Asian 'food bank' proposed by UN

Nations in Asia, where officials expect 960 million people will still be underfed by 1985, appear to be moving toward setting up a ''food bank'' for the region.

A proposal by the United Nations Commission for Asia and the Far East calls for countries to contribute grain to a special ''bank,'' or storage facility, which would stabilize supplies and provide emergency food.

It would be like the International Monetary Fund, which helps cover international payments imbalances of nations, says Shahed Latiff, a UN consultant in Bangkok.

''We hope to match the food surpluses and deficits in the region,'' he says. ''Asia's total food supply fluctuates far less in the region than in each country.''

After agricultural advances of the 1970s, Asian countries now fall into four groups according to food security:

* Food-deficit countries with enough money to buy imports, such as Malaysia or Indonesia.

* Food-deficit countries with little money for imports, such as Bangladesh.

* Food exporters, such as Thailand or Burma.

* Countries near food self-sufficiency, such as India or the Philippines.

Under the proposal, members of the food bank would donate a percentage of their grain to a joint storage. They would also guarantee a percentage of consumption from the bank. A country in need of food could draw on the amount of buffer stocks it had contributed, plus a percentage from other countries' contributions. Food-surplus nations could use the bank to level out their export market over several years, helping to keep prices steady for farmers.

Critics of the the current food bank proposal, which was discussed at a meeting here this month of 19 Asian nations, say that nations with adequate domestic food supplies would have little incentive to join and help the food-deficit nations like Bangladesh.

But regional cooperation has become more popular in Asia now that the five members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have shown what can be done by working together.

ASEAN, with a total population of 265 million, has maintained a ''food security reserve'' among its members, the first regional food reserve in the world.

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