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

The End of Cheap Rice: A call for social safety nets?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on August 30, 2013

Recently, the Overseas Development Institution (ODI)released a report on the situation of rice prices in the world market. Since 2000, rice prices have more than doubled and have risen by almost 120% in real terms. This steady increase in prices was caused by a myriad of factors. Policies by major exporting and importing countries contributed but the fundamental drivers are the increased cost of production inputs such as fertiliser, diesel and labour. It was highlighted in the report that the increase in rural wages was a crucial factor given that an estimated 1.3 billion of Asia’s poor and vulnerable people depended on rural labour for their livelihoods. In India, the rural labour force continues to grow 1.5 per cent, equivalent to 4 million workers per year. Similarly, Bangladesh experiences an increase of 1 million rural workers each year. 

In Asia, two of the largest producers of rice in the region – India and Thailand – have a combined stock of at least 48 million tonnes. In the case of Thailand, exporters are bearing the cost since their rice is more expensive in the world market. Similarly, consumers are affected by its increasing price. On the other hand, India recently implemented its Food Security Bill that seeks to decrease the number of its hungry and malnourished citizens. To date, it is the largest food assistance scheme implemented in terms of costs. The Thai and Indian cases are clear examples of the increasing costs in producing rise. With this, farmers may opt to produce other crops that are more cost efficient and profitable at the same time. Another implication of this situation is the migration of rural workers to areas or sectors where there are better paid jobs. This will further exacerbate the phenomenon of “greying farmers” in the region wherein there can be a possible labour shortage in agriculture in the future if the trend persists.

The situation is a challenge to the food security of Asian countries. Rice is an indispensable crop in the region since it is the main source of caloric intake for the region’s population. Given that the region’s population is increasing alongside with other demand drivers such as rapid urbanisation and improving incomes, governments need to think carefully of the policies they must implement to address their population’s food security concerns. The trend in the application of social safety nets (e.g. food aid, direct transfers) is a way to address this concern but requires efficient institutions and processes to support their implementation. On the other hand, social safety nets are risky in the sense that they are populist policies and are difficult to reverse in the future. In this case, governments must be clear about their policy objectives and the need for a strict timeline for implementation. The success of implementing such policies requires a huge investment on their part and on their capacity to make them work and benefit a wide range of stakeholders.


Too much rice in Asia can be damaging

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on August 7, 2013

In a recent article by The Wall Street Journal, it stated that “Asia is awash with rice. Such a statement contradicts the region’s status a few years ago when the global food price spikes occurred. During the 2007-2008 period, the rice supply was limited and disrupted by the implementation of export bans by major exporting countries such as India and Thailand. However, according to the International Grains Council, world rice stockpiles are expected to increase by 2 per cent this year. At the same time, favourable weather and government support to encourage increased production has resulted to a bumper crop. On the other hand, demand has weakened in major rice importing countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia. Currently, India and Thailand have 48 million tonnes (combined) of rice stockpiled in its warehouses.

This should be good news for consumers since an oversupply should lead to a decrease in the prices. Food prices may have decreased but they still remain high compared to their pre-2007 prices. The World Bank Food Price Watch has noted that the price of rice (Thai 5% broken rice) has sustained monthly decreases and stands 4 per cent below February levels. Despite this, most consumers are still not able to experience this positive change brought about by an oversupply of rice in the region. For instance, consumers in Thailand are still paying more for the rice in the market since the government does not want to sell the rice procured from farmers at a lower price. At the same time, hunger is still prevalent in rice exporting countries such as India and Pakistan. In the 2012 Global Hunger Index report, India and Pakistan has scores of 22.9 and 19.7, respectively. The former’s score is classified as alarming while the latter is serious.

The decline in rice prices also has serious implications for smallholder rice farmers. First and foremost, this implies a decrease in income. Diversifying to high value crops may take time and requires further investments on the part of the farmers. This is further exacerbated by the fact that access to credit and information to improve farming practices are limited. Chances of improving their productivity are slim. Second, an often neglected fact is that farmers are consumers too. The decline in income also leads to the reduced consumption of other goods and services such as education and health. Hence, the decline in prices may not be favourable for farmers as well since there are repercussions to their welfare.
The rising volume of rice stocks may be good for the attainment of food security in Asia. However, the issues of physical and economic access still prevail. This brings about a great balancing act for governments to take into consideration the plight of the smallholders and small farmers of rice and at the same time, make food economically accessible to consumers. The implementation of producer and consumer subsidies can be tempting for such situations but these require careful planning and targeting. Poorly targeted subsidies may not help the poor in the end and distort market prices and agricultural production. In the end, government may also incur an unhealthy fiscal bill. The current situation in the Asian region highlights the delicacy of both producers and consumers to government policies and interventions. It warrants a systematic approach that would cater to the welfare of both groups and not just “band-aid” solutions.

This blog post has been written by Maria Carmencita S. Morales. Maria Carmencita is an Associate Research Fellow at the RSIS Centre for Non–Traditional Security (NTS) Studies.

A ‘Win-Win’ Scenario for Land Deals

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on June 26, 2013

The increase in food staples prices in 2006 was followed by different measures and policies meant to stabilize prices and ensure the supply of food as seen through the different regions of the world. One controversial policy undertaken by food insecure or net food importing countries was ‘farmland acquisition’. This involves purchase of both the ownership and use rights through leases or concessions whether short or long term. Reasons for acquiring land consist of achieving a stable supply of food, the production of biofuels and forestry products and the increasing scarcity of natural resources. Land acquisitions attracted a lot of attention due to its implications on the food security of the host as well as the investing country and its impact on the livelihoods and welfare of small farmers. 

The issue resurfaced when the result of a year-long investigation by Global Witness was released last 13 May on the alleged involvement of a private bank and an international organisation in funding Vietnamese firms that are establishing a rubber plantations in  Laos and Cambodia. The study showed that the operations of these firms were causing widespread evictions, illegal logging and food insecurity. It is just one of the many cases that presents the costs attached to acquisition of agricultural land by foreign investors.

On paper, foreign investments in agriculture are expected to generate jobs and incomes and facilitate the transfer of knowledge and modern farming techniques to increase agricultural productivity. A recent report by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) asserts that there are benefits from such arrangements. Particularly, deals in Uganda and Senegal were the success stories where both parties benefitted. In these countries, foreign investors considered the farmers and local communities as “partners” in the implementation of the projects.

The rise in farmland acquisition has been contentious and complex since it is intertwined with other issues such as food security, property rights and to some extent, land reform. Most developing governments welcome foreign investments on their farmlands because of the potential socio-economic benefits and a solution to their struggling agricultural sectors. However, the real challenge for them is to create an effective policy framework that would maximise the benefits from the deal and lead to a sustained inclusive growth. At the same time, the objective of achieving food security should also be paramount. In particular, it should include the participation of inputs of the most vulnerable to the land deals – smallholder farmers and local communities.

An inclusive policy on farmland acquisitions can be implemented on the ground by both national and local governments. Specifically, the latter can play as a mediator between the smallholder farmers and foreign investors. Dialogues and consultations between both parties will not only increase transparency but also facilitate the exchange of information and knowledge. On a broader scope, national governments can act as a watchdog and ensure that the rights of the smallholder farmers and local communities are respected. An effective monitoring system is crucial for realising the benefits brought about by the investments. In this case, the ‘win-win’ scenario is largely hinged on the role of the policymakers.


This blog post has been written by Maria Carmencita S. Morales. Maria Carmencita is an Associate Research Fellow at the RSIS Centre for Non–Traditional Security (NTS) Studies.

