Post-pandemic ASEAN: Rebuilding ASEAN’s collapsed food system
The pandemic has led to two very different stories about the food industry. On the one hand, we have seen stories of distressed farmers dumping surplus produce they could not sell, with some Malaysian farmers having to waste 70% of their fruits and vegetables or slaughtering livestock they could no longer afford. allow to keep.
Meanwhile, store shelves repeatedly emptied as panicked shoppers reported they couldn’t find flour, eggs, fruits and vegetables and other basic necessities. Those who already lived in “food deserts” — areas that have limited access to affordable, nutritious food — found their options were even more limited. Meanwhile, the United Nations reported that world hunger has worsened during the pandemic, with up to 811 million people suffering from undernutrition.
These are symptoms of a food system that is broken down from farm to table. There is adequate supply and certainly sufficient demand: something the market should supposedly be able to resolve automatically. And yet, farmers and consumers are left with no options or only suboptimal choices.
The pandemic has exposed all the fundamental instabilities in our food systems. Closing borders meant that farmers in Asean could not hire (low-paid) migrant labor to pick fruits and vegetables to ensure prices remained low for the middle classes (nearly 75% low-skilled workers have suffered a drop in income in Myanmar, for example) who in turn overconsume and do not think about food waste. Closed factories meant that products could not be processed and packaged; Vietnam reported that tens of thousands of workers left Ho Chi Minh City and surrounding areas after the lockdowns were put in place. Similarly, disruptions in air and sea transport have prevented food from reaching international markets. Closed offices, schools, tourist hubs and restaurants have taken away some of food distributors’ biggest customers.
Some countries attempted to preserve these systems during the early stages of the pandemic, but these presented their own risks. In Thailand, one of the main hotspots for confirmed cases was meatpacking plants: activities often declared essential to feed Thailand and have even been declared a potential national security concern. Under the ‘Bubble and Seal’ scheme, seagoing crews continued to outfit large container ships to ensure goods were still exchanged, but they were often isolated and suspicious as potential vectors of disease when they reached the ports.
The pandemic has also exposed the dangers of the long-term choices society has made when it comes to food. Poor diet resulting from the unchecked global proliferation of the junk food industry has increased rates of non-communicable diseases – such as diabetes and heart disease – around the world: these conditions are not only harmful in themselves, they also increase the risk of complications from other communicable diseases, such as Covid-19. Malaysia is the most obese country in Asean, and regulators have an obligation to step in and stem the global expansion of the junk food industry and its local cousins if the nation is to rein in this public health crisis.
Additionally, many local economies have allowed their local food systems to atrophy, relying instead on imported products from other countries. Traditional rice-growing areas – like Asean – need to reverse this trend, which has led them to import rice from the United States and Australia. Malaysia, for example, is only about 70% self-sufficient in rice, according to the Khazanah Research Institute. There is a need to invest in local production to help sustain the market in the event of a shock to trade linkages. Food must be priced correctly to ensure that people can and do eat healthily.
These challenges mean that governments will have to radically rethink their approach to food systems.
First, governments must invest in local food production, especially in staples. This will require significant support, as these local farmers need to be able to earn a living, even when competing with larger, global food producers. In this sense, local food production, especially of basic foodstuffs, must be considered as a “strategic product”. This would not necessarily seek to replace the global commodity market, but rather allow for the development of greater market stability when systems are disrupted.
Second, governments need to develop better food distribution systems, especially in poorer communities that lack options. Processed foods are popular in poor communities because they last longer, are easy to prepare, and inexpensive; yet they are significantly less healthy than fresh whole foods, as they contain fewer nutrients and even carcinogens. Governments must protect these communities by investing in local distribution of fresh food and improving electricity supply to extend shelf life. This is a time for a global effort in which countries invest in and encourage community food production.
Finally, governments must ensure that food retailers have enough stock in stock to account for panic buying. Research has shown that empty store shelves were not the result of a few hoarders, but rather the result of many people deciding to buy “one more item”: an understandable impulse given the uncertainty and the fear that ensues in a crisis situation. Due to a lack of inventory, this was enough to clear store shelves, which only increased the rate of panic buying as people then tried to buy essential goods before they don’t disappear.
Governments must establish regulations to ensure that grocery stores have enough stocks of essentials the next time there is a crisis, in the same way that governments now require banks to keep sufficient reserves to avoid panics banking. Stores can’t stock everything, so governments need to model how societies react to uncertainty.
It would be a comeback for ASEAN governments, which have always been judged on their ability to provide adequate levels of affordable food to their people. Shortages and rising prices have sparked protests, unrest and revolutions throughout history. Our food system is deeply rooted in waste and economically dependent on excessive consumption. The pandemic has brought all these questions back to the fore. It is time for governments to resume their role of ensuring healthy and adequate food for all.
Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow. This article is part of a series on key areas where ASEAN, as part of a regional and global system, must consider transforming itself if it is to learn lessons from the pandemic, identify future opportunities and realize social change for the better.