Commentary: Farmers hold key to feeding Asia amid COVID-19 restrictions
As food security comes into sharper focus this pandemic, paying attention to the challenges of smallholders may be the best way to identify and tackle fresh challenges, say two observers
SINGAPORE: From Pakistan and Malaysia to Australia and New Zealand, an unprecedented freeze on movement of people, goods and services is underway – and understandably so.
COVID-19 has an ever-increasing grip on the Asia-Pacific, and regional governments are reacting in the best way they know to stop the spread of the diabolical pandemic.
In nearby Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand, strict quarantine measures, border closures and nationwide shutdowns for non-essential businesses are in place.
Although Northeast countries such as Japan and South Korea have yet to impose such moves, the regional and international drumbeat to further restrict movement is only growing louder.
But in the rush to lock down borders and limit interaction, it is imperative these measures to address one crisis do not unintentionally create a new one.
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The tenuous balance of food security in Asia – and Southeast Asia in particular – is heavily dependent on regional growers’ access to fundamental farming raw materials such as quality feed, seeds, crop protection products and fertilisers.
Disruptions in the availability of these due to border lockdowns, movement restrictions and retail closures can present challenges in food supply continuity.
With the spring planting season now at hand, ensuring the uninterrupted and timely transboundary movement of the tools that enable farmers to grow safe and nutritious food is more critical than ever before.
THE FOCUS ON FOOD SECURITY
It’s not that food security has been forgotten in the midst of COVID-19 regional reaction – far from it.
Virtually every day there are new reassurances from governments and policy-makers across the region that an ample supply of food will continue to be available and provisions are in place to meet consumer demand.
In mid-March, Singapore announced it “has months’ worth of food stockpiles”. More recently, the Philippines and Malaysia have publicly announced they have ample food supplies, with the latter adding it has enough rice to feed its population for the next two and a half months.
But as the COVID-19 freeze now goes into the second quarter of the year, how long can those reassurances continue to be given?
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Beyond the stockpiles in place across the region, new agricultural production will be essential – and the best way to do that is to make certain our region’s farmers are equipped to grow the crops on which we depend.
Yet there are indications the freeze is already taking a toll in Malaysia where the unintended consequences of the government’s movement control order (MCO) are impacting growers there.
In late-March, CNA reported on frustration among national vegetable farmers who are now facing disruptions and new difficulties in purchasing supplies and access to labour, created or compounded by the order – which is now in place until Apr 14.
Malaysian Vegetable Farmers Association President Tan So Tiok told CNA that with the MCO in place, supply has been reduced by an estimated 30 per cent.
There is also anecdotal evidence of regional farmers’ access to markets being severely impacted due to restrictive movement policies.
Growers in India and Malaysia have been forced to essentially dump vegetables and fruits as a result of transport disruption in the food supply chain.
BIG CHALLENGES FACING SMALLHOLDERS
According to a Business Council for Sustainable Development Singapore 2016 paper, of the roughly 520 million smallholder farmers around the world, nearly 85 per cent of them call Asia home and around 100 million live within Southeast Asia.
These smallholder growers in our region also face a host of unique challenges: Landholder rights issues, lack of access to markets and financing, and acute climate change just to name a few.
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Even outside of this COVID-19 pandemic, various climate change pressures experienced by the region’s smallholders are becoming more extreme. Erratic weather patterns yielding droughts and floods across the region continue to wreak havoc for growers.
Just last year, the crucial monsoon rains many of Southeast Asia’s farmers depend on arrived months late. This spurred a severe drought – leaving the Mekong River at its lowest level in 100 years and area rice farmers unable to plant their chief crop.
In most cases, regional smallholders also don’t enjoy the same availability of technology that many of their counterparts in the west have, and are limited to primitive agricultural methods by comparison.
Crop protection products and seeds are fundamental components in driving seasonal cycles with sowing, harvesting and production. Should their availability to farmers be denied or delayed, it would gravely impact the livelihood of millions of Asia’s farmers – and in turn, regional food security.
Without crop protection products alone, it’s estimated 40 per cent of global rice and corn harvests could be lost every year and losses, while losses for fruits and vegetables could reach as high as 50-90 per cent.
Our regional food security hinges considerably on these smallholder farmers. According to the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), smallholder farmers produce up to 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
These “food heroes” are both the heart and backbone of the food supply value chain in our region.
THE CHALLENGE FACING SINGAPORE
Singapore has been a microcosm for trade policy and its potential repercussions across the entire Asia-Pacific region. With steps taken to ensure an ample, diversified supply of food, the country has been an exemplary model of pragmatic policy-making in the face of the COVID-19 fallout.
But the give-and-take between Singapore and the rest of the region within the realm of food security highlights how fragile the balance is.
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Singapore is not only dependent on the continued transport of food into the country, but also the policy-making of the exporting trade partner that enables it. If Malaysia, Vietnam or any other trade partner doesn’t have the crops to export, then Singapore is left in a vulnerable position.
As Singapore Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing rightly noted in his recent address to Parliament, ensuring the national stockpile is at an adequate level is a “dynamic task that requires constant watch over the fluid global supply landscape”.
Meanwhile the “circuit breaker” announcement by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of new national restrictive steps being implemented brought to light another dimension of this delicate balance.
Singapore is home to strategic facilities operating in the manufacture, and research and development of crop protection chemistries critical to regional food security.
As additional measures are put in place, the operation of these critically important facilities must also remain free from disruption to help ensure the crops on which Singapore and the region depend can be grown.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has a valuable role to play regarding the fragile nature of regional food security, and farmers’ access to quality seeds and crop protection products, in particular, at this consequential time for Asia.
ASEAN economic ministers must work together to guard against the consequences to national and regional food security that closing factories, facilities and retail outlets enabling critical agricultural production would bring.
That crucial coordination across ministries and national boundaries is only one step – but it’s a fundamental first one.
Beyond that, as limited-movement policies and intended essential industry exemptions are realised, hearing directly from farmers on the ground is invaluable.
Much like “see something, say something” has become a recognisable global mantra in relation to homeland security initiatives – creating a formal channel to hear from impacted farmers in real time will help ensure their collective voice is heard and hiccups in the system can be addressed and resolved quickly.
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Dr Kanokwan Chodchoey is Executive Director of Asia and Pacific Seed Association. Dr Siang Hee Tan is Executive Director of CropLife Asia.