FIA had the opportunity to catch up with food security expert Paul Teng, Senior Fellow (Food Security) at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) before the upcoming International Conference on Asian Food Security 2014 - Towards Asia 2025: Policy and Technology Imperatives.

FIA: What are the key food security challenges that ASEAN countries are facing?
Professor Teng:
Every ASEAN country has a unique set of challenges. There are some over-riding trends which influence all countries, for instance: growing populations are fuelling an increased demand for food; standards of living are improving; and the rising middle class is seeking richer, exotic food items. However, overall performance of agriculture production is declining and climate change is causing unpredictable weather conditions that can reduce the amount of food produced.

Because food security comprises multiple dimensions – availability, physical access, economic access, utilisation and stability, countries vary in their robustness towards each aspect. Food availability is predominantly through domestic-production but all countries rely on imported food to feed their growing populations. This means that seemingly distant (geographically) events still have significant impacts in ASEAN. One example was the drought in North America in 2012 which reduced production of soybean and corn, two important animal feed components. This led to increases in the prices of poultry in ASEAN.

In addition, importation is an established channel to make food available, and this means any rise in fuel prices will further challenge ASEAN government efforts at maintaining low Consumer Price Indexes attributable to the food basket.

In two international food security indexing exercises, ASEAN countries, with the exception of Singapore, have fared poorly in terms of food security when measured using multiple criteria beyond production. Singapore was ranked 16th globally and 1st in Asia for food security by the Economist Intelligence Unit in its Global Food Security Index of July 2013 – mainly due to financial ability to purchase and import food.

FIA: Do you think that the ASEAN Economic Community will be a catalyst for greater regional cooperation in food security?
Professor Teng:
The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) aims to build a single market and production base; a highly competitive economic region; a region of equitable economic development; and a region fully integrated into the global economy from 2015 onwards. The building of the AEC will involve integrating 12 priority sectors, including agriculture and fisheries, to create multiple forward and backward linkages for industries in ASEAN, and to transform the region into an economically integrated market. Food security will be one of the beneficiaries of this more integrated total market with increased flow of commodities, people, investment and technology.

Improvements in trade facilitation under the AEC through initiatives to promote physical, institutional and people-to-people connectivity are expected to enhance the region’s economic and physical access to food, and lead to greater and more diversified regional trade. However, this assumes that barriers such as trade protectionism and lack of product specialisation in the region, are addressed and solutions found. But it can be expected that as ASEAN moves towards an integrated community food security will become a more integral part of the ASEAN community building agenda and will be given more attention than in the AEC Blueprint.

It is worth pointing out that six ASEAN countries, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Myanmar, rank among the world’s top three exporters of several key food commodities. In addition countries like Singapore and Thailand are leaders in food processing. ASEAN has real strength in agricultural production that it doesn’t always leverage enough.

FIA: What are your thoughts on the move by some ASEAN countries towards self-sufficiency in food?
Professor Teng:
ASEAN countries need to avoid any protectionist policies which reduce overall food availability for trade. National food self-sufficiency policies often work against ASEAN-wide efforts to ensure regional food security, especially when it comes to sensitive items such as rice1. Food self-sufficiency implies meeting food needs, as far as possible, from domestic supplies and minimising dependence on international trade. Food self-reliance on the other hand, advocates reliance on the international market to make food available in the domestic market. It implies maintaining some level of domestic food production supplemented by imports from the world market as needed; hence international trade is an essential component. Self-sufficiency doesn’t make economic sense if it is cheaper to import food from abroad.

Finally, financial and natural resources needed to reach a point of self-sufficiency may be better allocated elsewhere, but this of course depends on a favorable trade environment and respect for the rules which govern trade.

FIA: Tell us about ICAFS and what your objectives are in hosting the conference.
Professor Teng:
Food security remains a major matter of concern in the regional and global agenda. In light of prevailing and foreseeable trends that have direct consequences for the region’s food security, the second International Conference on Asian Food Security (ICAFS) organised by the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies will focus strongly on Asia’s response to ensure food security towards the thinking horizon of 2025, ten years after the AEC2015.

Specifically, ICAFS2014 seeks to suggest recommendations that contribute towards enhancing food security at the national and regional levels, and identify clear policy directions and interventions to guide efforts towards food security; to provide concrete and actionable policy recommendations attuned to the new realities of food security challenges as Asia approaches 2025; and finally to identify ways in which Asia could position itself to maximise the full benefits of its connectivity and build on its comparative advantage within and vis-à-vis other regions.

ICAFS2014 will be a key forum to meet and discuss the issues and drivers of Asian food security with leading government policy, business and development experts from the Asian Development Bank, the International Food Policy Research Institute, Syngenta, the Indonesian Food Security Agency, Indian and Chinese food experts, and many others.

This conference is a “must” for all involved with planning, designing and developing policies and strategies to cope with the changing Asian agri-food landscape. ICAFS is aimed at all those with leadership responsibilities to understand and address these changes. It will be especially useful for government leaders, agri-food industry experts, civil societies and NGOs, members of academia, and representatives of investment entities.

FIA: How do you think the food industry can best contribute to ICAFS?
Professor Teng:
The food industry is an important player in the overall food security ecosystem. Of the four dimensions of food security, “food utilization” is largely influenced by the food industry with respect to food quality, nutrition and food safety. These aspects are paid more attention by the urban and affluent consumer than the poor rural one. At ICAFS we have a speaker who will focus on linking nutrition security to the bigger picture of food security and discuss how the food industry can contribute to this.

Additionally, the industry is largely responsible for ensuring “physical access to food” in terms of the supply chain and logistics. So reducing losses and waste in the transport and retail sectors is an area which the food industry can provide valuable inputs to improve policy and make suggestions for R&D to public and private entities.

ICAFS can benefit from having food industry personnel participate to share their expertise and perspectives on the way forward to ensure nutrition and food safety are strongly factored into national and regional initiatives on food security, and the role of the private sector is considered.


References:

1 Paul Teng and Maria C.S. Morales, ‘Food security robustness: A driver for enhanced regional cooperation?’ (RSIS Policy Brief, Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Feb 2013).


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