Southeast Asian governments must be on guard against worsening food security in the region, lest its effects complicate post-pandemic recovery and exacerbate existing inequalities.
We are living in strange times. While a small minority enjoys material abundance and looks forward to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and space tourism, a much larger proportion of the global population faces hunger and food insecurity. Due to climate change, the socioeconomic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and various conflicts, the world is doing worse than ever before in terms of hunger eradication. Around 10 per cent of the global population – about 768 million people – faced hunger and undernourishment in 2020. Over 750,000 people are expected to face starvation and death in 2022. Based on current trends, the world will fall far short of Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2), which aims to achieve ‘zero hunger’ by 2030.
In Southeast Asia, 7.3 per cent of the region’s population was undernourished while 18.8 per cent faced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2020. As of 2020, 27.4 per cent of Southeast Asia’s children under the age of five – most of them from poor families and rural areas – suffered from stunted growth. A recent report has suggested that significant progress has been made in ASEAN member states to address food insecurity and malnutrition in the past few years, but more targeted investments and the scaling-up of nutrition programmes are needed if ASEAN is to meet the SDG2 and 2025 global nutrition targets.
Food security encompasses more than just the quantity of food available – its definition also includes people’s ability to purchase adequate amounts of nutritious food and whether they can do so consistently. In Southeast Asia, the pandemic and war in Ukraine has seriously disrupted food supply chains, which contributed to higher prices. Such disruptions include reductions in the labour supply due to travel restrictions, although these are starting to ease up, and interruptions in agri-food transportation. Moreover, almost three-quarters of ASEAN households experienced income reductions due to the pandemic. All this has adversely affected people’s ability to purchase adequate food.
Southeast Asia’s poorest have been the most buffeted by these headwinds. Ironically, in Thailand – a country that has promoted itself as the “Kitchen of the World” – almost 30 per cent of Thais experienced moderate or severe food insecurity between 2018 and 2020, compared to around 15 per cent between 2014 and 2016. There is also evidence that food price inflation and income reductions have forced many low-income households in countries such as Laos, Malaysia and Cambodia to consume cheaper but less nutritious food in recent years.
Southeast Asian policymakers should strengthen their efforts to further prepare for the effects of climate change on food security.
Attempts to tackle hunger and malnutrition in Southeast Asia are further complicated by the effects of climate change, which interact with and amplify other major drivers of food insecurity like conflicts, economic downturns, poverty and inequality. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) has suggested, using projections with high statistical confidence, that climate change will cause a reduction in food supply and higher prices, which will undermine food security in South and Southeast Asia. One estimate suggests that rice yield in Southeast Asia might decline by up to 50 per cent due to floods, droughts and heat stress. Rice plantations in river delta areas will also be harshly affected by increased water salinity from higher sea levels.
The effects of climate change on food security go beyond reductions in the supply of staple food grains, such as rice. Extreme weather patterns, for example, will likely hinder people’s ability to obtain food in a steady manner, such as by disrupting transport routes. Notably, many people in ASEAN rely on agriculture and fisheries for their livelihoods. Climate change’s adverse effects on agricultural productivity and fish stocks may reduce these individuals’ incomes and ability to purchase adequate food. Climate change is also likely to reduce the production and supply of nutritious food even further, which is highly problematic because the availability of nutritious food in ASEAN’s food supply (that is, fruits, vegetables and various sources of protein) is already quite limited. Nutrient-rich foods are relatively costly. One study suggested that, in 2020, some 46 per cent of ASEAN’s population could not afford a healthy diet. Throughout the 2010s, ASEAN’s population relied heavily on carbohydrates such as rice and approximately 24 per cent received inadequate amounts of key vitamins and minerals, which adversely affected their cognitive abilities and life opportunities.
It is a good sign that ASEAN has established the regional Integrated Food Security (ASIFS) Framework and its member states have adopted the Declaration on Ending All Forms of Malnutrition in 2017. Southeast Asian policymakers should strengthen their efforts to further prepare for the effects of climate change on food security. It is important that Southeast Asian governments firmly respect and protect their citizens’ right to adequate food, taking into consideration the importance of trade and food needs in other countries. In particular, governments should note that higher food prices will disproportionately reduce the purchasing power of low-income and poor households, and that this would increase the risks of hunger and malnutrition. Not only is protecting food security the right thing to do, ethically speaking, but it is also economically rational: adequate food is essential to human development and human development benefits the economy and everyone in society.
Prapimphan Chiengkul is Visiting Fellow with the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.