Road Infrastructure and Food (In)Security in Indonesia

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on May 31, 2013

Physical access to food constitutes one of the four pillars of food security. Among the many factors that affect physical access to food, road infrastructure plays a critical role. High-performing road networks will enable effective transportation systems, and eventually lead to more cost-effective food supply chains, lower food prices and better guarantees of food availability for consumers.

In Indonesia, the lack of roads and poor road conditions in many rural areas are major drivers to food insecurity. Geographical isolation results in low farm gate prices and low income for small farmers. The difficulty in accessing these places also gives rise to high transportation costs for commodities coming in and going out and results in higher food prices in the markets.

Regardless of the fact that over 80% of villages in Indonesia are accessible by four-wheeled vehicles, road coverage and road quality outside the islands of Java and Bali are comparatively much worse. Road conditions in many rural areas are deplorable, and lack of commitment to road maintenance is one of the main contributing factors. The district governments that are in charge of rural roads reportedly gain more benefits from constructing new roads, leading to funding for construction but relatively little for maintenance. Current available funds for the latter are only 5.9% of what is needed to maintain road quality. Furthermore, the highly complex road construction financing system that involves central, provincial, and district governments opens the way for corrupt practices and fund misappropriation.

The considerable negative consequences that this condition has for food access and food security are exacerbated by frequent climate-related incidences in a number of rural spaces. Since the beginning of the year, Indonesia has been ravaged by more than 30 occurrences of landslides; many of which have resulted in road blockages. In January, landslide in Cicalengka paralysed commercial activities in five villages as road accesses were completely severed. In April in Wonosobo, landslides and poor road conditions effectively isolated one village and impeded emergency assistance efforts. The apparent vulnerability towards environmental changes clearly aggravates the existing food insecurity resulting from poor road infrastructure.

Considering the criticality of road access in ensuring food security, it is imperative for the government to perform a thorough review into the current road infrastructure arrangements. The problems associated with sub-standard road quality and meagre resources for road maintenance are compounded by changing climatic conditions. Climate change is altering precipitation and storm patterns in Indonesia in ways that lead to greater soil erosion, landslides and flooding in some impacted areas. Road planning, construction and maintenance strategies need to take these climate realities into consideration, which entails collaboration with climate experts and risk modellers. All such reviews, whether climate-related or not, will bring about difficult political decisions on strategic infrastructure planning, existing funding system, and corrupt practices at multiple governmental levels. 

As food commodities move across different parts of Indonesia, it is essential for food security coverage to be extended throughout the entire archipelago. To this end, efforts towards narrowing the gap in road infrastructure between places within and outside the islands of Java and Bali need to be carried out.

Road infrastructure is vital for food access, and securing the lines to food access is key to providing greater assurance for Indonesian food security.  

 This blog post has been written by Margareth Sembiring. She is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Non–Traditional Security (NTS) Studies in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Achieving Food Security along with Regional Integration

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on May 29, 2013

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is the ASEAN countries’ commitment to regional cooperation and integration. A Blueprint was adopted at the 13th ASEAN Summit on 20 November 2007. In particular, it aims for the free movement of goods, services, investment, labour and capital by 2015. Though largely focusing on enhanced intra-regional trade, there is little discussion on its impact on national objectives such as food security.

Despite the importance of food security at a regional level, it has been traditionally viewed as a national imperative. In the case of ASEAN, members are divided by the lines of food self-sufficiency and food self-reliance. Food self-sufficiency leans more in favour of the production of various food items by domestic producers while the latter considers trade as an important factor in supplying local demand. Given these two approaches, one of the challenges of the AEC is to aggregate the interests of its members and help them achieve their objectives.  

There has been a substantial achievement in the reduction of tariffs for the movement of goods but little else is known whether agricultural trade has increased in the past years. In 2009, agricultural exports of ASEAN countries only amounted to 10% of total exports while imports constituted only 6%. If agricultural trade was enhanced, what might be the potential impacts? First and foremost, its enhancement could facilitate economic growth to the creation of jobs and redistributes income especially to the poor. In the case of ASEAN, this is important since most of the member countries rely on the agricultural sector as a major contributor to their gross domestic product (GDP) and at the same time, it employs a large population of their workforce. Second, the agricultural sector can increase domestic supplies to meet the local demand. Third, it reduces overall supply variability.

Ultimately, the realization of the benefits of trade for food security depends on the policies and capacity of the member countries. There are costs and benefits to each policy action. However, benefits of regional cooperation can be maximised if complimented by national policies that are also attuned to regional objectives. This is due to the fact that national policies have repercussions at the regional level such as it has been in the case of the recent global food crisis. Similarly, other existing frameworks such as the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework, ASEAN Food Security Reserve and ASEAN Emergency Rice Reserve should be seen as complements to the AEC and not as independent. Hence, ASEAN leaders should keep in mind that the full implementation of the AEC does not only entail enhanced cooperation in regional integration but also as a means to attain food security.  

This blog post has been written by Maria Carmencita S. Morales. Maria Carmencita is an Associate Research Fellow at the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies.

The Passage of Indian National Food Security Bill: A Means to Winning 2014 Election?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on April 29, 2013

The much-debated Indian National Food Security Bill (NFSB) is set to be passed in the second part of the Budget Session of the Parliament Standing Committee in late April. Controversy surrounding the Bill has persisted since it was first tabled in December 2011. The NFSB is aimed at providing 5kg of wheat at Rs 3/kg, rice at Rs 2/kg, and millets at Rs 1/kg per person per month to 67% of Indian 1.24 billion population.

Critics have pointed out that the immense budget needed to implement the Bill would render it financially unviable. The existing inefficient distribution systems as observed in the ongoing food subsidy initiative Public Distribution System (PDS), and the less-than-satisfactory deliveries of other aid programs, such as the anganwadi schemes for mother and child, have drawn further scepticisms. Another source of consternation is the possibility of the government emerging as a major foodgrains buyer and price regulator. The legally binding nature of the Bill would compel the government to take necessary measures that may disrupt existing market mechanisms.

Amidst the contention, the Union Cabinet’s recent approval of the Bill and the full support from Prof K.V. Thomas, the Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, are remarkable. Prof Thomas expressed his confidence in the sustainability of the Bill by elaborating on India’s abundant foodgrains production and the prediction of an increase of yields in the coming years. He further cited the Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India (BGREI) as an anticipatory measure against rising number of population. While his statement provides certain degree of assurance on supply, it does not address the main criticisms, particularly on financial viability and distribution systems, directed towards the Bill. It is not surprising, therefore, that the imminent passage of the Bill has increasingly been seen as a mere politically-charged election-winning strategy.

Political factors indeed serve as one of the major driving forces behind the Bill. It is the flagship of the 2009 campaign promises of the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA). The Congress, headed by Sonia Gandhi, therefore has a big stake in the passage of the Bill. The initial political trepidation was evident in the proposed Act being passed back and forth between the government, the Congress leadership, and the National Advisory. More importantly, Sharad Pawar, the Agriculture Minister and the chairman of Nationalist Congress Party, has opposed the Bill. He argued that with only 34% of Indian population living Below the Poverty Line, the 67% of total population coverage is ill-targeted. Considering that the Bill is inextricably linked with agriculture, Pawar’s lack of support is certainly intriguing.

