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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Food Systems Transformation in Asia – A Brief Economic History


Asia’s food systems have undergone rapid economic and socio-cultural transformations in the past 60 years. During the period, almost all the countries in the region eradicated famines and achieved food self-sufficiency and heterogeneous levels of poverty reduction. Food system transformation in Asian countries has had similarities and differences and has been closely tied to structural transformation, political processes, and integration with the global economy. This article conducts a historical assessment of food systems transformations in seven Asian countries between 1960 and 2020 and their main economic, social, and demographic drivers. Food systems transformations are presented in terms of four phases. In the first phase, between 1960 and 1980, when most Asian countries were low-income and low-middle-income, the central focus was on hunger reduction. We explore the policies and the politics of the green revolution as various Asian countries tried to achieve self-sufficiency in food grains. In the second phase (1980–2000), agricultural productivity growth led to structural transformation, income growth, and the divergence of lower-middle-income and middle-income economies, directly impacting demand for food quantity, quality, and diversity in various countries. The third phase (2000 onwards) marked a quantum change in food systems as globalization, trade integration, and changes in consumer tastes were significant drivers of food systems. We assess the changing trends in organized retail expansion, increased consumption of processed foods, and rising incidence of obesity in lower and upper-middle-income countries. In the final phase (beyond 2020), we highlight how the digital revolution has changed consumer behavior, and is further transforming food systems. Future food systems challenges of hunger, malnutrition, rising non-communicable diseases, and climate change are discussed and multisectoral and multicountry policy interventions for addressing them are presented.

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