Food security will be among the priority issues at the ASEAN Summit in early May at Labuan Bajo in Indonesia. Hasintya Saraswati and Ellya Rizki Handayani of the Pijar Foundation in Jakarta call for Southeast Asian countries to deepen cooperation in agriculture and food production at this time of global economic, food-supply and climate stress.
Agriculture is a way of life in Southeast Asia, with eight out of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) dependent on agriculture and its production. ASEAN’s population is projected to reach over 700 million by 2030, putting significant pressure on the food supply. Nations still need to overcome hurdles for food security and inclusive rural growth. Most ASEAN countries scored low in the Economist Impact’s Global Food Security Index compared to other regions in Asia. The number of hungry and malnourished people continues to increase, while the cost of supplying good quality food is at an all-time high. In recent years, many low-income households in Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia have been compelled to eat less nutritious food due to rising food prices and declining incomes.
The condition is exacerbated by climate change, with the region suffering US$21 billion in crop and livestock production losses due to climate-related disasters. In 2020, ASEAN also had to import US$61 billion worth of agricultural commodities, including staple food such as maize, soybean and wheat. Exacerbating the situation are post-pandemic socio-economic challenges and geo-economic tensions.
Amid this backdrop, ASEAN countries must enhance collaboration to ensure sufficient food supply and accessibility in the context of today’s climate and geo-economic challenges. In 2022, under chair Cambodia, ASEAN launched the Sustainable Agriculture Framework. As ASEAN chair this year, Indonesia has a golden opportunity to accelerate dialogues and concrete action around this framework and other food-security initiatives, including MSMEs, youth and regional knowledge-sharing.
The need for collaborative action
A successful example of regional cooperation is what the European Union (EU) has done to solve its food issues. By harmonizing regulations across the EU, the region has created a single market for food products, facilitating trade and reducing business costs. A study estimated that market harmonization would yield economic benefits of at least €644 billion (US$707 billion) a year by 2032. These advantages would primarily stem from the free movement of goods, services, capital and people while also resulting from fair and more straightforward taxation.
ASEAN’s food systems are complex and require a coordinated response from all member countries. The recent crisis highlights food-system fragilities when confronted by global conflicts, climate change and economic shocks. It is time to advance the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework to be more adaptive and responsive.
By working together, ASEAN countries can take advantage of leverage of each other’s strengths and address their weaknesses to improve regional food security. Collaboration can also maintain a level playing field where efficiency improvements and economies of scale enable more effective resource management and interaction among member states. Understanding pathways to region-specific agriculture issues and building more robust cooperation among ASEAN member countries is essential for the region’s overall prosperity.
No enterprises left behind
It is imperative that ASEAN should include micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in its efforts to solve its food security problems. MSMEs have always been the backbone of each member country’s economy. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, MSMEs played a critical role in ensuring food supply to local communities. By involving MSMEs in its food-security strategy, ASEAN countries can take advantage of their local knowledge and expertise to enhance food production and ensure a steady flow of food from production to consumption.
Consider the WIKI Entrepreneurship program, which is one of seven initiatives launched by the Indonesia Chamber of Commerce (KADIN), the organization steering the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC) this year, and is aimed at bridging the gap between MSMEs, large companies and the government. This innovative scheme provides MSMEs with targeted education and mentorship opportunities, opening access to financing and new markets, sharing best practices and technologies, and coordinating efforts to address common challenges.