Food security is a strategic issue for countries in ASEAN but its achievement gets harder from year-to-year. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, 53 percent of Southeast Asia’s 600 million population lives in poverty with an income of less than US$2 per day, while 18 percent of them earn less than $1.25 per day.
With continuously rising food prices and unpredictable food supply, these poor certainly do not earn enough to meet a sufficient daily nutrition intake. This puts Southeast Asia second only to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of poverty levels.
In terms of malnutrition, according to the World Food Program of the United Nations, only in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam is less than 5 percent of the population malnourished. Indonesia is at medium-low with 5-14 percent of its population suffering malnutrition. The Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand record 15-24 percent malnutrition with 25-34 percent malnutrition in Laos and Cambodia. All are poor indicators of food security in the region particularly considering that socioeconomic inequality remains a serious problem here.
Not long ago ASEAN adopted the Framework Action Plan on Rural Development and Poverty Eradication 2011-2015 as the basis for various ASEAN Senior Official Meetings in preparation for the ASEAN Economic Community. The goal is to address the above-mentioned concerns.
This is yet another effort to enhance previous initiatives, such as the ASEAN Emergency Rice Reserve (AERR) agreed in 1979, the study team funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2001 which assessed why AERR was not successful in collecting the minimum rice reserve, the Series of Technical Meetings on Rice Reserves in 2002 which later endorsed the Pilot Project of East Asia Rice Reserve System for three years prior to the establishment of the East Asia Rice Reserve System which then evolved into the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR).
Then there was the East Asia Emergency Rice Reserve to support rice trading between country members, and the ASEAN Food Security Information System (AFSIS) developed together with the Food and Agriculture Organization, for the exchange of information on agricultural and food commodities.
Will the framework of action plan be any different in enhancing food security in ASEAN? The biggest question one should ask is whether the food security problem in ASEAN is caused by lack of supply of grains (particularly rice). Would pooling rice for emergency times solve the problem of food insecurity or a mere simple non-interventionist way of making leaders of the nations in the region feel assured that they won’t be held accountable for not doing enough on the issue?
People in Southeast Asia are blessed with a diversity of food. Studies on food security across the globe suggest that looking at food security by emphasizing food supply is outdated.
A study by Randy Stringer in Australia (2000) shows that there is actually enough food to feed the world. If proximity to food is key to getting food, think about how Southeast Asia is blessed with fertile soil, rains, tropical weather, ponds, seas, a richness in culinary skills and large numbers of people working as farmers and fishermen.
Even if the problem is with supply, we can’t look at it from the perspective of boosting production alone. There must be an issue of choice, which is made at the level of individual farmers or fishermen, agribusinesses and entrepreneurs, local governments and central governments. Other studies also suggest that consumers often shape the state of food security.
However, with the scale of poverty in Southeast Asia, it is hard to imagine that the problem is with consumers being picky about food. Sure there are people in the region who are influenced by diet, modern lifestyles and personal preferences in food, but there has not been any collective action to shape demand for certain commodities.
It is time that governments in the region started looking at food security from a new perspective. Food security is not purely about supply and demand but also about paths to providing supply of food and ending the mismatch in approaches when handling producers, businesses and consumers.
Cooperation across governments in the region should shift from collecting the output from producers and emphasizing trade, to enabling communities. Certain countries with less capacity to produce may need support in the food trade, but the food trade itself cannot be as fulfilling when producers and agribusiness handle problems in their own (individual) ways.
In supplying food, we should internalize in our minds that farmers and fishermen in Southeast Asia are communities that think, act, learn in traditional ways, not just because many of them are still under-educated but because they value such community-based living. They have survived for generations because they work as groups of people who care for one another. Machines are barely used not only because farmers and fishermen are clusters of poor people, but also because they jeopardize employment for family members and neighbors.
After all, governments in general have yet to develop employment programs in rural areas. Governments may provide subsidized fertilizers and seeds, but farmers have trouble obtaining them. Consequently, even if the national governments call for the production of certain commodities, farmers and fishermen will have trouble meeting them because their tools, knowledge and networks are very limited.
Businesses come between farmers and fishermen, consumers and governments. They want the shortest way to get raw materials and with the least cost.
Unfortunately in most places across ASEAN, logistics is still a big issue. Roads are bad or absent, with heavy traffic congestion, and there are long queues at ports. On top of this, local farmers cannot yet produce reliable volumes and quality of raw materials for agribusiness. Producers of fruit compote (dodol) in Indonesia, for instance, complain that they may pay for 10 fruits but not all meet the requirement for compote production.
The solution proposed by businesses is imports or import quotas. The problem with this is that it does not solve the problem at the producer level.
Imports do not encourage local production and do not guarantee stability of price either. When prices rise, producers are not the happy ones because the benefits go to traders rather than themselves. Worse, with the high cost of food, producers are among the poor experiencing food insecurity. The problems of business are also not solved by imports or import quotas.
Farmers and fishermen should be seen as groups of employers and employees with precious adaptive skills and connections to nature. When facilitated with an array of tools and networks, supported by science and governments who care, they will provide longer-term solutions to food security.
In the meantime, entrepreneurs and businesses in the food sector should be encouraged to work within the frame of community development with producers. Businesses should be facilitated to develop “the conveyor-belt” of production starting from the farm.
In short, food security is an urgent issue, but we cannot handle it with emergency policies. Our viewpoint should be far into the future. Food security is not just about food on the table, but also about securing employment on the farms, ensuring that work as farmers and fishermen is attractive to the younger generations.
If governments cannot guarantee full employment for all citizens, then the least they can do is to ensure that all ASEAN citizens have the options to keep their current jobs on the farms, seas and coastal areas and as agribusiness entrepreneurs.
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