The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Australia’s Role in Southeast Asia’s Future Food Security: Bowl or Spoon?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on October 7, 2011

One of the greatest challenges facing Southeast Asia in coming decades is the prospect of adequately feeding its population, which is expected to grow by 11% by 2050. Already, 60% of the world’s malnourished reside in Asia. Population growth coupled with urbanisation, income growth and climate change, means that securing adequate and affordable food for the region in coming decades will be a challenging task. What role, then, might nearby Australia play in the future of Southeast Asia’s food security?

Australia engages with the region in food security in three main capacities: through the export of food, aid and development programs, and innovations in research and development. Australia is gradually increasing imports from ASEAN and Southeast Asian investors such as Singapore’s Wilmar and Olam are taking significant stakes in Australian agribusinesses and land.

Its reputation as a reliable and advanced agricultural producer lends the vision of Australia playing an increasingly significant role as a food source for Asia. Efforts toward freer trade in the region are further encouraging. Competition for land and water does pose significant challenges for Australia’s agricultural sector, as does the threat of climate change to the country’s fragile environmental state. There is certainly potential for an increase in Australia’s sauntering agricultural productivity growth rate in spite of these challenges, but even a significant increase would only have a relatively minor (albeit important) impact on Southeast Asia’s growing food demands. With food exports contributing just 3% to the world’s total, Australia’s output represents just a fraction of the global movement of food. Australia provides for its own 22 million-strong population and by exporting 50% of its food produced, has the current capacity to feed an additional 40 million people.

It is therefore argued that Australia’s greatest contribution to global food security will be in the form of technical expertise. Despite decades-long underinvestment dampening its research and development (R&D) potential, Australia has developed sophisticated agricultural expertise and technology, much of which has been applied to Southeast Asia’s agricultural sector via development programs, research partnerships and the private sector. Research strengths include low-input agriculture, production in challenging environmental circumstances and climate change adaptation. Somewhat surprisingly, the level of investment in Australia agricultural R&D is amongst the lowest of all OECD countries. Due to the current structure of the industry, an estimated 60% of research funding for agriculture in Australia is derived from the public sector, with just 16% coming from private investment. This compares to the OECD average of 34% public and 39% private funding.

Taking firm measures to encourage investment in agricultural R&D should therefore be a priority, and the current timing is ideal for a boost in agricultural sector investment more broadly in view of potential gains from high food pricing. Given the success of Australia’s agricultural research to date in spite of limited support and funds outside the public sector, there is clearly potential for Australia to have a more significant impact on Southeast Asia’s food security in future should the country’s R&D potential be realised.

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