To achieve global food security, there is a need not only to increase domestic production, but also to adapt to the climatic impacts on agriculture. This is particularly pertinent in Southeast Asia.
It is a precarious time for global food security. Food supply chains struggling to recover from Covid-19 now grapple with the year-old Ukraine crisis, which has affected the flow of key commodities like wheat. Yet, another crisis— climate change — threatens both food supply chains and production. It will do for decades to come.
In a survey by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 31.2 per cent of Southeast Asians indicated that extreme weather was the main threat to their country’s food security. This number jumps to 43.1 per cent among Thailand respondents, 53.8 per cent for Myanmar and 66.7 per cent for Vietnam (Figure 1). Indeed, over 9,000 hectares of crops are estimated to have been damaged each year since 2011 in Vietnam, with hundreds of millions in agricultural output losses projected. In Myanmar, severe flooding in 2015 damaged 20 per cent of cultivated area which accounted for 4.2 per cent of agricultural GDP. More recently, ongoing floods in Thailand have destroyed crops on 160,000 hectares of agricultural land.
Challenges to Food Security
When asked which solutions their governments should prioritise in addressing food insecurity, 55.6 per cent of Southeast Asians chose increasing domestic food production (Figure 2). The instinct to rely on domestic food production is not surprising; many ASEAN member states (AMS) consume a large proportion of locally produced food and value self-sufficiency. In 2018, only Thailand and Vietnam exported a significant amount of rice relative to domestic production, while Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar exported small or negligible amounts.
Yet, when considering climate threats, increasing production under business-as-usual practices is no longer adequate. To truly strengthen food security, resilience of agricultural systems should be enhanced to withstand extreme weather and rising sea levels while mitigating emissions and biodiversity loss.
Keeping Production Closer to Home?
Strengthening domestic agriculture for climate adaptation
Major producers like Indonesia, the Philippines and the Mekong countries are aware of the importance of not just increasing productivity but adapting to climatic impacts on agriculture. Responses include alternative cultivation methods or modified cropping schedules to withstand drought and flooding. At the ASEAN level, the ASEAN-Climate Resilience Network (ASEAN-CRN) promotes sharing of expertise on climate-smart agriculture (CSA). This is defined as agriculture that sustainably enhances productivity, reduces emissions where possible and elevates food security.
Import-reliant Brunei and Singapore are also taking steps to boost local production. Brunei has achieved relative self-sufficiency in poultry and has prepared an industry roadmap to increase production in agriculture and fisheries by promoting investment and technology. Singapore aims to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs from local production by 2030.
But even as countries strengthen their agricultural sectors for domestic consumption, the importance of intra-ASEAN food trade cannot be ignored, as total self-sufficiency may not be feasible. This is especially true for Brunei and Singapore, given their limited land area. But even for major producers, a significant portion of their food supply is imported. Around 50 per cent of coffee and sugar imports in ASEAN comes from countries in the region, and over 50 over cent of exported dairy products go to fellow member states. For rice, even Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar, which are not currently heavily reliant on imports, may be pushed to import more when local production is disrupted by extreme weather. This will increase their dependence on other climate-vulnerable producers, especially Thailand and Vietnam. It follows that climate adaptation in agriculture is not just a national concern, but a regional one that requires mutual support among AMS.
Even as countries strengthen their agricultural sectors for domestic consumption, the importance of intra-ASEAN food trade cannot be ignored… climate adaptation in agriculture is not just a national concern, but a regional one that requires mutual support among AMS.
A shared stake in ASEAN’s agricultural climate resilience
Small-and-medium scale farmers take risks to experiment with sustainability and CSA. They are key to food security and need support as they navigate technical and financial setbacks while transitioning. Hence, countries should promote the production, trade and consumption of sustainable agrifood products domestically and regionally.
To support CSA production, well-informed investments and government support are critical. For instance, large-scale agribusiness investments which integrate smallholders can help raise incomes and stabilise food security for urban populations. Investors in the region can explore promising CSA practices and technologies that account for climate risks. For example, the World Bank’s CSA profiles for Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam identify commodity-specific climate risks, potential CSA practices, technologies and financing opportunities. These profiles also recommend that governments improve smallholders’ access to investors, and tap into international climate finance and public-private partnerships which may be underutilised.
Additionally, investor countries can coordinate with source countries on investment projects, following the UNCTAD Investment Policy Framework for Sustainable Development to include provisions such as incentives or targeted coverage of sustainable investments. Investors can also anticipate more guidance from the evolving ASEAN Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance’s agreed definitions and classifications of sustainable economic activities. Its forthcoming assessment of agriculture sectors in the Plus Standard Framework should incorporate existing guidelines on responsible agricultural investment, including respecting land tenure rights, indigenous communities and gender equity, while acknowledging CSA’s role in climate mitigation and adaptation.
To help farmers expand further, AMS can promote trade in CSA products by developing diverse market channels at a regional scale, which would provide premium or fair prices to farmers. ASEAN countries can also develop partnerships with sustainable farming groups delivering pre-payment or technical assistance. AMS can also consider jointly adopting climate-related food labels and assisting farmers in obtaining certifications, allowing them to take advantage of growing demand for sustainable products. AMS are already cooperating on ASEAN Tuna Eco-Labelling, the first-ever regional seafood eco-label.
The climate crisis and food insecurity are common threats to all. As regional governments and investors seek to strengthen food security and identify climate investment opportunities, they should put added emphasis on engaging climate resilient producers in vulnerable source countries.
Qiu Jiahui is Research Officer at the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and concurrent Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre and Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also editor of Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans.