Good Earth

Strengthening food systems in South-east Asia

03:50 SGT July 13, 2017
Countries in the region look at accelerating food production and exports in a sustainable way

By Mili Semlani

Home to more than 600 million people, the member states of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) form the eighth largest economy in the world. From developed economies like Singapore and Brunei to growing middle-income countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, and to slowly emerging ones like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, South-east Asia is rapidly growing.

Apart from deep-rooted heritage and diverse cultures, the one thing they all have in common is that on an average, more than half of the population live in rural areas (rising to 80% in Laos) and agriculture is the main source of employment in most of these countries. The region is gifted with natural resources and ecosystems such as the Mekong Delta and the rainforests of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Borneo.

But with the strain of rising population, inefficient farming practices and pollution caused by rapid industrialisation, the region is far from self-sufficiency in food. To top it all, the recent adverse climatic changes have caused unforeseen natural disasters, including droughts, typhoons, tsunamis and cyclones, further deteriorating the agricultural production and livelihoods of the farming communities.

South-east Asia is expected to see an increase in food demand by as much as 40% by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum on ASEAN. Hence, regional integration to promote sustainable agricultural development is the need of the hour. 

When it comes to the future of food security, South-east Asia looks as one of the most promising agricultural baskets of the world. But these countries can do so only with increased investment, knowledge transfer and innovation, financial inclusion and market access for farmers, improved policies, and better infrastructure.

Although a tall order, Grow Asia seeks to reach 10 million smallholder farmers to increase farm productivity, profitability and environmental sustainability by 20% by 2020.

To support and streamline this objective, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and a five-year strategy for improving the region’s food security were launched in 2015. The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the ASEAN Secretariat, catalysed a multi-stakeholder partnership platform, Grow Asia.

The aim of Grow Asia was to promote agriculture development of ASEAN by a new type of partnership in which leaders from governments, companies, farmer organizations, academia and civil societies share their concerns, define goals and plans, and look to one another as equal partners in improving the system together.

Although a tall order, Grow Asia seeks to reach 10 million smallholder farmers to increase farm productivity, profitability and environmental sustainability by 20% by 2020, says Grow Asia’s executive director, Grahame Dixie.

Drawing from the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture (NVA), Grow Asia’s country-led and local penetration approach plans to contribute to food security in the region by working across agricultural value chains — from farm to fork — and develop scalable, market-based solutions for sustainable, inclusive agriculture development.

“We want to play a role in linking partners with farmers to increase production. That is what will help the industry,” says Dixie. “We work with MNCs, NGOs, research organizations, civil societies, governments and the local farmer communities to voice issues and regional priorities, to be able to facilitate solutions that benefit all or most of them.”

The focus especially lies on supporting the 100 million smallholder farmers who dominate South-east Asia’s agricultural landscape. Farming on less than 2ha of land, and working with changing weather patterns and fluctuating prices, these farmers have considerably low access to technology and agricultural know-how. As a result, the bulk of these poor farmers tend to overuse the land and water resources, and sometimes even extend their farms at the expense of forests, or use low-quality inputs and technology — thus, negatively impacting output.

Tina Lawton, regional director, Syngenta APAC, says, “Smallholders have the greatest potential to grow more food for the world, and they don’t always receive full value for what they produce. A sustainable value chain that supports smallholders can help them continue to farm in a profitable and responsible way.”

She adds that partnership models need to consider the commercial needs of the private sector and the development agendas of public organizations. In Indonesia, they co-developed an Integrated Supply Chain Corn Partnership to provide micro-financing to farmers and help them access markets in West Nusa Tenggara. This partnership included banks, local retailers and grain traders.

As a result, the farmers increased their productivity by 10%, earning IDR1.8 million (US$135) more per hectare. The businesses involved earned access to new markets and a steady source of quality supply, win-win for both.

A similar coffee project in Vietnam — a collaboration of companies such as Nestlé, Yara and Syngenta, NGOs such as IDH and 4C, and research agencies led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development — has helped farmers increase yield by 10% and profit by 14% while reducing water use by 40% and greenhouse gas emissions by 54%.