The passage of the Bill regardless of all the irregularities therefore is suggestive of ruling party’s populist pandering. While the Bill may prove to serve as a big vote-getter in the 2014 election, whether or not it would truly benefit the 217 million of Indian malnourished is less than clear. With the absence of a comprehensive strategy aimed at addressing the many potential pitfalls, the upcoming government would undoubtedly face enormous tasks in turning the Bill into reality. Should the Gandhi-led party continue to stay in power, the success or failure of the NFSB would be an important determinant to its fate in the subsequent election.

This blog post has been written by Margareth Sembiring. She is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Non–Traditional Security (NTS) Studies in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Asia, the Millennium Development Goals, and the post-2015 development agenda

As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) period draws to a close, the global community is reflecting on their outcomes and looking ahead to the post-2015 development agenda. Significant progress has been made on some of the eight MDGs since they were established in the year 2000, but this has been uneven geographically. For example, the World Bank estimated that the goal to halve the incidence of extreme poverty (MDG1) was achieved globally in 2010, but Sub-Saharan Africa has only made moderate progress towards this goal[1].

Assessing the outcomes of the MDGs has highlighted strengths and weaknesses of the goals themselves. In terms of its successes, the MDGs boldly strived to attain progress in a broad range of critical issue areas which were unevenly prioritised across the world. The goals were simplified so that they could be understood by the masses. Simultaneously, the MDGs provided a platform for comprehensive partnerships between a range of stakeholders including NGOs, companies and governments in countries in various stages of development.

Nonetheless, the MDGs were not without their shortcomings. A widely-held criticism is the lack of participation in the formation of the goals, which led to an agenda driven by the UN and donor countries. It was argued that some countries and regions were inherently disadvantaged by their capacity to respond to MDG priority areas and indeed measure their progress. The UN was also criticised for not adequately addressing climate change in the MDG targets.

Asia made significant progress in the area of poverty reduction, with remarkable success in industrialising countries such as China and India boosting the global average. Nonetheless, the region is still home to the largest proportion of world’s poor and fragile countries will still require substantial aid to progress in coming years. Progress towards the goal of eradicating hunger and malnutrition was less apparent and remains a major challenge. In terms of education, Asia made some progress in terms of the number of enrolments and the completion of schooling, but did not quite meet the target. The region is not on track to meet the target on child mortality, and there is significant room for improvements in terms of maternal health.

As the MDGs draw to a close and consultations for the post-2015 development agenda take place in 2013, Asian stakeholders should consider key factors to facilitate continued progress. Given the differing stages of development in the region, universal goals should allow for individual states to address their most pressing challenges within the broader issue areas. Asia’s worrying expansion of inequality in terms of income and access to public services needs to be accounted for in the region’s development agenda. Finally, sustainability goals in the post-2015 agenda will need to find a delicate balance in the need for resource consumption to pursue economic growth and protecting the Asia’s fragile environment.

[1] Note that Sub-Saharan Africa needed a growth rate 28 times its historical average during the MDG period to achieve the target of halving poverty.

ASEAN rice exporters cartel: against the grain of regional cooperation

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on October 10, 2012

The Thai-led proposal for five ASEAN countries to establish a regional rice exporters cartel is dividing the region’s rice sector stakeholders. Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos are expected to join Thailand in establishing an agreement by the end of 2012 to collectively increase rice export prices by 10 per cent annually. The group states that an increase in prices will benefit farmers and ensure the viability of the sector in Southeast Asia in the context of rising production costs and increasing competition from outside the region.

Many fear a conflict of interest with Southeast Asia’s rice importing countries, given that the cartel would likely solidify their role as rice ‘price-takers’. Thai domestic interventions to raise export prices indicate that the government believes it can drive up international rice prices on the basis of its rice quality and volumes. With exports down 46 per cent on last year in part due to competition from regional exporters, Thailand clearly requires the cooperation of Vietnam and other regional exporters for its pricing strategy to have a chance at success.

Simply on account of its exclusivity, the establishment of a rice exporters cartel will add fuel to the fire of distrust in the region’s rice trade. Lack of confidence in the market has in part prompted Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia to boost self-sufficiency in rice, despite the potential inefficiencies of this strategy. Furthermore, amidst the secrecy and opacity of the region’s rice sector, the potential for the cartel to control a large share of market information on prices and volumes is a sobering prospect for rice-importing nations; particularly those with low purchasing power.

Critics also question the feasibility of a successful rice cartel. The Thai Rice Exporters Association argues that varied standards of logistics and storage amongst the five proposed members will undermine its objectives, while the Asian Development Bank says the cartel would be unsustainable because the exporters would continue to compete with each other. Then there is the rice quality aspect: if all prices were elevated to a similar level, exporters with lesser quality rice could not compete with cartel members exporting higher quality rice at similar prices.

Discrepancies between the trading systems of proposed cartel members would further complicate operations, with mixed preferences for government-to-government (G2G) versus private deals, and varying degrees of government trade intervention. For example, Myanmar has sought to transition from government-controlled trade to a sector almost exclusively operated by private traders with minimal government oversight. Meanwhile, Thailand has reverted to an almost exclusive preference for G2G deals since the current intervention program launched in October 2011. This strategy, in combination with high prices, has arguably contributed to Thailand’s decline in rice exports.

Early reports indicated a geographically neutral cartel name, but more recent suggestions that the group will be called the ‘ASEAN Rice Federation’ in spite of its membership exclusivity. If it proceeds, the rice cartel will be launched amidst ongoing attempts to develop freer trade in Southeast Asia and just years ahead of the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. From any angle, it seems that a rice exporters cartel would undermine regional cooperation to improve international market conditions in the rice sector.

Quantifying Food Wastage or Measuring a Monster

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on July 17, 2012

The wastage of food is one of the most significant yet under-recognised global issues in the effort to combat food insecurity. Policy makers and food industry stakeholders alike are aware that the implications of the estimated 30-50% global food wastage for energy, soil, water and human resources are significant. Just how significant is not clear: relatively little data is available on the intricacies of food wastage and its impact on the world’s food systems. Southeast Asia as a region suffers from a lack of information on food wastage along supply chains in key food commodities. In order to address the issue, developing accurate and relevant information on the scope and causes of food wastage is essential.

Estimates suggest that up to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions result from wasted food. Beyond the environmental implications of wasted land and water resources, food losses have significance for food availability. Food prices and availability may be affected in some countries by the wastage of food traded on international markets. At the local level, losses on small farms impact the farmers and villagers who consume the food they produce.

The reasons for food waste are situation specific, but two broad trends are apparent. In developing countries, most food waste occurs at the early stages of the supply chain such as harvesting, storage and transport, with very little consumer waste. In industrialised countries, most wastage is accounted for by consumer behaviour and government interventions which promote surplus production of particular food commodities. However, this broad divide fails to capture the nuances of food wastage in Southeast Asia; including the fundamentally differing trends found in urban and rural settings.

Several key causes of food losses and waste can be identified. Poor storage facilities and lack of infrastructure cause postharvest food losses, especially for fresh food including fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. Inadequate processing facilities lead to unnecessary food losses, as does the prevalence of unsafe food. While some food processing and retailing companies have undertaken innovative steps to reuse wasted or unsold food, an attitude persists whereby disposal of food is perceived as being cheaper that using or re-using it. As Southeast Asia continues to experience the rise of corporate grocers beyond major urban areas this issue will become more pertinent. Finally, in industrialised countries and major urban centres, abundance and consumer attitudes lead to high food waste in households and the hospitality sector.

The FAO-supported Save Food Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction cites several food supply chain interventions to reduce food loss and waste, including improving production planning in alignment with markets and promoting resource-efficient production and processing practices.

