Last month saw the release of the 2012-13 Rice Bowl Index: Achieving Food Security Robustness report. The report, which was authored by the Rice Bowl Index Advisory Board, notes the need for countries to shift their focus from food self-sufficiency to ‘food security robustness’ to make safe, high quality food available for Asia’s fast growing populations.

Following the release of the Rice Bowl Index report, the FIA Secretariat had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Ramon Clarete, Chairman of the Rice Bowl Index Advisory Board, and Dean, University of the Philippines School of Economics. During the conversation, he shared his insights on the impact the region’s policy and trade environment on its ability to feed fast-growing populations across ASEAN.

FIA: The recent Rice Bowl Index highlighted that the debate on food security needs to shift from food self-sufficiency to food security robustness. What is “food security robustness”?
Dr. Clarete:
Food security robustness is achieved when there is a balance between the demand and supply of food at internationally competitive prices; when people have access to safe and nutritious food; when the necessary infrastructure is provided to farmers; and the environmental prerequisites exist for long-term sustainability.

The right balance of these elements is essential in achieving sustainable systems that are able to withstand internal and external challenges and lead to long term food security and stability.

FIA: You say in the report that countries need to move away from self sufficiency. Why is self sufficiency not the answer to food security?
Dr. Clarete:
Self-sufficiency goals can have a negative impact on long-term food security by limiting a country’s ability to provide sufficient, high quality food products to its population at affordable prices. When implemented in the extreme, it would mean that there are no imports at all of the designated self-sufficiency food items.

These policies are difficult to justify on economic grounds, with local production of non-native foods often being significantly more expensive for a country than importing these foods from export-oriented countries. They also can lead to a lack of supply across core commodity groups with local producers not being able to keep up with local demand.

FIA: How does the policy and trade environment impact food security robustness?
Dr. Clarete:
The policy and trade environment of a country is a significant factor in ensuring the food security robustness of a country, as food security is dependent on trade to supplement locally-produced food supplies.

Archipelagic countries in ASEAN do not have adequate water and land resources required to efficiently produce enough food to meet demand. Intra-regional trade is therefore critical in enabling the region to provide a range of high quality food products to fast-growing populations.

However, many countries in the region are focused on implementing self-sufficiency measures as ‘insurance programmes’ to ensure they can provide for their populations, regardless of the external circumstances. Such measures impede intra-regional trade and ultimately, the country’s food security robustness, by adding cost and complexity to the food production process. For example, in my home country – the Philippines – estimates suggest the amount spent on growing enough rice to meet our self-sufficiency target in six years till 2016 is 50 billion pesos in excess of what it would cost us to buy this from rice-exporting countries such as Thailand or Vietnam.

This ultimately takes resource away from other areas, impacting a country’s ability to produce more food, more efficiently. As countries become more open to trade, they will be able to further utilise their natural advantages by focusing on growing food that suits the climate and resources available within the country for both local consumption, and export.

FIA: How does ASEAN achieve a greater level of food security robustness?
Dr. Clarete:
In ASEAN, measures are already underway to develop a more open single market and production base through the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Measures outlined in the AEC Blueprint seek to harmonise and streamline product standards to allow for the easier movement of food between countries in the region. This will ensure that countries are supplementing local production with food that is more easily imported from their ASEAN neighbours. However, ASEAN needs to explore ways how rice, currently a sensitive product with relatively high trade protection, can be increasingly traded regionally.

This type of collaboration between nations is essential in helping to achieve long-term, sustainable food security robustness as it allows countries to work together to produce more food, more efficiently which is becoming increasingly critical as populations continue to expand.

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