As food prices and food insecurity remain at high levels globally, Southeast Asia enjoys both an advantage and a challenge.
The advantage is the success the region has enjoyed in increasing food production and reducing hunger in recent decades. Thailand has halved the proportion of its population that is undernourished, from 29% to 16% in the past 20 years. Vietnam made a similarly marked reduction from 28% to 11% during the same period. Indonesia doubled cereals production and quadrupled meat production over 30 years.
The challenge is that maintaining and advancing this progress will require vigorous effort, due to several factors that pose increasing risks. What are these factors?
One is rising demand. As Southeast Asia’s population grows and becomes more prosperous, it is demanding not only a greater quantity of food, but a greater and more resource-intensive variety of foods as well. This includes items such as processed foods and meat, which require substantially more natural resources to produce than traditional foods such as grains, vegetables and fish.
Another is intensifying natural disasters. The recent floods in Thailand had far-reaching effects. They destroyed over 10% of cropland in Thailand and Cambodia, sweeping away the assets and livelihoods of millions of farmers, jeopardizing regional food supplies and driving food prices higher.
A third is the longer-term need for environmental sustainability, to maintain natural resources that are essential for food production and human health. Agriculture has been a significant driver of deforestation in the region, and in many countries the sector consumes over 90% of available freshwater resources.
Lastly, poverty remains a persistent challenge in some areas. Here however, agriculture can be a powerful solution. In Vietnam, where 62% of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods, a strong national focus on increasing opportunities for smallholder farmers has helped reduce hunger and poverty.
In short, while Southeast Asia has enjoyed steady improvements and a regional advantage as a major food producer, the region must remain vigilant to maintain this progress, developing new and innovative approaches to ensuring sustainability and food security.
One way to ensure this competitive edge is to leverage the innovation and market power of the private sector. The World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture initiative is working with government and business leaders in both Vietnam and Indonesia to advance progress toward national goals through greater public-private collaboration. In both countries, the Forum has helped form national partnerships engaging global and local companies with the government and other stakeholders – such as civil society, international organizations and farmers associations – to improve sustainable production of key commodities. At the World Economic Forum on East Asia this week in Bangkok, leaders of both partnerships will report progress and share their approach with others.
The New Vision for Agriculture partnerships are unique because they encourage countries to set their own priorities for agricultural development and food security, then help to engage the private sector as a partner in realizing those goals. We do this through providing a neutral, multi-stakeholder platform anchored in a vision for agriculture as a provider of food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity.
Another important approach that Southeast Asian nations can leverage is international cooperation. ASEAN, the G20, the United Nations, and other regional and global platforms are all placing increased focus on food security in the region.
East Asia’s agriculture sector is already serving as a breadbasket for the region and the world. However as regional and global demand grows, it will be called to provide even more. Meeting that demand will require new levels of collaboration, innovation and investment from both public and private sectors. Success will mean a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future for East Asia and the world.
Lisa Dreier is Director of Food Security and Development Initiatives at the World Economic Forum USA.
For more information, visit our websites at http://www.weforum.org/agriculture.