Public actions to support supply chain interventions include creating an enabling policy and institutional environment, awareness raising and advocacy, and building partnerships and alliances between public and private sector stakeholders. With demand for food growing, and competition for scarce land and water resources intensifying, it is clear that actions such as these need to be taken to address the magnitude of food wasted. However, accurate estimates of extent of food wastage, the culpability of particular causes, and the efficacy of food supply chain interventions need to be ascertained first for effective and targeted action.

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Over 15 million severely food insecure in Africa’s Sahel region

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on May 8, 2012

A severe hunger crisis is emerging in Africa’s Sahel region, with an estimated 15 million currently threatened by food insecurity and a total of 23 million at risk. Reportedly 600 children are dying every day the area from undernourishment, and the United Nations has warned that one million children face potential severe malnutrition.

Drought and failed rains in the region have placed acute stress on food availability. The Sahel, which incorporates a dozen countries in a belt across Northern Africa, already faces long-term environmental constraints including desertification from over-farming and over-grazing. Countries affected by the current crisis include Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal.

In response to the hardship, millions of households across the region have applied necessary but perilous coping methods including the sale of valuable assets and livestock, keeping children home from school, decreasing food intakes, and including items such as wild leaves in their diet. Many of the communities affected are located in areas difficult for relief efforts to access, both geographically and logistically. The stress on food availability and access has been compounded by thorny political dynamics in the region and varying levels of ability between countries to deal with the situation. Furthermore, conflict in Mali has led to over 200,000 people fleeing the country in recent months to poorly resourced refugee camps in neighbouring Mauritania, while Chad must feed refugees that have fled from conflict in Darfur.

Almost a billion dollars has been sought in funding for relief programs since warnings of a potential humanitarian crisis were first raised in early 2012. The United Nations raised US$750 million from donors, while a grouping of four international NGOs – Save the Children, Oxfam, Action Against Hunger and World Vision – is well short of the funding pool of US$250 million dollars it seeks to raise for its crisis relief efforts.

Hundreds of nutrition rehabilitation treatment centres and programs have been established by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) along with these organisations in recent months. Beyond the emergency response, Medecins Sans Frontieres states that with malnutrition rates of 30 per cent in some areas of the Sahel, the current situation should be considered not only an isolated humanitarian crisis but a deep and enduring public health problem. It advocates an approach for long-term improvement that incorporates effective medical and nutrition measures into basic healthcare services, such as vaccinations, which are already in operation across the region.

An effective and immediate boost to the existing emergency response is critical, however, given concerns that the nutritional crisis could worsen dramatically over the next few months given that the next harvest will not come through until October 2012. The World Food Programme says that it has approximately three to four weeks to raise the US$450 million needed to fund its relief operations. Most United Nations agencies are likely to revise and launch new funding appeals to reach a new collective target of US$1.5 billion, given the complexity of slow and fast-onset crises happening simultaneously, and the aid groups are continuing their appeal.

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Food insecurity heats up in the Gulf

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on April 5, 2012

Having not fully recovered from global food prices hikes in 2007/08 and 2011, the import-dependent Persian Gulf region and nearby countries in the Middle East remain vulnerable to food insecurity. Ongoing land and water resource scarcity present a key challenge, in addition to conflict and political instability in some areas of the region. With just 2 per cent of land in the area of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) being arable, options to improve self-sufficiency through agricultural development are limited. Since the food price crisis, regional governments have instead pursued food security and price stability strategies through foreign land acquisition, food subsidy programmes and strategic food reserves. However, results from a recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institution (IFPRI) suggest that poverty and income inequality in the Arab world remain at critical levels and are likely more problematic than official figures indicate, with clear implications for food security.

One of the most urgent humanitarian situations is the GCC’s southern neighbour Yemen, with the World Food Programme estimating that one fifth of the country’s population of 24 million face severe hunger and require emergency food assistance. A further 5 million face moderate food insecurity. Hunger was formerly predominant in the country’s conflict zones, but has become widespread due to increased food and fuel prices, the lagging economy, drought and political instability.

One further emerging threat to the region’s food security is the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Egyptian livestock, which is a major food source for the Middle East. Current estimates suggest that there are nearly 100,000 suspected cases of foot and mouth and have been 9,000 livestock deaths since the outbreak in February 2012. Scientists are working to develop a vaccine and the Egyptian government is restricting the movement of livestock to reduce the risk of the disease spreading throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.

In terms of strategies to address food insecurity in the Middle East, the IFPRI report found that unlike much of the developing world, Arab countries are best off pursuing economic growth led by the manufacturing and service sectors, rather than agriculture. At the recent conference on Water and Food Security in the Arabian Gulf, the UN Economic and Social Commissioner for Western Asia called for multidimensional food security and water security strategies for the GCC.  The private sector is also heeding the call for regional cooperation, with the head of the leading agribusiness group in Oman encouraging further technical research and government intervention in order to produce affordable, nutritious food.

With the GCC population expected to increase by 50 million in the next five years, global food prices likely facing further hikes in the short-to-medium term, and the ongoing severity of water resource scarcity, time is of the essence in Gulf countries’ pursuit to address the region’s food insecurity.

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Thai rice: with the Southeast Asian market in flux, where next for the world’s biggest exporter?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on February 10, 2012

Power is shifting amongst Southeast Asian rice exporters, with current world -leader Thailand set to reduce its rice exports between 10 and 30 per cent this year. High prices are a large contributing factor to the anticipated fall in exports from 11 million tons in 2011 to 7 millions tons in 2012. The Thai Opposition and Thai Rice Exporters Association hold the Thai government’s costly rice scheme accountable for the high price of the country’s rice. In response, the government has purchased paddy rice at twice the pre-scheme market rate at approximately $472 US dollars per ton since October 2011.

Frustrated with its government, the Thai Rice Exporters Association has threatened that Myanmar could become the world’s leading exporter in coming years. While being highly inconceivable given that Myanmar’s years as the world’s largest rice exporter in the 1960s are well behind it, the statement highlights Myanmar’s strengthening as an exporter, having recently secured a deal with Indonesia for 200,000 tons per year. Some Thai rice exporters are turning their attention to cheaper quality rice across the border in Cambodia, which has the potential to boost production and aims to expand its exports in coming years to one million tons but currently lacks the processing capacity to achieve this goal.

Thailand’s exports to formerly leading importers Indonesia and the Philippines are waning as both countries move towards rice self-sufficiency. Indonesia recently sought to renege from a 300,000 metric ton per annum import deal with Thailand. Furthermore, Thailand is acutely aware of the implications of the Philippines slowing its rice imports. On a recent visit to the Philippines, Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra appealed for the country to consider Thai rice as a means for food security and a source for emergency reserves.

With demand in Southeast Asia in flux, Thailand’s closest rice export competitor, Vietnam, is taking innovative approaches to seeking additional market share. Its latest export strategy is in Africa, the region with the fastest-growing rice consumption in the world. Vietnam is exporting not only milled rice but Mekong Delta rice variety seeds and farming practices to at least eight African nations.

The shift away from long-held rice trade patterns between Southeast Asian countries is one more indicator that the rice economy is in transition. Once its rice scheme is complete mid-2012, Thailand will need to urgently rethink its export strategy to remain competitive in and relevant to the world rice market.

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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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The Feminisation of Food Security: Women as Smallholder Farmers

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on October 6, 2011

Agriculture in developing countries has experienced a wave of feminisation in recent decades, as women’s work in the sector becomes increasingly visible and involved. Women’s long-important role in the production of food as smallholder farmers is growing in Asia and beyond in response to household survival needs and economic opportunities.

