Regional and Bilateral Solidarity, Cooperation And Coordination In Food Security Policy

Regional cooperation and coordination will better improve the prospects of ensuring stable supply on a sustainable basis.

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Published in Business Today, Astro Awani & Asia News Today, image by Business Today.

Food security policy requires close regional solidarity in the form of strategic cooperation and coordination. We should be intensifying our outreach to Asean neighbours in an effort to ensure that food security policy can be conducted on a regional basis so that supply chain can be shorter, more diversified and more resilient.

Much like production networks and supply chain reconfiguration (SCR) for manufacturing, the agricultural sector can make do with integrated and inter-connected/inter-dependent lines of operations but reconfigured within a regional context, i.e., Asean. This will lower transportations costs, reduce logistical challenges, address production issues from exporting countries due to weather, flood, policy changes, distribution bottlenecks, etc., as well as promote further economic integration within Asean.

SCR of food supply will be aided by digitalisation of the entire process – not only “from farm to fork” but, perhaps more crucially, within the farm itself (the farming operations).

Instead of just prioritising/focussing on food security and self-sufficiency from a purely domestic point of view, regional cooperation and coordination will better improve the prospects of ensuring stable supply and adequate access on a sustainable basis due to geographical proximity set within pre-existing regional frameworks such as the:

  • Asean Leaders’ Vision Statement on a Cohesive and Responsive Asean: “Rising Above Challenges and Sustaining Growth” (e.g., under “Strengthen resilience of the Asean economies to make them sustainable and less vulnerable to future shocks; stabilising manufacturing, promoting complementarities in the regional supply chain through technology exchange, and ensuring food security and energy security”);
  • Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework, 2020 (Broad Strategy 3: “Maximizing the Potential of Intra-Asean Market and Broader Economic Integration”;
  • “A Pathway towards Recovery and Hope in Asean” by Asean BAC (Business Advisory Council) and Joint Business Councils (JBCs). For example, see “Food Safety & Security: “As a trading group Asean can encourage/support intra Asean trade and Asean could form partnerships with other key countries for inputs/food supplies to support food security resilience in Asean”.

Indeed, food security has been dubbed as a “national responsibility of regional concern” (see “Food security – a national responsibility of regional concern: Malaysia’s case”, Conference on Food Security and Sustainable Development, Nov 11-13 2009).

And there was already the Asean Food Security Reserve (AFSR) designed to pool stockpiles of rice supply in critical times such as disasters. The Second Protocol to update the AFSR was signed in 2012 but there have been no developments since then. Prior to that, the Asean Emergency Rice Reserve (AERR) was created in 1979 as highlighted by Irfan Mujahid, Lukas Kornher & Matthias Kalkuhla in “Asean Food Reserve and Trade: Review and Prospect”, 29th International Conference on Agricultural Economists/ICAE (Aug 8-14, 2015). Initially, “50,000 tons of rice were earmarked to serve as the subset of national stocks in addressing food emergencies in the region. However, due to small size of the stocks and complex release mechanism, the AERR has never really put into practice during the entire period when it was in force for more than a quarter of a century”.

Historically, Malaysia had always considered food security in terms of self-sufficiency in food production (especially in terms of rice) as an integral aspect of its national development policies as exemplified by the Green Book (1974) of the late second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein (from archive of personal notes). Notwithstanding, in absolute terms, complete self-sufficiency would not be that relevant and applicable anymore today.

Indeed, the Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) report on “Achieving food security for all Malaysians” by Prof Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Tan Zhai Gen and Jarud Romadan Khalid made the point that “food security can be more effective, efficiently and cost-effectively ensured by various means, e.g., reliable long-term supply contracts and diversification of supply sources for particular food items”.

Multiple challenges including the global food crisis 2007/08 which was precipitated by the spike of prices for basic items such as rice and wheat in turn caused by inflationary pressure set against the twin backdrop of climate change (extreme weather) and quantitative easing (QE) that affected the supply chain compelled the formulation of an integrated and holistic policy vision, namely the Food Security Policy (2008-2010).

