Asean countries threaten food security by not working closely enough

Although the economies of its members are likely to expand after the ASEAN Economic Community is put in place next year, ASEAN food security still remains at risk, a food security expert suggests.

"Once the AEC comes into place, a difficulty is that food security will become a national imperative. Many countries will try to maintain their own policies of food self-sufficiency.

"Such a policy would not support regional corporations very well," Paul Teng - one of Asia's leading food-security experts - told The Nation.

Teng is also a senior fellow for Food Security at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore.

He added that the AEC was forecast to increase connectivity among countries. Surely, this meant every country should work much closer together. But now it's not happening enough in terms of cooperation on food security.

Back in 2009, regional countries adopted the ASEAN Integrated Food Security (AIFS) framework to advance cooperation among members and work towards long-term security.

However, the strategies under this framework have not resulted in action.

Teng explained that among those strategies, the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR) agreement seemed to be a good initiative that remains effective. This cooperation was reached by ASEAN members and Japan, China and South Korea in attempting to make rice available during emergencies, stabilise the price of rice, and improve farmers' income and welfare, and ultimately improve food security without distorting the international rice market.

"Even if the rice reserve under this agreement appears to be high - about 700,000 tonnes - the ASEAN member countries have pledged a total of 87,000 tonnes only. It's too small an amount," he said.

According to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture, in terms of imports of four key commodities between 2011 and 2012 into ASEAN countries, many countries are reliant on imports of wheat, rice, corn and soybean - both for animal feed and human consumption.

Of ASEAN's total consumption, imports of corn for poultry and fishery in Malaysia accounted for 45.3 per cent.

Meanwhile, import of wheat for human consumption in Thailand accounted for 14 per cent of the total region, while import of soybean for animal feed was quite high at 33.6 per cent of total ASEAN consumption.

More important, those commodities were imported from outside the region, while intra-regional trade was still very low.

Teng suggested that despite implementation of the AEC, countries might rely on non-tariff barriers to counter domestic pressure. Such measures would have an impact on the regional cooperation on food security.

"AEC [could] bring about greater benefits for economic connectivity, flow of investment into the region and food security. In the worst-case scenario, prices could be pushed up higher than [their] original [levels], leading to food price crises and civil disobedience," he warned.

In the case of Thailand, though the government faced difficulties with its rice-pledging scheme, the country was staying competitive in its production of rice, vegetables, fruits and seafood.

The food-security expert suggested that the government should let the private sector take the lead in production, processing and export.

"The experience is that governments do poorly when they try to become entrepreneurs and participate in the food supply chain from input supplier, farmer, processor, distributor to retailers," he said.