Women perform on average 43% of agricultural labour in developing countries. The figure is higher in East Asia, where women perform on average 48% of agricultural work. Chinese women’s participation in the agricultural labour force is the highest in Asia at just over 50%. These figures are thought by some to be an underestimation in some instances, given a lack of distinction between women’s agricultural and domestic work.

Smallholder farmers are vital to global food security, with approximately 2 billion people living and working on the world’s 500 million small farms. These micro-producers are, however, encountering immense challenges in the face of climate change, changing food demands and modernised supply chains. The importance of policies and interventions to support smallholder farmers is recognised at high levels. Smallholder farmers themselves are adopting several adaptation techniques in response to emerging challenges and opportunities, such as the growing trend of family members from smallholder farms seeking employment in urban and peri-urban areas, often leaving women of the family to manage the farm.

Despite their strong and growing participation in agriculture, female farmers in developing regions consistently have lesser access to resources including market information, machinery, farming inputs, finance and education than male farmers. Women are also much less likely to own the land they work on, and typically the land they do own is less arable than that of male owners. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that the gender gap in access to agricultural resources results in women’s yields being 20-30% less than their male counterparts. Under conditions of equal access, it is estimated that global food production would increase 2-3%, potentially generating enough additional food for 100 to 150 million of the world’s hungry.

Specific policy and development programs focusing on the empowerment of women in agriculture are in place in Asia and other regions, however it is estimated that gender issues are integrated in less than 10% of official development assistance directed towards agriculture.

Gender gaps in smallholder farming are relatively under-acknowledged by food security stakeholders given the scale of inequality and the potential for productivity, social and economic gains. The issue of women’s unequal access to agricultural resources must therefore be more readily integrated into mainstream analysis, strategy and policy-making addressing the future of smallholder farming.

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Holistic Approaches to Asia’s Food Security Challenges: The International Conference on Asian Food Security (ICAFS) 2011

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on August 23, 2011

Food security has become one of the defining global issues of our time. Severe drought recently hit the Horn of Africa, causing a widespread food crisis that continues to be exacerbated by volatile global food prices. A recent United Nations report highlighted that population growth and water stresses are driving the planet to a food and environmental crunch that can only be resolved through better farming techniques and smarter use of the ecosystem. The debate on the diversion of food crops such as corn towards biofuel production continues to rage. Also, it is estimated that 63 per cent of the world’s 1 billion undernourished people reside in Asia, and the region’s rapid population growth and urbanisation will only contribute to food security challenges in decades to come.

It is against this backdrop that food security experts from around the world converged in Singapore to discuss the challenge of ‘Feeding Asia in the 21st Century’ at the inaugural International Conference on Asian Food Security (ICAFS), which took place from 10 to 12 August 2011.

Jointly organised by the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and the Philippines-based South East Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), ICAFS brought together researchers, government representatives, development partners, investors, large-scale agricultural producers and farmers’ groups for three days of rigorous dialogue.

In a move of progress and solidarity, participants produced a draft ICAFS statement on how to best address Asia’s food security challenges at the conclusion of the Conference. Key recommendations included pursuing public-private partnerships to ensure food availability alongside profitability of food producing industries, addressing the urgent food insecurity plight of Asia’s most vulnerable populations by improving social safety nets and food distribution, taking pragmatic and concrete efforts to link policies in the food and health sectors, and extending existing foundations to create positive symbiotic relationships between food producers and food consumers. Other suggestions included undertaking sustainable food production strategies and recognising and responding to shifts in food distribution and marketing that define the private food sector in Asia.

A further highlight of the Conference was keynote speaker Senior Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministries of Defence and National Development of Singapore, Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman’s announcement that Singapore would be taking a more proactive role in ensuring regional food security through a USD 8.2 mil investment over five years by the National Research Foundation (NRF), which will go towards a new research partnership to improve rice cultivation.

The project will involve the National University of Singapore, the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory and the International Rice Research Institute. It aims to develop better rice farming methods and to explore how to improve yield and disease resistance in the face of rising food demand and the challenges of climate change and natural resource concerns.  This project marks Singapore’s participation in the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRISP), a partnership of about 900 organisations worldwide committed to research and development (R&D) related to rice.

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Global Food Insecurity: One Problem, Many Solutions?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on July 4, 2011

In the past several months, global food security has become the plat du jour of international affairs. A myriad of different voices have contributed to this debate, each offering their own solutions to curbing food insecurity and ensuring that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) ‘right to food’ principle is met. Few of these proposed solutions, however, seem to be in agreement with one another.

The WTO warned in a recent report that restricting farm trade and nations succumbing to protectionism could cause major food shortages, and called for less regulation. In response, an international coalition of farm unions from Europe, Africa, Asia and North America recently called on the G20 countries’ agriculture ministers to oppose further liberalisation of the global agricultural trade. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested that the African continent’s food production potential be further explored. Annan argued that a doubling of African cereal yields would turn Africa into a major food surplus region, able to feed not just for own inhabitants but also the rest of the world.

Some have proposed that increased public-private partnerships, which would spur on increased investment and innovation into the agricultural sector, would greatly alleviate the food insecurity burden. Others have called for increased diversification of food production, noting that recent data shows that two-thirds of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plant and five animal species, threatening not just global food security but also health and the environment.

Some have also argued that the world’s farmers are more than capable of feeding the world if innovation and technological advances in seed, equipment and farming methods are made available for their use in the marketplace – and for this to occur, policies and regulations to facilitate bringing these scientific tools to growers must be instituted.

Many advocate a sustainability approach, calling for technologically-based modern agriculture to ensure food production while taking measures to mitigate and minimise these modern techniques’ impacts on the environment. This discourse’s opponents argue that this will not solve the key problems that underlie global food insecurity, identified as a reliance on cheap oil for high-tech food production, mal-distribution of existing food supplies, and industry monopolies controlling the amount and type of food available to the people.

While each of these solutions carries merit, they arguably only reflect singular dimensions of the multi-faceted global food insecurity issue and appear representative of the vested interests of those pitching them. Perhaps the solution to the world’s food insecurity woes lies at the intersection of all these propositions. It remains to be seen, however, whether these opposing and often competing voices will be able to put aside their differences and come together towards prescribing a holistic, balanced, moderate and long-term sustainable solution to this problem.

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Rethinking Food Security

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on April 12, 2011

“I eat, therefore I can”, recreating from Descartes’ famous phrase I think, therefore I amWayne Roberts chose the phrase as the title of one of the chapters in his book, The No-nonsense Guide to World Food. Having been involved in food activism for ten years, he had already realized that food would become a serious global problem in the future since he started the activism in 1990s. Today, people make more food related decisions than any other decisions in one day.

Inspired by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement that the food crisis is a forgotten crisis, some of us have deeply contemplated that the food crisis leads to food insecurity, and it is potentially exacerbated by climate change. However, the argument that is often used as an excuse for lack of action is that there are no quick and easy solutions in dealing with the food security challenges.

Interestingly, the above argument might be relevant if we realize that we have already been entrapped in the game of global industrialized food system, while there are in fact other alternative food systems. The global industrialized food system has failed to provide food security for all nations.  Food is seen as a global commodity. As a consequence, international forces erode domestic control and protection over its own food system. More powerful country or any international institution tries to intervene policies related to agriculture and food of less powerful country. It would seem that the issue has gone beyond food security. Rather it has become food sovereignty, the thinking that embraces the cultural, historical, spiritual and ecological depths of food system.

