The Debate | Opinion

Addressing the Southeast Asian Food Security Vulnerabilities Exposed by COVID-19

The pandemic has highlighted just how precarious the region’s food supplies are.

Addressing the Southeast Asian Food Security Vulnerabilities Exposed by COVID-19

A street market in Vietnam.

. COVID-19 has similarly disrupted domestic production and distribution, resulting in deficits in key staples such as rice, eggs, and sugar. In Thailand, a drought in 2020 , which caused production to fall dramatically, while the onset of COVID-19 reduced demand. The result was a in 2020, although the market is now recovering.

Refined sugar is shipped in containers. But COVID-19 created logistics concerns over warehousing, port congestion, and increased freight costs. These challenges are not limited to Thailand but are replicated throughout the region. In addressing disruptions to food supplies beyond the pandemic, facilitating the free flow of goods is vital, as is ensuring an adequate labor supply and better management of border controls.

Currently, sustainable agricultural production in Southeast Asia is dependent on a stable supply of migrant labor. Governments in the region need to prioritize, rather than marginalize, migrant farm laborers in order to prevent food insecurity. During the pandemic, the supply of migrant workers was compromised as countries tightened border controls. Thailand experienced a food export shortage . Prior to the pandemic, Thailand was home to more than 3 million migrants, mostly from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Addressing marginalization could protect workers trapped by future border restrictions or conflict-related humanitarian crises.

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Workers in the Thai agricultural sector are faced with below-standard pay and are faced with . Their lack of legal status creates fear and insecurity, and prevents them from a accessing key services. It is critical that ASEAN countries protect migrant workers . When migrant workers do return home – and many have as a result of COVID-19 – there is often little opportunity for them. To address the issue, Cambodia has encouraged its own migrants to return home , offering $40 in temporary monthly pay. The problem, however, is two-fold. Many families depend on the remittances that migrant farm workers send back home and countries like Cambodia cannot absorb the return of so many migrant workers at once.

ASEAN countries must also better understand the “security” component of food security. Southeast Asia, with a , is a large, interconnected set of economies worth over $3 trillion, each of which face persistent challenges due to climate change. Since July, . For Cambodia, which is already is made vulnerable by extreme drought, this is an issue it cannot ignore.

Climate change has caused water levels to drop so dramatically that in the Mekong Delta, causing damage to groundwater and rice paddies almost 100 kilometers inland. While China several years back took some steps to release water to relieve downstream pressures, more recently from upstream. This should, under ordinary circumstances, put Phnom Penh at odds with China, . Water scarcity dramatically impacts foreign policy, as over 60 million people in the lower part of the Mekong depend on the river for their livelihoods and for farming.

from the U.S., Brazil, and other nations, contributing to higher food prices worldwide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that China will have 69 percent of the world’s maize reserves in the first half of 2022, as well as 60 percent of rice. While this may be , the near term effects are negative if China restricts food exports. These actions also telegraph potentially dangerous starve-thy-neighbor policies which would be horrific for the region.

One lesson of the many lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that transparency, accountability, trustworthiness and confidence-building messaging are all vital in reassuring positive and proactive responses. Going forward, responsible food security policies are essential. Little imagination is needed to see repeats of long food queues, panic buying, hoarding, and violence in Southeast Asia if food insecurity is not addressed.

Southeast Asia is reliant on and vulnerable to complex international food supply chains. The consequences of a food security crisis are very real, and as the pandemic weakens and as societies return to a semblance of normalcy, the region must adopt a new food security paradigm that can absorb and be resilient to both internal and external disruptions. Southeast Asia, because of its exposed vulnerabilities, must better understand the security-related aspects of food security and climate change, while creating conditions that can better harness the productivity of farmers, protect vital migrant labor, increase crop yields, keep borders open, and ensure the sustainability of food.

Guest Author

Mark S. Cogan

Mark S. Cogan is an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University based in Osaka, Japan and a former communications specialist with the United Nations.

Guest Author

Paul D. Scott

Paul D. Scott is professor emeritus, Kansai Gaidai University and is currently teaching at the Catholic University of Lille, France. He is an Asian specialist and has done extensive work in Asia.