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Expert calls for stronger policies to address food security in ASEAN region

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With the COVID-19 pandemic exposing how severely vulnerable the food and agricultural sector is to global disruptions, ASEAN policymakers must strengthen implementation of policies, regulations and pacts that promote food security in the region, according to experts.

The right implementation of policies, regulations, infrastructure programs, and logistics support is crucial to ensuring food security in Southeast Asia, stressed Paul Teng, dean at NIE International Pte. Ltd. and adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, both entities of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Food security is based on the premise that sufficient food—affordable, safe, and nutritious—can be produced and moved from the production source to the processing area or the consumer, added Teng.

To effectively address food security, Southeast Asia must also consider global or external factors as it works towards achieving the four pillars of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability, according to Risti Permani, senior lecturer in agribusiness at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Ramon Clarete, an economics professor at the University of the Philippines, highlighted how the Philippines has seen the weakened tradability of its agriculture and food sector. Low productivity and high population growth have pressured the country to turn to food imports, including rice, making it vulnerable to international trade disruptions, he said.

The three academicians gave their views in an e-forum on food security in post-pandemic ASEAN organized by the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

Food security has become a critical issue around the world. With rising inflation, supply chain disruptions, climate change, and conflicts, the cost of basic food products has skyrocketed by as much as 50% since the beginning of 2021. The added expense will push some people into poverty, with an estimated 118 million people having become chronically hungry since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the UN.

The three academicians gave several recommendations to address the escalating food insecurity issues in the ASEAN region and avert an emerging crisis.

Clarete said that to mitigate disruptions in the new normal, there is a need to improve trade, particularly of perishable goods, as the storage and delivery of these products that require cold chains and air shipments were severely impacted during the pandemic.

It is also necessary to improve the farm-to-retail process by organizing the local farmers through cooperatives. Southeast Asia’s farmers typically face exorbitant costs when attempting to sell their products directly to the market, forcing them to rely on middlemen, whose charges often exceed the actual farming cost, said Clarete.

Likewise important is for ASEAN leaders to encourage technology adoption among the region’s farming community, the academics said.

ASEAN’s e-commerce industry skyrocketed during the pandemic, which has presented opportunities in digital agriculture. The private sector is leading the way in technological innovation and has provided digital options that farmers can use to promote their crops to the market.

Government can support this digital transformation by providing a favorable environment through improving digital literacy, ensuring equitable internet access, and promoting innovation-oriented regulatory frameworks, the speakers said.

State leaders should also stimulate greater private sector involvement in food security initiatives by offering incentives, the experts urged. In particular, private companies can assist in addressing training, education, corporate social responsibility, and investment opportunities that governments may be unable to fulfill on their own.

And as a region, it is crucial for member states to engage in sharing of market information and insights. Through regional information exchange and cooperation, ASEAN can conduct a coordinated response to defuse potential shocks in the agri-food sector, the lecturers said.

Additionally, ASEAN should optimize the implementation of regional commitments. While the region has numerous agreements related to food security as well as trade, investment, connectivity, gender, and public-private partnerships, it falls short in the implementation phase, the experts added.

For instance, the impact of existing agreements on the harmonization of food standards has yet to fully transpire, Clarete said. The public sector should assess strategies to support the actualization of regional agreements while exploring incentives to attract private sector involvement in the rollout stage.

Finally, government and private sector must together play crucial roles in solving logistics-related matters. The academics suggest that ASEAN member countries examine best practices implemented by other countries and regions such as the US, Australia, and the European Union in overcoming logistical challenges at the height of COVID-19. These practices include contactless delivery, diversification of the supplier base, and formation of an integrated logistics services network with external parties.

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