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Why Asia is struggling with food security

Source:FoodPacific Manufacturing Journal     Date:2022-01-26
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THE FAO defines food security as when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. In many parts of the world, even in highly industrialised countries, food security is challenged by population growth (2 billion by the year 2050), climate change, changing consumer tastes, water scarcity, agricultural problems, and now the pandemic.


In this Q&A with FoodPacific Manufacturing Journal, James Zhou, Chief Commercial Officer and Head of Asia, Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC), talks about the situation in Asia, and how LDC is helping with solutions for the agricultural sector.

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What does food security mean for the diverse region of Asia, and why does the region remain at the core of global food insecurity? How has the region reached this point?

Asia is the world's key supplier and largest consumer of food, yet remains home to the largest population of food insecure households, with an estimated 265 million people facing acute food insecurity. Commonly defined by the measure of the availability of food and individuals' physical and economic ability to access it, being in a state of acute food insecurity means that families are often forced to choose between poverty or starvation.


Due in part to the impacts of the ongoing global pandemic, including supply chain disruptions and reduced access to rural areas, food security in Asia has progressed little in the past two years.


The effects of climate change, including extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms in recent years, have also impacted food security in the region. Farmers in Asia are amongst the most vulnerable to climate change impacts on temperatures, sea levels or river deltas. Studies have shown that the majority of Asia's crops fail under rising salinity conditions, with farmers and smallholders potentially losing anywhere from 7% to 89% of their crop.


What is the situation in Southeast Asia, with each country having unique characteristics and needs?


There is a significant disparity in food security across the region. For example, in the most recent Global Food Security Index (GFSI), Singapore maintained its position within the top 20 food secure countries in the world, while Cambodia and Laos ranked below average in the index.

As such, for economic blocs such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), food security continues to be a key priority. The bloc's Integrated Food Security Framework outlines member countries' commitment to operate and cooperate in relation to food production and trade – including on information and technology exchange.

For developing countries in the region, the most immediate action would be to optimise local food production via smallholder farmer training and investments in agri-tech to support their agriculture infrastructure. This can be done through public-private partnerships such as Louis Dreyfus Company's (LDC) joint project with Dutch non-profit organisation SNV and the Louis Dreyfus Foundation to help farmers in Indonesia adopt sustainable farming practices to increase their yields and incomes, and access certification.

Furthermore, as no single country can produce every type of crop desired by their citizens, continued opening up of food trade will also help to increase food security within ASEAN, allowing each country to leverage its comparative advantage in food production, benefitting producers and consumers alike by making food more available and affordable.


What lessons can Asia learn from Singapore – the only Asian nation with consistent rankings amongst the world's most food secure countries, despite having no natural resources? How can other ASEAN countries mimic Singapore?


Singapore is one of the most food-secure countries in Asia and the world, despite being a small city-state where only 1% of land is available for food production. Singapore has successfully climbed the global ranks in food security due to an open trade environment.


Singapore's core strategy for lasting food security hinges on food source diversification. With over 160 agriculture partners across the globe, Singapore is able to import meat, fresh produce, and other essential products to ensure the country is well-nourished. Should one supply chain be disrupted, importers can rely on alternative sources to ensure supply continuity. These partnerships are not random; the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) works with importers to organise trade missions and business matchmaking sessions to meet Singapore's food demand and quality expectations.


During the pandemic, the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) also increased investments in local food production and innovation with a new Agri-Food Cluster Transformation Fund, a S$60 million investment in agri-food transformation that helps local farmers better harness technology to boost productivity.


Other nations can take a leaf out of Singapore's food playbook – by setting aside a greater portion of the country's GDP for investment in agri-food transformation or by encouraging public-private partnerships within agri-tech.


How can agri-networks pool resources together to improve the efficiency of food systems and increasing beneficiary resiliency in select value chains?

The agriculture sector cannot improve the efficiency of food systems on its own. It requires support from multiple stakeholders – smallholder farmers, governments, policy makers and food manufacturers. Widespread collaboration is necessary for agriculture productivity to prosper and, in turn, for food security to improve in Asia.

The World Economic Forum and ASEAN's Grow Asia initiative highlights the benefits of such multi-stakeholder partnership. This platform brings together farmers, governments, the private sector, NGOs and other stakeholders in Southeast Asia to increase the productivity, profitability and environmental sustainability of smallholder agriculture. The collaborative effort promotes countries who are leaders in agriculture to share their experiences and processes with others, so they may adapt these to local needs in line with the United Nations' sustainable development goals.


At LDC, we believe an efficient food system is within reach given the right tools and partnerships. We recently announced our involvement in the newly launched Singapore Agri-Food Innovation Lab (SAIL) with NTU Singapore and Enterprise Singapore (ESG). The initiative aims to seed collaboration between industry stakeholders, research institutes and educational institutions, aiming to facilitate further innovation and efficiency within the agriculture landscape through knowledge-sharing.


Smallholder farmers must also collaborate and communicate with food manufacturers to diversify and respond to market and consumer demand. Organisations can support them by training farming communities to adopt sustainable agriculture practices.


Recently, LDC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Institute of Technology Sumatera (ITERA) and the State Polytechnic of Lampung (Polinela) to support 6- to 12-month internships for students within our coffee and palm departments, helping to prepare students to enter the workforce while disseminating knowledge of sustainable farming practices.


How does investing in on- and off-farm technologies and practices help farmer cooperatives increase economic and climate resilience? Are there programmes that work to accomplish these?


Economic and climate resilience can be enhanced by implementing short and long-term adaption strategies supported by new technologies. In Asia, the increased adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) within agriculture, coupled with a push for sustainable farming technologies, has created a new era known as Agri Tech 4.0.


For example, Big Data has played a pivotal role in providing farmers in rural areas with granular data on rainfall patterns, water cycles and fertilizer requirements. This enables them to make well-informed decisions, such as what crops to plant for better profitability and when to harvest – ultimately improving farm yields.


We are also seeing a number of companies investing in urban farming technologies to encourage the growth of climate-resilient crops. In Singapore, urban farming has been incredibly helpful in the discovery of innovative methods to increase local produce, such as the adoption of climate-controlled spaces for precision farming, empowering farmers in unpredictable climates with technologies to increase crop growth and create resilient systems.


In 2020, we established LDC Innovations, our corporate venture capital programme, to invest in innovations with the potential to transform the food and agriculture industries. Through this programme, we are investing in early-stage companies pursuing technology-enabled innovation to create healthier and more sustainable food, feed and ingredient options.

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