5 May 2020, Los Banos, Philippines/Bangkok, Thailand — As COVID-19 continues to threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in Southeast Asia, additional concerns are being raised about the longer term health of the sub-region’s food systems – a complex matrix involving farmers, fishers, labourers, drivers, cold storage, food processors, retailers, and consumers.
From small village markets to the large grocery store chains in densely populated cities like Bangkok, Manila, and Jakarta, food appears plentiful enough and the initial panic buying has subsided. Indeed, most countries have recognized the need to keep food and agricultural supply chains open, and have taken action to achieve that.
However, the impact of lockdowns and the interruption of the free flow of other goods and services – combined with the lack of available labour – has raised the specter of longer term disruptions to daily life, livelihoods, and cash on hand. Will that cause food to rot in the fields? Will there be enough food? Will the price of food dramatically increase, hurting the poor and marginalized even more? These uncertainties are the main causes of concern.
Collaborating to find answers and a way forward
In order to better understand the present situation of our food systems in the face of COVID-19, and to predict the ongoing and future impact on food systems in Southeast Asia, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) have convened a webinar on “The Future of Food Systems in Southeast Asia post COVID-19.”
The webinar examined the challenges to the subregion’s food systems amid COVID-19, the future of food systems in Southeast Asia after the pandemic, and discussed potential measures to safeguard food systems.
In his opening message, Dr. Matthew Morell, IRRI Director General, highlighted the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable sectors of the population. “The crisis is felt widely but unevenly. The impacts of the pandemic pose immense threats to the health of communities already struggling with hunger and on the livelihood of vulnerable groups including farmers.”
The speakers emphasized the importance of innovative research for development, investments in food systems, and implementing evidence-based policy measures to safeguard food systems during and after the pandemic to ensure resilience. Above all, collaboration would be key to success.
“This kind of collaboration is essential for us to work jointly toward realizing the innovations that will be necessary to meet these challenges to our food systems. We all need to work together,” said Jong-Jin Kim, Officer-in-Charge and Deputy Regional Representative, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “FAO has a long history of collaborating hand in hand with a wide range of development partners: governments, research institutes, academia, the private sector, NGOs, and international organizations, and through this collaboration we will move forward more confidently toward achieving all of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Mitigating the impact on smallholders and most vulnerable
Among the main challenges the speakers discussed were the multiple impacts felt by different groups in society: primary food producers such as smallholder farmers and those who have been without an income for a significant period of time, both rural and urban.
The webinar considered various ways that countries could help smallholders and others, particularly those in rural and urban areas who have lost their jobs. In the short term, this lack of economic access to food is a major challenge that must be dealt with, the webinar heard. This could mean cash disbursements in some cases and free distribution of food in others. It was noted that governments, the private sector, and individuals were stepping up to help those in need, but more would be required.
Ensuring availability of safe and nutritious produce
Rice is the staple food for more than half of the world’s population, with a large portion of the global rice supply being produced, traded, and consumed in Southeast Asia. In 2018, rice production in Southeast Asia totals more than 220 million tonnes. While both FAO and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have projected sufficient rice stocks for the rest of 2020 in the wider Asia-Pacific region, the current measures needed to curb further COVID-19 outbreaks could cause disruptions to the supply chains critical to ensuring food security.
An excerpt from the Statement of ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry in Response to the Outbreak of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) to Ensure Food Security, Food Safety and Nutrition in ASEAN states, “We emphasise the importance of the food, agriculture and forestry sector, and urge to ensure that essential, safe and nutritious produce can continue to reach ASEAN markets during the outbreak of COVID-19.”