Integrated and robust actions that involve changes at local, regional and international levels are needed. Particularly at the local level, actions must be immediate, realistic and provable. This is also in line with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s definition of a world without hunger emphasizing that “social safety nets ensure that those who lack resources still get enough to eat”. However, such bottom-up initiatives should not undermine the responsibility of governments and other stakeholders within the food system. Most importantly is the political will to create the change at policy level which allows every farmer, every community and every country have their individual right to food.

Food Security: Whither North Korea?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on February 24, 2011

Reports of food crises in North Korea are not unheard of. Acute food shortages were reported in the isolated country in 200220072008, and  2010. This year, more of such reports have made headlines, including alarming claims of the country importing animal feed from China to feed its population, and that some North Koreans have been reduced to searching for wild grass to eat.

The current food shortage in North Korea is attributable to a number of factors. External contributors include the recent spike in global food prices and the suspension of aid support, including that of food, from major donors. The United States, which donated over 2 million tonnes of food to North Korea between 1995 and 2005, halted food aid in 2009 over concerns of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests and transparency of food distribution. Additionally, US authorities reported that North Korea had refused US food aid just prior to the suspension. South Korea also froze almost all aid to its northern counterpart following last year’s Cheonan sinking incident and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. This represents a reversal of the Sunshine Policy of Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun that decoupled food aid from security-related diplomatic matters. This re-coupling is a major (and somewhat controversial) development in inter-Korea relations.

The current food crisis in North Korea is also exacerbated by internal factors. Reports of inequitable distribution of available food aid remain. Foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks are killing thousands of draught oxen, cows and pigs  – animals which are essential to agricultural production and consumption. The country is enduring its coldest winter since 1945, with frigid temperatures increasing the demand for fuel while adversely affecting industrial activity and agricultural outputs. As a result, North Korean industries have slowed down, rice prices are rapidly vacillating, and the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have warned that up to 5 million North Koreans are at risk of famine.

In an unusual turn of events, North Korea has asked its 40 embassies abroad to appeal to foreign governments for aid. North Korea has also directly requested that the US resume its food aid, even pledging to allow international monitors to oversee its distribution to the public. Additionally, the North Korean government has allowed the WFP and FAO to send missions to North Korea to assess the food security situation.

The political undercurrent influencing food aid to North Korea continues to drive international responses to this crisis. Despite North Korea’s apparent readiness to negotiate, the US remains reluctant to reinstate food aid to North Korea unless better oversight and monitoring in distribution is guaranteed, especially in light of internal food aid distribution issues such as diversions of aid to the military. Meanwhile, other Western countries have insisted that any food aid to North Korea would need to be part of a concerted multilateral effort.

While it may be too much to hope that North Korea’s willingness to compromise on the food security issue signifies the dawning of a new era in its relations with the rest of the world, it will certainly be interesting to observe how internal food security concerns continue to influence how North Korea conducts itself on the international stage.

Just Food?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on February 17, 2011

The skyrocketing food prices of 2010 have again raised global concern on the issue of the global food insecurity. Similar to the 2008 food crisis, price volatility once again poses to have dangerous threats to state stability. In 2008, civil unrest took place in Asia and Africa mainly in some poor countries such as Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Cameroon. Similarly, protests in Tunisia and Egypt have also been discussed to have been triggered by the 2010 food crisis.

Interestingly, anger that embeds in such riots was argued to be caused more by “a feeling of exploitation than a fear of starvation”. Such a feeling is understandable throughout society’s most vulnerable groups, as the poor often spend more than one-third of their income on food.  Thus, these groups suffer the most from price volatility, shocks that could threaten their survival.

Source: Nasser Nouri/Flickr

Critiques further underline the issue of injustice in the global food system, in which initiatives to control price volatility often leave the poor more impoverished than helped. Short-sighted policy responses aiming to maintain state stability, such as export bans, tend to create uncontrollable price hike in other countries which hurts the poor. As a result, food riots represent a way for the marginalised groups to seek equal access to food as one of their basic human needs.

It would then seem that social concerns such as equity are equally as important as more widely-cited challenges such as the changing climate and decreasing areas of productive land. To put it another way, equity which embraces the fairness of all components in the food system is strongly related to food security. Thus, to achieve human rights to well-being and access to food security, fair mechanisms and systems are essential.

Friedman: The World Needs a Green Revolution

In a recent lecture in Singapore, Thomas Friedman spoke about climate change and the urgent need for breakthroughs in clean energy research, and drew parallels between two major non-traditional security issues in recent years – the economic crisis of 2008 and the ongoing ecological crisis. According to Friedman, New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, these two issues are two sides of the same coin, in which unsustainable economic growth patterns are a primary factor. Citing the example of his home country, he noted that America’s growth pattern has been both financially and ecologically unsustainable.

In highlighting the similarities between the economic and ecological crisis, both contexts – market and Mother Nature – have experienced similar accounting practices, primarily the way in which risks have been underpriced, gains privatised and losses socialised. Underpinning these practices has been a short-term mindset, which Friedman observes to have led to a breakdown of sustainable values into situational values. This, he notes, is dangerous because the only way to moderate the market and Mother Nature effectively is by adopting sustainable values.

Friedman also noted that world was becoming increasingly Hot, Flat and Crowded – Hot due to global warming; Flat due to the increasing mobility of people thanks to globalisation; and crowded to due to population increase. There were five pressing problems that have resulted in this situation – (1) increasing demand for energy and natural resources, (2) Petro-dictatorship, which highlights the inverse relationship between the price of oil and freedom, (3) energy poverty, (4) biodiversity loss, and (5) the adverse effects of climate change.

Friedman nevertheless noted that the solution to these five problems is the need to provide abundant cheap clean non-carbon emitting energy. He emphasised that the main drivers of change in this process would not be regulators and policymakers, but rather innovators and engineers. Friedman also noted that while such calls from clean technology and adopting a more green lifestyle have been increasingly reiterated, he cautioned the tendency of green washing, where stakeholders such as businesses and policymakers have only made incremental changes that suit their comfort levels and justified their actions with “green” as a pre-fix to their existing activities. Friedman likened these trends to having a Green Party rather than a Green Revolution. Friedman also noted that effective change will only occur in a Green Revolution, when the term Green disappears. Moreover, similar to revolutions, certain stakeholders of the status quo will have to lose out.

Friedman’s last point here would certainly be a bitter pill for many in policymaking circles, but is nevertheless necessary. The dosage of these pills would certainly be much more for developing countries in Asia, which face a host of developmental and governance issues in addition to  managing their economic growth and as well as the needs of their large populations. The Green Revolution that Friedman calls for would, therefore, perhaps be the most revolutionary in the developing world. Whether stakeholders in the developing world are ready for this remains to be seen.

When the Price is Not Right

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on January 10, 2011

The state of food security in 2011 has been projected to become worrying trend especially with regards to food prices. Implications of the 2008 global food crisis – such as riots in several developing countries – still linger. Whilst it is apparent that price volatility of food commodities affects food security and the general welfare of society, the discourse still revolves around the drivers of price spikes or concerns of its impacts on economic growth, leaving no sign of new and innovative approaches in governing the global food system. The increasing demand for biofuels was accused to be the driver for the 2008 crisis, yet it was later challenged by the argument that drought and oil prices were in fact the drivers. In the same year subsequently, it was suggested that the causes of high food prices are:

  • Rising living standards in some developing countries;
  • Rapid depreciation of the dollar against the euro and some other currencies;
  • Government policy that encourages the use of corn-based ethanol in the US;
  • Speculation on food commodities price by financial players;
  • High price of fossil-fuels.

