Brunei Darussalam should be commended, as Chair of ASEAN 2013, for hosting the ASEAN Business & Investment Summit 2013 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Economic Ministers meeting this week. The private sector has an important role to play in ASEAN’s journey towards a single market and by co-hosting these public and private sector summits in parallel; Brunei has proactively created the space for a collective debate on how we can accelerate the goal to unlock the economic potential of this region.

The discussions occurring behind closed doors in both the public and private sector forums in Brunei this week will play a crucial role in our future as a region. ASEAN is emerging as one of the fastest growing regions in the world and is set to be the driving force behind economic growth in East Asia. It has a combined GDP exceeding USD 2 trillion that is projected to grow to USD 10 trillion by 2030, and around 600 million citizens. While diverse, the governments in these countries have quickly recognised the power of this region and are committed to sustainable, inclusive growth as a single economic market without comprising the sovereignty of each territory.

The challenge is whether ASEAN can do this in time to solidify the region and really harness the power of trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), currently under negotiation.

The private sector has an important role in helping to facilitate the acceleration of this journey. That’s why the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN BAC) was set up as the official channel for the private sector to input into the policy-making process, and why forums such as ASEAN BIS 2013 are so important for enhancing the overall attractiveness of ASEAN for investment and trade.

The food industry has an important contribution to make to this process, given the economic potential of the food industry in ASEAN. Over the next 15 years, the ASEAN population is expected to grow by 350 million people, most of whom will have greater purchasing power. That’s an extra 350 million mouths to feed with high quality food and beverage products. As the same time, agricultural production underpins several ASEAN economies - over 80% of the world’s smallhold farmers are in Asia and the sustainable sourcing of farm products enhances their livelihoods every day. The food and beverage industry also employs more than four million people in the region through over 300,000 companies, most of which are SMEs, along with creating employment for million more across its value chain from farm to fork. Success in the food industry means success for the region.

However today, the market size is a little over USD$200 million and growing at an underwhelming 7 – 9 %, despite significant demand. ASEAN food exports are valued at around USD60 billion or only 3.6% of all ASEAN trade, and of this, only 15% accounts for intra-ASEAN trade. Given the growing populations and emerging middle class, the food and beverage industry has far, far greater potential for economic growth.

So what are the barriers to growth? Unfortunately it is not easy to trade food products in the region in today’s environment. Regulations for food labelling, product registration and other essential processes vary considerably from country to country, hampering efforts to produce a single recipe for more than one market or to move shipments seamlessly across borders. If we could work with Governments to remove these barriers through the process of mutual recognition, it would open up export opportunities for ASEAN companies of all sizes, encouraging investment while also delivering a greater quality and choice of products to our population. In the European Union (EU), for example, the removal of 218 barriers to intra-trade propelled the European food industry to a market size of $1.2 trillion, accounting for 16% of total output. With the forecasted population growth in ASEAN, there is every reason to believe that ASEAN’s food and beverage industry can and will exceed these expectations.

As Chair of ASEAN 2013, Brunei Darussalam has brought two very important conversations together this week. As a proud supporter of the newly formed ASEAN Food & Beverage Alliance, I look forward to seeing the food industry can work with ASEAN policy makers to unlock the potential of ASEAN’s food industry for the benefit of our economic growth and prosperity.

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