command

Mr. Paul Smith
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Ms. Jin Song
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

CAPT Robert Speer
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Mr. Robert Thompson
World Bank

Mr. Naoto Yoshikawa
University of Hawaii

Dr. Kate Zhou
University of Hawaii

Paul J. Smith is a research fellow with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. He specializes in transnational security issues and has published numerous articles on these subjects. He is a member of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) Working Group on Transnational crime. He holds a B.A. from Washington and Lee University, an M.A. from the University of London and a J.D. from the University of Hawaii.