Based on this success, the government is now aiming to institutionalize the programme and take it to more districts while linking processing, trade, finance and sustainability to coffee production across the country.

At the Grow Asia Forum in May this year, held in Cambodia alongside the World Economic Forum on ASEAN, Nguyen Xuan Cuong, Vietnam’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, said: “Vietnam faces three key challenges: limited scope of production for smallholders, climate change and risk of national disasters, and pressures of competition and global trade.

“The Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture in Vietnam (PSAV) 8 Task Force value chain projects have great potential for creating a model of sustainable agriculture in Vietnam, especially for coffee and tea. The plan now is to review the coffee and tea value chains and scale up production models for 10 strategic commodities in Vietnam, with a view to target international markets.”

Dairy product manufacturer, FrieslandCampina, has been running the Dairy Development Programme (DDP) since the 1980s in Asia with a view to empower smallholder dairy farmers, says Sybren Attema, regional dairy development manager, FrieslandCampina. Supporting more than 240,000 local farmers in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Pakistan directly or indirectly, DDP has given local farmers access to the skills and knowledge to help them raise the safety and quality of the raw milk they produce.

In Indonesia, FrieslandCampina works with local governments, NGOs and dairy cooperatives to develop and train farmers in selected dairy development villages and zones. One of their key activities in Indonesia is the improvement of milk collection. This is done by training farmers and the introduction of cooled Milk Collection Points (MCPs).

In September 2015, they introduced an automated MCP in Los Cimaung Pangalengan, West Java involving 189 farmers. Within three months of the project, milk production increased by 10% and farmers’ income increased averagely by 10%, Attema relates.

They also have a ‘Farmer2Farmer’ exchange programme, whereby farmers in Asia can exchange ideas and best practices with FrieslandCampina member farmers in the Netherlands, thus leveraging the company’s 145 years of Dutch dairy heritage and experience.

Grow Asia’s focus on Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar and Cambodia is primarily to facilitate such partnerships with the cooperation of local governments, farmer associations, NGOs and food manufacturers. Its top three projects (two in Indonesia, one in Vietnam) are already helping about 90,000 farmers.

The middle-class demographic in South-east Asia will nearly double by 2020. The Economic Development Board of Singapore forecasts that this demographic will make up 60% of the region’s population. The boom will also bring in a growing millennial generation with higher disposable incomes and different taste palettes.

The demand and supply patterns are set to change. But food supply may not grow equally well. The threat of a global food challenge looms ahead. The world will need to produce 50% more food to cater to an expected population of nine billion in 2050. According to a BMI Research, consumption among South-east Asians in two main food groups — fish and sugar, and their related products — are expected to increase at an exponential rate over the next five years.

How will the F&B industry in South-east Asia address this unprecedented demand for food while ensuring production processes are sustainable?

The answer lies in technology, says Mathias Kuepper, managing director, Koelnmesse Pte Ltd, organiser of THAIFEX – World of Food Asia.

The F&B industry has to adopt technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and analytics to predict cycles, weather patterns and its effect on supply, to determine consumer demand and correspondingly increase or decrease supply, thus ensuring minimum wastage, he points out.

However, given the costs of innovation and technology, it may not be fully viable for some of the developing economies in the region. So a combination of various factors and resources need to be applied for sustainable development. “Among the most successful and promising advances is food and agricultural biotechnology, which includes a range of benefits for the food supply through various breeding and other techniques,” says Kuepper.

Apart from the various diplomatic and government cooperations, regional trade shows such as THAIFEX-World of Food Asia also realized the need to bring together various stakeholders to exchange ideas and solutions. Attema of FrieslandCampina says: “We therefore need to build resilience within the industry by promoting farming, and by making the profession an attractive option for future generations.”

Summing up the key discussions at the Grow Asia Forum, Grow Asia’s Dixie said that digital innovation, closer engagements with the government, and promotion of women farmers and next-generation farmers will take us closer to sustainable food production and security.