MANILA, Philippines — With the number of undernourished people in Asia estimated at 578 million last year, agricultural and food experts have called for the establishment of a viable regional information network to address the issue.

Dr. Mercedita A. Sombilla, manager of the research and development department of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), said such clamor has grown after experts from the Los Baños-based SEARCA, the Food Security Center of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore held a roundtable discussion on the matter last year.

Sombilla said while the estimated number of malnourished people in Asia people last year dropped from the 658 million in 2009, “it is still higher than the numbers reached prior to the food crisis of 2007-2008.”

She said that increasing pressure on supply and demand for food also clash with “institutional rigidities” that lead to policies affecting markets and trade.

“A necessary input in the formulation of responses to the emerging constraints to food security is accurate and timely data and information,” Sombilla said.

Data should readily be available to policymakers and other stakeholders to enable them to enhance food supply, change demand structures or strengthen and diversify markets.

The establishment of the ASEAN Food Security Information System (AFSIS), which will act as a weather vane to alert governments and stakeholders about food supply and demand imbalances and “provide sound policy guidance to governments towards more sustainable improvement of food and nutrition security in the region.”

Sombilla listed the following as the four key elements for an effective AFSIS: Accurate, timely, transparent and standardized data and information that “would allow assessment of national and regional food and nutrition security status through regularly updated and monitored set indicators”; user-friendly analytical tools or models for scenario simulation that would permit the short- and long-term forecasts on food and nutrition security; an effective early warning facility to generate appropriate and timely information on possible occurrences of abnormal situations, and efficient system of knowledge management and communication that includes regular publication of trends in food production, demand, trade and prices as well as agricultural commodity outlooks.

The SEARCA official noted, however, that regional information center must be guaranteed support by ASEAN governments even as these authorities must mandate their own food security agencies to collaborate in coordinating moves to mitigate supply shortages.

“At the regional level, the current AFSIS has to be transformed from a project into a network of ASEAN countries, perhaps expanded to include China, Japan and Korea,” Sombilla said.

“Skills and capacities should be continuously updated in the areas of survey design, data collection, processing and analysis and forecasting or modeling,” she added.

“Information and Communication Technology (ICT) based skills, capacities for rigid monitoring and evaluation (M&E) activities, especially at the local level are also necessary, as well as skills on information dissemination and enhanced public awareness,” Sombilla said.

She also suggested the conduct of regular surveys, particularly in-depth household surveys, to gauge stakeholder responses or interventions to problems.

“These are necessary to adjust modeling parameters and evaluation of food and nutrition security indicators,” Sombilla said.

Partnerships and regional cooperation are likewise imperative to collectively battle food insecurity. –MARVYN N. BENANING, Manila Bulletin