food security across AsiaRice is the primary food source of more than two billion people worldwide. However, a quarter of the world’s rice production depends on rain instead of irrigation, threatening yields. “Current commercial rice strains have little genetic diversity.” Farmers require new drought-resistant and submersion-tolerant strains of rice. Resilient rice strains may potentially increase food security across Asia.

Challenges in Rice Growing

Climate change brings with it an increased frequency of floods and droughts, which rice is especially vulnerable to. Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) sent an international resilient rice team to rain-dependent agricultural areas of India to introduce new strains of rice to help subsistence farmers maintain or increase their yields. To create these new strains, SCPRID bred wild ancestor plants with currently available rice plants to create a strain that is more tolerant to harsh weather conditions.

Another issue rice growers face is salt inundation since rice is an extremely salt-sensitive crop. Two historic disasters, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Japan’s 2011 tsunami flooded more than 65,000 hectares of cropland in multiple surrounding countries. Land flooded with salt water may be usable again after a year or two once sufficient rain has washed the salt away, but the immediate impacts of the salt inundation seriously threaten the food security of households in affected areas.

Hybrid Rice Varieties to Guarantee Harvests

As a salt-sensitive crop, salinity greatly impacts rice yields. In the last few decades, plant breeders have “introduced salt tolerance” into modern rice varieties. This is achieved by introducing the genes of traditional rice varieties that often grow in saline regions to create a hybrid, more resilient rice. For example, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines led a collaboration that discovered a gene called Saltol in the Pokkali rice breed. Saltol gives plants a higher salt tolerance. A strain of rice made resilient by the Saltol gene can survive in higher-salinity environments, preventing large crop losses.

Food Security in Asia

The increase in world food supply between 1961 and 2011 came mostly from Asia, with the supply of all staple foods increasing multifold on the continent. Production particularly shot up in the 1980s. However, Asia’s 48 countries still house about 66% of the global undernourished population.

Reducing the high undernourishment rate will require significant amounts of extra food. The continent’s increasing urban population, along with “the growing disposable income” of some, will also heighten the demand for food. Furthermore, Asia’s total population is predicted to expand to 5.16 billion by 2050, an increase of 779 million people, heightening the food demand even further.

Due to a higher demand for housing and other infrastructure projects, “the amount of natural resources available for agriculture has been declining.” The quality of these resources is also lowering as a result of human activity. If left unaddressed, the shortage of quality natural resources will lead to decreased food quality and yields.

The Road Ahead

Resilient rice strains that can better stand up to high salinity, droughts and floods will help improve food security in Asia. By making the crop hardier, plant breeders can guarantee that fewer rice crops will be ruined by natural disasters and extreme climates. More yields mean increased food security in the region. Resilient rice could help reduce the rate of undernourishment in Asia by ensuring the food supply keeps up with the growing population.

Courtney Roe
Photo: Flickr

Food Security in Asia
Arriving for the first time in the U.S. in late 2019, Asian giant hornets are a concern for many due to their potential to massacre honeybee populations, which are significant in helping plants grow, breed and flower. However, while this worry is new in sweeping the nation, the U.S. is not the first nor only country to deal with the Asian giant hornets. The hornets originate in Asia, where countries like Sri Lanka and India struggle with food security and endure the Asian giant hornet populations. Developing nations do not offer the same guarantee regarding food security as these countries struggle to meet the production demands of the rest of the developed world, all the while supporting their own population’s infrastructural needs. Here is some information about Asian giant hornets and their impact on food security in Asia.

The Hornets

Asian giant hornets are the world’s largest hornet with a wingspan of 76 mm and a length of 50 mm, set with a 6 mm barb that can inject their potent venom into victims. Asian giant hornets generally do not sting people, although their sting is highly venomous and in rare cases, can be fatal. They tend to build their nests underground, placing them close to where they can wreak havoc on agricultural processes.

While food security has long since been a concern in the developing nations in Asia, organizations focused on fixing this issue seem undisturbed by the presence of these hornets, even concerning nations that are only a few poor harvests away from having a malnourished population. This is due to how honeybees in the area have coevolved with the Asian giant hornets, and as a result, have developed defenses to combat their attacks on the honeybee population.

For example, Japanese honeybees have taken to form a sort of ‘bee ball’ around the hornet, working their wing muscles to generate heat and raise carbon dioxide levels until it kills the offending hornet. The honeybees avoid succumbing to this increase in temperature since they can withstand temperatures up to 122°F whereas hornets start to die at temperatures that exceed 115°F.

Under circumstances where the honeybee population has not adapted to the Asian giant hornet, it only takes 15 to 30 hornets to massacre 30,000 to 50,000 worker bees in just a few hours. Moreover, hornets seek to siege hives and use the larvae they find to feed their own.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, one of the nation’s the hornets are native to, a significant amount of agriculture relies on bee pollination, while the country invests the majority of what it produces into its population.

