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.
Essential worker: ASEAN countries must enhance collaboration to ensure sufficient food supply and accessibility in the context of today’s climate and geo-economic challenges (Credit: Attasit saentep / Shutterstock.com)
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.
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.
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.
ASEAN could learn a lesson from a “food-to-market” initiative launched by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) in the western region of the US state of North Carolina. The program involves working with farmers to develop and market their products, as well as working with local retailers, restaurants, and institutions to promote the use of local food. The scheme also provides training and education to farmers on sustainable agriculture practices and business development. The success of the initiative has inspired the development of similar programs across the US, with the model proving to be effective in enhancing the economic viability of local agriculture, promoting sustainable practices, and creating a more resilient and sustainable food system.
ASEAN could also develop guidelines and standards for sustainable agriculture practices, which could be adopted by farmers in all member countries. This would ensure consistency in the implementation of sustainable practices and could also facilitate the sharing of information and experiences.
With agriculture being more labor intensive than other industries, growth in the sector should lead to higher employment, especially considering the growing demand and land availability across ASEAN. There is, however, evidence that the farmer population in the region is aging. The younger generation in general has shunned the agricultural sector as a career choice. Some of the main reasons for the lack of youth involvement are the low image of farmers, low profit on agricultural products, lack of support from the government, and lack of an agriculture curriculum in the education system.
Encouraging youth involvement, especially in rural areas, by developing a more attractive agriculture system is, therefore, a key to intensifying the sector in Southeast Asia. Collaborative research with and for youth on sustainable agriculture is urgently needed. It is crucial that the solutions address the specific needs of ASEAN farmers. Involving tertiary education and vocational training organizations can help to reach out to more youngsters and promote an “Agri-cool” culture.
Across ASEAN, each member country can benefit from better targeted and more frequent agriculture knowledge sharing. There is a need for more research and development in sustainable practices. This includes the development of new technologies and methods that are more efficient and environmentally responsible, as well as researching and educating people on the impact of climate change on agriculture.
A hub of strategic players could be established to connect agricultural experts and researchers from different ASEAN countries, allowing for the sharing of best practices and research findings. The hub could be piloted through a short-term fellowship program involving experts from public and private food and agriculture sectors. Joint workshops and training programs could be held to train farmers and other professionals on sustainable practices. These programs could be organized by several ASEAN countries, with experts from across the region sharing their knowledge and experience.
Indonesia, as ASEAN chair, should encourage deeper and broader collaboration by taking advantage of its strengths in agricultural production, geopolitical influence, disaster management and sustainability, tapping the nation’s gotong royong ethic of mutual assistance that is rooted in the culture.
Food security, particularly with current global conditions, is crucial for ASEAN’s growth and prosperity. The spirit of communal harmony while respecting sovereignty – unity in diversity – is a guiding principle of ASEAN. As Indonesia has gotong royong, the Philippines has its bayanihan tradition. The ideal of effective community cooperation is a common across the region. It is critical for all member states to work together in solving food security issue in a manner that respects local social-cultural contexts and balances environmental protection and economic development. Without such efforts, hard-earned development gains will be lost.
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Ellya Rizki Handayani