Malaysia under the then Najib administration showed a keen interest to form a “strategic alliance” with selected countries in an effort to enhance food security measures and prepare for contingencies. At the time, such an arrangement was deemed to “more cost-effective than increasing acreage”.  Food security – by its very nature – is not an exclusively national problem with little or no regional and global ramifications.

The Asean Integrated Food Security/AIFS Framework (2015-2020) and the concomitant of the Strategic Plan of Action on Food Security/SPA-FS (2015-2020) should be renewed and updated – to build and develop therein, and transform the pre-existing general policy intentions and commitments into concrete action and take these to the next level.

This requires that Asean member-states decide among themselves as to how their respective contributions and roles would pan out – set within the context of an integrated series of agricultural production networks and broader supply chain system from the upstream to the downstream.

For example, there should be agreement that production of certain types of vegetable (like chillies, red onions, soybean, sawi/mustard green) be the mainstay of production in a certain member-state and that post-harvesting the supply be subject to a quota whereby a certain percentage be earmarked for export to the rest of Asean (subject to respective demands). Other member-states can then focus on other types of vegetable production subject to the same export quota practice or to meet domestic demand.

In exploring the idea of a “land bridge” – whether inland (riparian – in the form of canals) or sea (littoral – in the form of a bridge proper under e.g., the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand-Growth Triangle/IMT-GT or the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area/BIMP-EAGA), the land adjacent to it or separate sections, respectively, be set aside for the cultivation of vegetables that can be harvested in a very short cycle time and quickly transported across the border and would come under regional management and supervision.

Likewise, a regional airbridge strategy and action plan should also be formulated targeting areas inaccessible by road transportation as a result of external supply chain bottlenecks or outbreak of war.

A common fisheries policy (CFP) should be considered whereby instead of deep-sea fishing of member-states’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – as in the case of the European Union (EU) which results in stock depletion and catch restrictions (total allowable catch) – mega aquafarming projects are to be promoted in the border areas that allow for seamless cross-border movement and breeding. This not only promotes joint/cross-border investment from the private sector but also a more organised and systematic and, hence, viable alternative to deep-sea fishing which results in unfair playing field.

Not least the establishment of a common strategic reserve for rice stockpiles and other essential food supply should also be revived under the oversight of the Asean Food Security Reserve Board (AFSRB).

Asean on the back of funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and perhaps a newly created “Asean Business Infrastructure Bank (Abib)” could construct cross-border underground cargo tunnels to ensure continuous and interrupted flow of food supplies that will also help in price management and contain imported inflationary pressures. It will also be an impetus in spurring the concomitant digitalisation of trade facilitation procedures that involve electronic checks and scans behind national borders (advance verification) further reducing transaction costs, minimise imports controls, and not least shortening supply chain time.

Deploying technologies such as near-synchronous magnetic motors which is similar to the technology used in roller coasters, underground tunnels would also speed up the supply chain process.

It’ll also strengthen the Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) and the wider Asean Economic Community (AEC) by promoting intra-regional trade and cross-border flow of goods.

At a bilateral level, as Thailand is one of the world’s top rice producers (and exporting countries) in the world, and considering the geographical proximity, it should only be logical and natural that a “strategic alliance” as proposed before be formed with Malaysia with particular reference to the Southern Provinces as part of Joint Development Strategy (JDS) for Border Areas.

The large swathes or tracts of virgin land there are not subject to the risks of natural catastrophes. As such, there should be inter-agency cooperation at the bilateral level such as between the Muda Agriculture Development Authority (Mada) in Kedah and Kemubu Agriculture Development Authority (Kada) in Kelantan with their counterparts under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand to promote a “geographically seamless production networks” of padi fields where there can be sharing of irrigation, processing and storage facilities across the border.

In conclusion, it’s hoped that food security can be on top of the agenda come the next Asean Summit in 2022.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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