As Sri Lanka recovers from a 30-year civil war that ended in 2009, the nation has come miles in improving education, maternal and child mortality and poverty levels. However, food security and improved nutrition are still major obstacles the country grapples with. Out of a population of 21 million, 22% of people experience undernourishment in Sri Lanka in comparison to 2.5% of the population of 328.2 million in the United States.

Honeybees and Coconuts

Much of Sri Lanka’s fruit and vegetable output, as well as their oilseed crops, are reliant on the honeybee population for pollination. For example, coconuts are heavily reliant on Sri Lanka’s honeybee population for the pollination process.

Coconuts are a substantial part of Sri Lanka’s life, not only integral for many employment opportunities and trade but also a valuable resource for cuisine, nutrition and rural income. About 20% of crop-suitable land in Sri Lanka goes toward the cultivation of coconuts and people consume about 63% of production domestically.

If Asian giant hornets were to overrun the honeybee population in Sri Lanka, the coconut harvests would suffer significantly at the hands of poor pollination, resulting in a major hit to Sri Lanka’s production. More specifically, its agriculture sector would suffer, which primarily goes toward domestic consumption. Additionally, the hunted honeybee population would become a protein-rich meal for Asian giant hornet larvae, nourishing a new generation of honeybee killers.


Asian giant hornets are also native to India, where food insecurity largely derives from unequal food distribution and a lack of agricultural diversity. Overall, honeybees are responsible for pollinating more than 70% of major crops around the world, and with the decline of the honeybee population due to insecticides and deforestation the global food supply is already threatened to reduce by a third.

With 195 million malnourished people, India holds a quarter of the world’s hunger burden. With chronic malnourishment stunting the growth of four out of 10 children in India, these children are more prone to performing poorly at school, meaning limited employment and earning opportunities in adulthood. Malnourished mothers are also more prone to giving birth to underweight infants, and a lifetime of stunting bodes poorly for an individual’s chances with non-communicable diseases throughout their life.

The Nationa Food Security Act (NFSA) and Malnourishment

In India, legislation like the Nation Food Security Act (NFSA) and the public distribution system ensures that virtually the entire Indian population has access to food, however, due to a lack of agricultural diversity, food security still remains a problem. As of 2019, 36% of children under the age of 5 were underweight and 75% of the total population was not getting enough vitamins from their food intake. The same study reported that 51% of women within the reproductive age were iron deficient.

India’s food insecurity issues have roots in issues of distribution and accessibility – things that India’s legislation has been combating throughout the years. However, with the further decline of the honeybee population, exacerbated by the Asian giant hornets, food supplies drop, further limiting accessibility and stretching distribution even thinner.

South Korea

South Korea has long maintained its ‘developing country’ label as a means of protecting its agricultural industry, despite boasting low maternal mortality rates, a high life expectancy and the world’s fourth-largest economy.

The nation maintains its food security and self-sufficiency through tariffs and high administrative prices within select agricultural markets. Like many of the other Asian nations that the hornets are native to, their honeybee populations have adapted to be more resilient to hornet attacks. This resilience is not the only attribute aiding in South Korea’s current food security though. Due to the country’s flourishing economy, the nation has been able to shift its position as a recipient of aid from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) to that of one of the top 15 contributors, in both financial aid and in terms of supplying interns.

South Korea is secure enough currently, that if the hornets were to massacre whatever remaining bee population exists in the country, South Korea would have a sound enough infrastructure to weather the poor resulting harvest. However, the issue still lies that South Korea’s bee population is suffering heavily, even if not necessarily at the hands of the hornets – and even if the low honeybee populations aren’t starving the people, that does not mean there are no consequences to neglecting this issue.

Challenges for the Honeybee Population

In 2010, a sacbrood virus outbreak ravaged Korea’s bee population and wiped out almost 90% of them. Years passed, and the country did not take measures to restore the population, as the country did not view bees as economically viable.

Honeybees, while valuable for the pollination of many crops, are also necessary for maintaining a balanced ecosystem. The obliterated bee population in South Korea not only posed a threat to the nation’s wildlife in failing to pollinate and spread seeds that would feed nonhuman species but would subsequently fail to pollinate crops reliant on animal-driven pollination if such species died out.

Despite the panic that has overtaken the U.S., the Asian honeybee populations have adapted to survive Asian giant hornet attacks. Despite this success, still developing production sectors that struggle to keep up with demand, a lack of agricultural diversity (and the resources to navigate this problem), as well as the political conflicts countries are perpetuating food insecurity in Asia. Hopefully, with continued efforts, food security in Asia should improve.

– Catherine Lin
Photo: Wikipedia Commons