The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread disruption in Southeast Asia, in terms of the number of deaths, the livelihoods lost, and the major interruptions to supply chains. Moreover, the recent rise in inflation, which has resulted in higher food prices, has severely eroded the purchasing power of households. This has raised questions about the region’s food security, which up until recently, was primarily the domain of the NGO community, regional organizations, the United Nations, and individual states. A core element of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), food security, now looms as a priority for Southeast Asia, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.
COVID-19 unfortunately stopped any progress made in addressing key food security challenges, like climate change and crop productivity, and exposed previously unknown vulnerabilities, while placing a serious strain on food supply chains. Now, before the pandemic subsides, food security, an issue that has always been on the back burner, must be moved to the front. For Southeast Asian states, which have always been seen as food insecure, and are also highly vulnerable to climate change, there are a number of actions that must be addressed immediately.
According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), domestic food production in Indonesia has consistently failed to keep up with a growing population, yet the pandemic reduced vital food imports. COVID-19 has similarly disrupted domestic production and distribution, resulting in deficits in key staples such as rice, eggs, and sugar. In Thailand, a drought in 2020 lowered sugar yields, which caused production to fall dramatically, while the onset of COVID-19 reduced demand. The result was a 19 percent decline in Thai sugar exports in 2020, although the market is now recovering.
Refined sugar is shipped in containers. But COVID-19 created logistics concerns over warehousing, port congestion, and increased freight costs. These challenges are not limited to Thailand but are replicated throughout the region. In addressing disruptions to food supplies beyond the pandemic, facilitating the free flow of goods is vital, as is ensuring an adequate labor supply and better management of border controls.
Currently, sustainable agricultural production in Southeast Asia is dependent on a stable supply of migrant labor. Governments in the region need to prioritize, rather than marginalize, migrant farm laborers in order to prevent food insecurity. During the pandemic, the supply of migrant workers was compromised as countries tightened border controls. Thailand experienced a food export shortage directly related to a migrant labor shortage. Prior to the pandemic, Thailand was home to more than 3 million migrants, mostly from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Addressing marginalization could protect workers trapped by future border restrictions or conflict-related humanitarian crises.
Workers in the Thai agricultural sector are faced with below-standard pay and are faced with labor conditions that violate human rights. Their lack of legal status creates fear and insecurity, and prevents them from a accessing key services. It is critical that ASEAN countries protect migrant workers when they seek work abroad. When migrant workers do return home – and many have as a result of COVID-19 – there is often little opportunity for them. To address the issue, Cambodia has encouraged its own migrants to return home to start small-scale farming, offering $40 in temporary monthly pay. The problem, however, is two-fold. Many families depend on the remittances that migrant farm workers send back home and countries like Cambodia cannot absorb the return of so many migrant workers at once.
ASEAN countries must also better understand the “security” component of food security. Southeast Asia, with a population of more than 675 million, is a large, interconnected set of economies worth over $3 trillion, each of which face persistent challenges due to climate change. Since July, more than 12 billion cubic meters of water have been withheld by 45 upstream dams. For Cambodia, which is already is made vulnerable by extreme drought, this is an issue it cannot ignore.
Climate change has caused water levels to drop so dramatically that saltwater intrusion from the South China Sea is advancing in the Mekong Delta, causing damage to groundwater and rice paddies almost 100 kilometers inland. While China several years back took some steps to release water to relieve downstream pressures, more recently it has decided to hold onto more water from upstream. This should, under ordinary circumstances, put Phnom Penh at odds with China, like its other Southeast Asian neighbors. Water scarcity dramatically impacts foreign policy, as over 60 million people in the lower part of the Mekong depend on the river for their livelihoods and for farming.
The unexpected side effects of food insecurity can also result in food nationalism. During the pandemic, Vietnam, the world’s third-largest rice exporter, suspended rice export contracts as it determined whether it had a sufficient domestic supply. China has been hoarding grain. Over the past five years, China’s soybean, maize, and wheat imports dramatically increased with aggressive purchases from the U.S., Brazil, and other nations, contributing to higher food prices worldwide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that China will have 69 percent of the world’s maize reserves in the first half of 2022, as well as 60 percent of rice. While this may be evidence of self-sufficiency, the near term effects are negative if China restricts food exports. These actions also telegraph potentially dangerous starve-thy-neighbor policies which would be horrific for the region.
One lesson of the many lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that transparency, accountability, trustworthiness and confidence-building messaging are all vital in reassuring positive and proactive responses. Going forward, responsible food security policies are essential. Little imagination is needed to see repeats of long food queues, panic buying, hoarding, and violence in Southeast Asia if food insecurity is not addressed.
Southeast Asia is reliant on and vulnerable to complex international food supply chains. The consequences of a food security crisis are very real, and as the pandemic weakens and as societies return to a semblance of normalcy, the region must adopt a new food security paradigm that can absorb and be resilient to both internal and external disruptions. Southeast Asia, because of its exposed vulnerabilities, must better understand the security-related aspects of food security and climate change, while creating conditions that can better harness the productivity of farmers, protect vital migrant labor, increase crop yields, keep borders open, and ensure the sustainability of food.