Even before the recent rice price rises, Southeast Asians have been experiencing food insecurity and had growing concerns about climate impacts on food security. The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s recent Climate Outlook Survey 2023 provides a snapshot of the scale of this concern.
According to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Climate Outlook Survey 2023 (SEACO2023) results, Southeast Asians are increasingly worried about the impacts of climate change on long-term food security. The survey was conducted from July to early August, after the sweltering heat waves in May and June but before rice prices started soaring by 20-30 per cent as a result of disaster-related declines in production and India’s ban of non-Basmati rice exports.
When asked the question, “How concerned are you about climate change impacts on food availability and affordability in the next 3 years?”, 7 in 10 Southeast Asians were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned (Figure 1).
Respondents from the Philippines expressed these sentiments most strongly — more than half are “very concerned”, and another 33.2 per cent indicated “somewhat concerned”. This may be due to experiences with increasingly frequent and devastating storms. By some accounts, the Philippines ranks the highest in disaster risk globally (Figure 2). Indonesia and Myanmar are also in the top 6 countries in the world with the highest disaster risks; however, only around 30 and 19 per cent of Indonesian and Myanmar respondents indicated that they were “very concerned” about climate impacts on food availability and affordability in the next 3 years. This could indicate an optimism that climate change will not significantly deteriorate in the next three years or that resilience will increase in the face of challenges. It is also plausible that people do not associate climate impacts with food supply.
Figure 1. The level of concern toward the effects of climate change on food varies by country
Figure 2. Top 6 countries in the world with highest disaster risk score
Females were more likely to be “very concerned” (26.3 per cent vs. 23 per cent of males) and those with higher education (bachelor’s degree and above) seemed to have greater concerns compared to those with lower education attainment (Figure 3). Interestingly, those in Government and Civil Society/ Non-government sectors were also the two largest groups to be “very concerned” about climate change impacts on food in the next three years, while students and media seemed to be the least concerned. This may be because Government and civil society/ non-government organisations have access to more data and view the problem more seriously.
Figure 3. Concern about climate impacts on food availability and affordability vary by level of education and occupational affiliation
Beyond the public outlook of future food supplies, SEACO2023 also investigated Southeast Asians’ experience of food insecurity. About 14 per cent of respondents already face considerable food insecurity, with 3.3 per cent indicating they experience this “all the time” and 10.7 per cent indicating “frequently” (Figure 4). This is consistent with findings by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that approximately 16.4 per cent of Southeast Asians experience moderate or severe food insecurity in the total population between 2020-2022 — an increase from the reported 14.7 per cent in the same category in 2014-2016.
Figure 4. A considerable share of Southeast Asians live with food insecurity
Cambodia and Laos record the highest proportion of respondents facing considerable food insecurity, with 15.2 per cent experiencing this “all the time” and 9.5 per cent “frequently”. Both countries have among the lowest GDP per capita in the region. These results are lower than FAO findings that 51.1 and 34.1 per cent of their populations, respectively, have moderate or severe food insecurity. Conditions may have improved in 2023 compared to previous years, after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted. Based on the SEACO2023 results, the countries showing the least concern for food security were Vietnam (56.1 per cent), Singapore (51.6 per cent) and Indonesia (44.7 per cent). This may be due to domestic sufficiency of food supply, or in Singapore’s case, high purchasing power.
Respondents attributed the main cause of their personal food insecurity experience to rising food prices (34.7 per cent) and climate change (25.6 per cent) (Figure 5). Frequent reporting of price inflation as a result of COVID-19 supply disruptions or the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have contributed to these survey responses. Notably, food insecurity is also linked to poor government policy and lack of agriculture investment, suggesting that Southeast Asians see significant room for policy improvement and investment in infrastructure, mechanisation and better quality inputs.
Figure 5. Main causes of food insecurity: Rising prices, climate change and policy deficiencies
Indonesians regard climate change as the main cause of food insecurity (36.9 per cent). Nearly half of Bruneians attributed their food insecurity to rising food prices, perhaps because 90 per cent of their food is imported and few may link the reasons behind the price hikes. Myanmar attributed food insecurity mainly to poor government policy, perhaps due to the ongoing political strife. Philippine respondents’ second most popular choice was lack of agricultural investment, although this may change as the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, concurrently holds the secretary of agriculture role.
As for the relative effects of different climate crises on food insecurity, floods, droughts, and heat waves loom largest among survey respondents (Figure 6). Ocean warming seems to be less of a concern, perhaps reflecting a lack of awareness of the link between climate change and declining fisheries in Southeast Asia. With the exception of Vietnam, there also seems to be low awareness of the adverse effects of sea level rise on farmland and food production.
When asked the question, “How concerned are you about climate change impacts on food availability and affordability in the next 3 years?”, 7 in 10 Southeast Asians were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned.
Figure 6. Perceptions of climate crisis effects on food availability
Southeast Asians will likely see even greater food insecurity in 2024, as a result of the El Nino phenomenon exacerbated by climate change. Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and others have already forecasted lower precipitation, drought conditions and wildfires from end-2023 to April 2024, which will affect numerous crops and livestock yields.
Long-term agriculture and food sector transformation is needed to become more climate resilient —by growing drought-tolerant, flood-tolerant, saline-tolerant crops, and improving supply chain infrastructure. Concurrently, Southeast Asia needs to decarbonise; 8 of the 10 ASEAN member states have set net-zero targets, but these seem misaligned with growth targets and projected energy demand, and lacking in concrete decarbonising implementation plans. Establishing viable carbon offsets may help with mitigation, and Southeast Asia is well placed to benefit from this; many nature-based solutions, such as mangroves, seaweed culture, carbon farming and agroforestry, also contribute to food security.
It is hoped that the results of this survey will lead to more comprehensive action and investment in agriculture and food to ease food insecurity for Southeast Asians. Reactive policies such as trade bans, stock management and price controls may work in the short term, but only through multi-year investment in climate-resilient agriculture can long-term food security be sustained.
Elyssa Kaur Ludher is Visiting Fellow with the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. Prior to joining, Ms Ludher contributed to food policy research at the World Bank, Centre for Liveable Cities Singapore, and the Singapore Food Agency.