When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the ASEAN region, a few member countries have resorted to imposition of rice exports in what to be understood as securing adequate food supply for their national needs. As early as March 25, Vietnam suspended its issuance of clearance for rice exports to other countries ⸺ the first country to do so in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, Myanmar and Cambodia also followed suit, with the former suspending rice export permits on April 3 while the latter banning rice exports two days later. By then, Thailand was the only major rice-exporting country that kept its rice exports open within the ASEAN region and beyond.
Despite Vietnam and Cambodia eventually ended their rice import curbs later on, the sudden rice export ban was a huge shock to the major rice-importing countries in ASEAN such as the Philippines and Indonesia. At this point, it was clear that these governments not only had to deal with the public health crisis and the economic one after that but also, the immediate food security shock that emanated from the sudden rice import curbs by neighbouring countries. In spite of such shock being a short one (from late March to early May), it inherently exposed two fundamental problems ever since ASEAN started to tackle on the food security challenge more than a decade ago.
The Twin Problems
First and foremost, ASEAN as a region, still does not have adequate rice reserve that can cater to all countries during emergency periods (including the COVID-19 pandemic). This was despite that ASEAN Plus Three has devoted 787,000 metric tons of rice stockpile for the use of its participating member countries since 2011. Given the consecutive rice import curbs imposed by the major rice-exporting ASEAN countries, such stockpile has been rendered ineffective to deal with such unprecedented global health crisis. With the acute shortage of rice supply in the market due to the rice import curbs, having such rice reserve was not instrumental in helping major importing ASEAN countries (such as the Philippines and Indonesia) to secure the needed volume of rice (> million metric tons) for their domestic consumption. Had it not for Thailand which kept its rice opened for exports overseas, these major rice-importing countries would have an even bigger food security crisis to deal with.
That said, such dependence on one market also gave rise to another problem. With Thailand remained as the major rice exporter in ASEAN that continued its exports, it also distorted the rice prices in the market. As reported by Thai Rice Exporters Association, the country’s white rice was capped at US$ 579 per metric ton on April 8 ⸺ a 13.5% increase from that of the price on March 18. For certain, such elevated rice prices would definitely produce pressure to those major rice-importing countries as they now had to fork out even more funds to purchase the staple food in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. By all means, this is definitely an additional financial burden for those countries that faced tight national budgets even before the global pandemic struck their shores.
Risk-Adverse Measures are Needed
Given these two underlying problems as exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN needs to start prioritising its measures against any food security shock or even crisis in the future. Whilst the latest Hanoi Plan of Action on Strengthening ASEAN Economic Cooperation and Supply Chain Connectivity in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic is a good move that saw a list of consensuses being forged by the ten member countries, additional risk-adverse measures are urgently needed to prevent food access from sudden disruption in the global supply chain. From Anbound’s perspective, there are two vital risk-adverse measures which the Southeast Asian bloc should undertake urgently in ensuring regional food security during emergencies.
The first measure is to declare food production, marketing and distribution as essential services throughout ASEAN. As suggested by the United Nations (UN) in its Policy Brief regarding COVID-19’s Impact on Food Security and Nutrition, this will protect food systems from any supply chain disruption due to the global pandemic. What ASEAN can start is to designate those engaging in the food systems as parties of essential services and thereby, allow the providers, marketers and distributors to continue supplying those commodities (fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and dairy) to all member countries during emergency periods. More than just ensuring food access to all ASEAN countries, it will also keep those jobs within the food systems intact during the COVID-19 pandemic. As accurately acknowledged by the UN, these food workers should be categorised as frontline workers, just as how we refer to the medical workers during this pandemic period.
The second measure is for ASEAN to have its own food reserve in the long run. This can be viewed from two sides of the same coin. As far as rice (most important staple food) is concerned, the quantity of earmarked stocks in the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR) should be increased by 20-30% from the current 787,000 metric tons. This will ease the twin problems of rice shortage and spiralling prices as faced by major rice-importing ASEAN countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Exactly how fast such upgrading exercise can be completed, this will largely depend on how swift the ASEAN decision-makers are able to iron out the details with the Plus Three partners of China, Japan and South Korea.
On the other hand, it is also timely for ASEAN to stockpile other food apart from rice. A good start will be following up from the list of priority commodities as detailed in both ASEAN Integrated Food Security (AIFS) Framework and Strategic Plan of Action on Food Security in the ASEAN Region (SPA-FS) 2015-2020. For a first start, each ASEAN country (especially in cooperation with Plus Three external partners) can allocate a certain volume for maize, soybean, sugar and cassava into the reserve bank ⸺ for which the stockpiles can be used by any ASEAN country (or Plus Three external partners) when it runs out of its national reserve during emergencies. In the longer term, ASEAN and its Plus Three external partners can even add new list of food inventories (meat, fish and dairy) into such stockpiling institution and thereby, enrich the variety of food reserve for all participating countries to utilise during emergencies.
If the two risk-adverse measures are implemented (even partially), it will be a great boost for ASEAN’s long-standing search for food security for the past decade and more. Certainly, there are already numerous meetings involving ASEAN countries and their Plus Three partners, in tackling this complicated issue of food security. While discussions and workshops are essential for reaching plurilateral consensuses, it is equally important for ASEAN to implement them on the ground as well. Prioritising the implementation of the two risk-adverse measures will tackle the food security issue in the short-term.
*ANBOUND Research Center (Malaysia) is an independent think tank situated in Kuala Lumpur, registered (1006190-U) with laws and regulations of Malaysia. The think tank also provides advisory service related to regional economic development and policy solution. For any feedback, please contact: [email protected].