The existing policy responses were claimed in the FAO policy brief to have frequently failed. Interventions such as subsidies, safety nets, reserves, and boosting agricultural productions are implemented at a macro level to create a more resilient global food system but not to take the most vulnerable consumers including small scale farmers to a level where they become more adaptive to price volatility. While recognition of price spikes’ effects on the poor in developing countries has somewhat been made, the challenge remains for states and global governance on food to protect the poor and vulnerable consumers. This can be done by providing incentives for them to take their own initiatives to become part of the solution rather than be left suffering.

In a recent FAO policy brief, the global food system is postulated to be increasingly vulnerable due to extreme weather events and a dependence on new exporting zones. The former can be considered as an uncontrollable factor whereas the latter – including reliance on international trade, growing demand from energy sector or monetary policy shifts – is a factor which could be harnessed to create a more favourable state that reduces the vulnerability of the global food system. However, it would seem that there is no silver bullet to fix this.

ASEAN Plus Three’s Commitment to Regional Food Security

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on October 29, 2010

The issue of food security was highlighted as “a serious issue for human subsistence and development” in Southeast Asia during the 10th Meeting of ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry and the Ministers of Agriculture of China, Japan and South Korea (10th AMAF Plus Three). At the meeting, which wrapped up in Phnom Penh this past 24 October, the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) representatives rallied support around the APT Cooperation Strategy on Food, Agriculture and Forestry, aiming to ensure long-term food security for the region and improve the livelihoods of farmers in APT countries.

Representatives also acknowledged developments towards the goals of the APT Cooperation on Food Security and Bio-Energy Development statement, commended the efforts of the ASEAN Food Security Information System (AFSIS) in its second phase and agreed to formalise the APT Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR) as a permanent scheme. The ASEAN ministers of agriculture and forestry also rallied behind the candidacy of Indonesian scientist Indroyono Soesilo as next director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

These developments highlight ASEAN’s recognition that food security is integral to the well-being of the region and the growing voice of ASEAN representation in food security and agriculture at an international level. With a gross availability of 211.5kg of cereals per capita, food security in Southeast Asia (SEA) is within reach. However, to effectively and sustainably ensure the food security of SEA, it may be unwise for efforts to  focus only on increased agricultural growth and production.

In order for ASEAN and its Plus Three partners to make further headway towards ensuring food security, the APT must recognise other challenges the region faces. According to GS Bhalla, there are four main challenges to ensuring food security in SEA:

1) Demand for foodgrains

Ensuring a steady demand for foodgrains in SEA is difficult as changes in income distribution across the region will impact food demand even with constant, stable income and population growth. This is particularly pertinent to SEA as economic development and growth rates vary widely among ASEAN member states.

2) Domestic food supply and self-sufficiency ratios

Two main factors contribute to food sufficiency: domestic food production (need to build domestic supply potential through development of rural infrastructure and commodity price policies) and international market (imports): both need to be addressed in order to ensure regional food security.

3) Access to food by the poor

Although by international standards, economic development and poverty reduction in SEA has been promising, rural and urban poverty and its side effect of limited access to food (purchasing and cultivating) remain problematic.

4) Food production instabilities

SEA is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and natural disasters. These factors contribute to fluctuations in crop yields, which then cause fluctuations in food prices – this affects the food security of the region, and particularly affects income levels of households whose livelihoods are agriculture-based, limiting their economic access to food.

It is therefore integral that concerted efforts towards overcoming these challenges are undertaken in policymaking and cooperative measures alongside current APT commitments to amplify regional agricultural production.

Seeking Opportunity 2: Recognition in Demand

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on October 22, 2010

My previous blog-post was about an opportunity to harness the potential of urban agriculture in dealing with food insecurity. Urban agriculture advocates that growing food locally helps city dwellers to become self-sufficient in some food products. It is apparently not the only solution to achieve food security in urban areas. Hence, it tends to be overlooked especially by the policymakers and city planners.

Source: FAO

In a policy brief released last August, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that “policymakers should seize the opportunity of urban agriculture”. This gives impetus to both policymakers and urban planners to take into account urban agriculture in planning urban development; government should provide sufficient policy actions to create enabling environment for urban agriculture. Moreover, through Food for the Cities initiative, FAO promotes collaboration between governments, civil society, non-governmental organisations and private sectors to support urban food production.

Vietnam is considered to have the highest figure of 70 per cent of urban households that earn income from agricultural activities in Asia. A study examining urban agriculture in Hanoi approves the importance of recognition of urban agriculture in future city planning. The Paris-based CIRAD or the Agricultural Research Centre for International Development also highlights the role of public institutions and private stakeholders involved as one of the lessons learnt of a project aiming to examine the existing urban agriculture in several cities in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam. Its 2006 Annual Report asserts that “the agricultural sector needs to be more professional and to look more closely at the requirements of urban inhabitant”.

Asia has always been regarded as the world’s richest food source but it is also home for world’s poor and hunger population as it is estimated 62 per cent world’s hunger live in Asia and the Pacific. In attempt to fight hunger in Asia, several organizations have recently joined forces. These include Asia Society/IRRI task force and ADB/FAO/IFAD partnership. Then, there is the first APEC Ministerial Meeting on food security which was recently convened in Japan. Although there is momentum towards urban agriculture, it would seem to be disregarded in many food security discourses as the current discourse still revolves around increasing rural agricultural production. Expanding the urban agriculture movement in Asia, RUAF Foundation, an international network of seven regional resource centers and one global resource centre on Urban Agriculture and Food Security, works in collaboration with CIGAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, on an initiative entitled Resources Centers on Urban Agriculture and Food Security – South & South East Asia. This initiative should in fact inspire both policymakers and city planners in Asia to begin harnessing the potential of urban agriculture as one strategy towards which food security can be assured for its inhabitants.

The Financialisation of Food Commodities: At What Costs?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on October 13, 2010

IMAGINE the price of rice fluctuating widely like stock prices – prices going through the roof one moment and hitting rock bottom the next moment fairly regularly. This may happen in Southeast Asia. A report by the Asia Society and International Rice Research Institute Task Force published last month suggest that Singapore can play a leading role in regional food security and help stabilise rice prices by hosting rice futures market.

A stable and predictable rice market is highly desirable. Whether it can be achieved through a futures market however remains doubtful. Futures market enables futures exchange in which investors trade standardised futures contracts i.e. a contract to buy specific quantities of commodities at a specified price with delivery set at a specified time in the future. Investors bought futures contract by speculating on the future price of commodities.

The agricultural commodities markets have in recent years witnessed large-scale influx of non-traditional investors such as pension and hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds and financial institutions. Given the slowdown in credit and equity markets, investment banks such as Barclays, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan relied on commodity revenues as one of the drivers of recent profits. They see the trend of rising food prices as commodity price boom and trade in them. Goldman Sachs for example netted USD 1 billion in profits from speculating on food prices in 2009. This activity caused food prices to become more volatile and to rise and fall more sharply. Such volatile prices destabilises markets not just for consumers but also for farmers in developing countries who find it difficult to plan and invest for the future amid intense price volatility. Speculation is thus a key force behind the recent hyperinflation of basic food staples: Between 2005 and 2008, food prices rose by 83 per cent with maize prices nearly tripling, wheat prices increasing by 127 per cent, and rice prices by 170 per cent.

Financial speculators have come under renewed fire from anti-poverty campaigners such as the World Development Movement (WDM). WDM likened speculation in food commodities to “hoarding food in the midst of a famine, only to make profits on rising prices” and argued for a regulatory clampdown on hedge funds and banks in the commodities market. The United Nations also warned of a new food crisis unless rampant market speculation is regulated.

Rice is more than a commodity in Southeast Asia. It is the glue that binds societies and cultures throughout the region and a volatile and unpredictable prices could fuel social unrests. It is much more desirable to enhance existing frameworks such as the ASEAN Integrated Food Security (AIFS) Framework, the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR), and the . ASEAN Food Security Information System (AFSIS)

Rice is too important to be left in the hands of financial speculators.

Cash transfers in a food crisis: A lesson for Asia?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on October 5, 2010

Just came across a recent news report about a cash transfer programme conducted by the United Nations in Niger, where the UN is giving US$6 million in cash to mothers for the purchase of food. The cash transfer for purchasing food is much needed to ameliorate the widespread hunger in the country which arose due to the severe drought in the previous year which adversely affected crop harvests.

The programme in Niger is notable as “it is the first time that UNICEF is using cash as a way to help families caught in a nutrition crisis.” Distribution of food aid and rations is the main means of providing food for affected communities during food crises. However, the provision of food rations is not an adequate measure to address widespread hunger. For instance in May this year, the monthly food rations for children in Niger only lasted a few days because they were then redistributed within the family who were also affected by the depleted food stocks.

Unconditional cash transfer (UCT) programmes such as these are more predominant in sub-Saharan Africa, while large-scale conditional cash transfers (CCT) programmes are currently operational in most Central and South American countries. CCT programmes are gradually spreading to some Asian countries like Indonesia and India but it appears that there are fewer proponents for UCT programmes as a whole and in the region.

Although CCT programmes have become more widespread in Asia, more research has to be conducted to establish the feasibility of implementing either UCT or CCT programmes in various contexts and for different needs. With more information available, governments can then identify which programme, or a combination of the two should be implemented to bring about more lasting benefits to vulnerable communities. In the event of a food crisis in Asia like in 2008, similar UCT programmes such as the one in Niger may be advantageous in mitigating the effects in the short term, alongside the provision of food rations. However, over a longer period of time, both UCT and CCT programmes and food aid distribution may be inadequate in addressing underlying structural problems that perpetuate food insecurity and other developmental strategies should be pursued to ensure food security.For instance, programmes that place a greater emphasis on capacity building and promoting institutional development could be more conducive to creating better coping strategies in the long run.

Seeking Opportunity 1: Singapore Farmer’s Market

I was trying to figure out what would be the most interesting topic about food when an e-mail flew in to my mailbox. A colleague sent me a flyer about farmer’s market in Singapore! The question immediately came across my mind is if this is the kind of farmer’s market where people sell produce that they grow in their own backyard. If so, then Singapore could be considered as an example of an Asian metropolis where urban agriculture (UA), one way to creating a resilient society, can flourish.

So, off I went to the market. I was surprised when I found the first stall lining in the entrance was full of package food labeled ‘organic’. Even more shocking is the table next to it was full of fruits in boxes labeled ‘imported’. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I went further inside and found a stall that sells fresh vegetables. I eagerly asked, ‘Do you actually grow these vegetables?’ The answer was no and the seller honestly admitted that they the produce are all from suppliers. Although, there was one stall that sells free range eggs and the people said that they are locally produced.

A city like Singapore has an option to diversify its food resources to meet its food demand with locally produced food by harnessing the potentials of UA. In a Food Security Expert Group Meeting last August organized by the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, UA in Singapore was further explored.  Although UA is not the best recipe to solve the food security conundrum, it allows the city to explore its people’s resilience in dealing with food insecurity, such as price spikes or extreme weather events. People engaged in UA relearn how to produce their own food. Locally produced food also reduces the greenhouse gasses emissions from transporting the food from the field to our kitchen. UA also reconnects people with the living environment and helps to rebuild their sense of community.

Singapore might not have a vast land area for agriculture, but to set an example of UA in Singapore, there is Ivy Singh-Lim who owns 10 acres of organic farm in Kranji, an area only half an hour away from the city centre. She has a farm named after her Indian heritage –  Bollywood Veggies. Although not everyone has the luxury of owning  a plot of land like Ivy, people living in housing blocks – a common sight in Singapore –  might be inspired by community garden movements such as Cultivating Community in Australia or Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens in the UK.

Singapore farmer’s market might not be exactly as I expected. Nevertheless, there is a promising future for it as the Government of Singapore supports the growth of local farming. It has also launched Let’s make Singapore our garden campaign, where people can start their own community gardening projects and grow their own food. I believe Singapore farmer’s market will take shape, and eventually offer locally produced food.

Mozambique Food Riots: A Lesson on Subsidies for Malaysia

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on September 15, 2010

An overnight increase in bread prices to 33 per cent, electricity tariffs to 13 per cent and an increase in water costs resulted in deadly riots in Mozambique’s capital city Maputo in the first week of September. The riot left 13 people dead and 400 people injured. The government maintained that it was simply keeping up with increasing international food prices. As Mozambique imports a large part of its food requirements, the price hike is deemed to be essential. However the government later retracted its policy and announced that bread would revert to the previous price through the introduction of a subsidy while other subsidies would bring down water and power prices.

Countries in Southeast Asia have relied on subsidy in varying degrees in an effort to reduce poverty, contain inflation, or to gain popular votes. Malaysia for example is one of the most subsidised nations in the world with the government spending up to USD 3,700 on each household on average. Subsidy chewed up 15.3 per cent of the federal government’s spending budget in 2009. As a result, Malaysia has one of the lowest food and fuel prices in the world. However, subsidies also led to increasing budget deficit. Deficit hit a 20-year high of seven per cent of GDP in 2009.  According to Idris Jala, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, the subsidies were an unsustainable financial burden.

He remarked: “We do not want to end up like Greece. Our (budget) deficit rose to record high of 47 billion ringgit (USD 14 billion) last year” and warns that Malaysia “could go bankrupt in 2019”.

In an effort to cut government expenditure, widens the tax base, and halve the budget deficit, Malaysia raised prices of the most popular blend of petrol by 2.7 per cent and sugar by 15 per cent on 15 July 2010. This measure, the government hoped, will help cut the budget deficit from 7 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 5.3 per cent in 2010 and 2.8 per cent by 2015. But getting popular support proves difficult as most Malaysians considered subsidies a way of life. Student and human rights group as well as opposition parties have already issued an ultimatum to the government to reverse the policy by December 2010 or face a mass street protest. Malaysian food and drinks companies also refused to comply saying that they won’t pass on higher sugar and fuel costs to consumers.

Universal (food) subsidies although desirable can be problematic. Without proper implementation mechanism, subsidies, like any other social safety nets program, have a propensity to benefit the nonpoor more than the poor thus fuelling anger in times of crisis. And this appears to be Malaysia’s case. As it stands now, some 97 per cent of the subsidies were dispensed on a blanket basis without taking into account income levels. Also about 71 per cent of petrol subsidies went to mid- to high-income groups while 70 per cent of liquid petroleum gas subsidies were channelled to businesses instead of households.

Scrapping subsidies in its entirety is not the solution as it will fuel more anger. Instead Malaysia must rethink the way in which it carried out its subsidy policy so that it benefits those who needed it the most. This way, Malaysia can avert what has happened in Mozambique.