Disruption, Insecurities & Pandemic: Confronting Food Self-(in)Sufficiency in Southeast Asia

Ariff Hafizi Radzi - Advisor - Reducing Inequalities Program


Millions of people go to bed with no food on their table. Undernutrition and hunger can leave an irreversible impact on everyone, especially children's growth and development. According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (‘FAO’), a state of food security refers to a situation “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Food security is subject to several factors including food availability, access and distribution. 

ASEAN is an intergovernmental regional organisation of 10 countries in Southeast Asia. It comprises Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Following the signing of ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992, intra-ASEAN agricultural trade has grown tremendously. The key agriculture crop in ASEAN is rice, with Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia being the main exporters to the other member states. Singapore is heavily dependent on Malaysia for agriculture products and food imports for domestic consumption. Fresh fruits such as mangoes are commonly sourced from Thailand. Within ASEAN, food security and supply chain are basically a complex web of interdependencies.

Picture by Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times

Ever since government-mandated lockdowns and movement control orders were implemented all over the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a fear that food supplies will start to dry up and there will not be enough food for everyone in particularly when there is a possibility of a disruption in supply chain connectivity. COVID-19 influences the supply and demand for food which is intertwined with the state of food security and self-sufficiency. This article explores how the COVID-19 crisis has affected the vulnerability to food insecurity by comparing the patterns of disruptions of supply and demand for food in Southeast Asian countries and provides an overview of the solutions that have been put forward by Southeast Asian countries to solve the problem.   

Patterns of Disruptions 

1. Trade Restrictions 

In times of crisis, some countries may decide to adopt protectionist policies to ensure national food self-sufficiency. Until early April 2020, Vietnam, the world third largest rice exporter, enforced a rice export ban to guarantee that there is no shortage of rice domestically. A similar approach, despite being temporary, was also taken by Cambodia where all rice exports were halted except for fragrant rice. Protectionist policies harm the total food availability for intra-ASEAN trade and are against regional efforts to maintain ASEAN-wide food security. These actions also threaten the stability of food prices in importing countries.

2. Shortage of Labour Force

In Thailand, although there is no rice export ban being put in place, there has been disruption with respect to the availability of the labour force. As Thailand implemented a national lockdown, thousands of migrant workers from neighbouring countries i.e. Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar have returned to their homelands. Rice planting season in Thailand is normally from April to May and this coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19. Rice planting is a manual process and Thailand has been greatly reliant on the migrant workers for rice planting over the years. Even though Thailand has recently reopened its economy, the restrictions and rules in respect of entry of foreigners into its country are still effective. This has proven to be an obstacle for the migrant workers to re-enter the country and resume working.  

3. Water Shortage & Drought

Together with the labour shortage, Thailand and the Mekong regions are also currently experiencing a serious water shortage. Drought caused by climate change and the construction of hydropower dam in the upper stream of Mekong river is not only hitting Thailand but also other countries in mainland Southeast Asia i.e. Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. These countries require an uninterrupted flow of water from the Mekong River for their irrigation, planting and everyday life.  With all these issues unfolding concurrently, rice prices would definitely increase unless the respective governments in ASEAN take steps to control the price volatility. 

4. Movement Restrictions 

Enforcement of national lockdowns and movement control orders shake the network of supply chain and logistics both domestically and internationally. Farmers face challenges in transporting their produce with the breakdown of transportation systems and movement restrictions. Likewise, agricultural essentials such as seeds and peats would take more time to reach the farmers. With many farmers struggling to sell their crops, some had to let go of their produce at a very cheap price due to lack of buyers and no access to markets. Closure of food outlets, restaurants and schools means there are some slowing demands for certain food commodities and breach of pre-existing supply and purchase arrangements. Farmers are then forced to destroy their products such as eggs and dairy products at the place of production. At the peak of COVID-19 crisis in China, all logistics to and from China were completely frozen. This situation had left a devastating impact on cross border trade between China with Southeast Asian countries. For example, in Myanmar, thousands of watermelons harvested from Shan state which were China-bound were stopped at the border and left to rot. There were huge financial losses suffered by the farmers. At the importing countries, especially in their big cities, these agricultural products were lacking and insufficient.  

5. Food Unavailability 

Food security is also about affordability and assured opportunity to obtain nutritious food in socially acceptable ways. At the start of the pandemic, the demand for food surged due to panic buying and the practice of hoarding. This situation has influenced both the availability and the prices of essential food supplies. It also strained the ability of food relief organizations and further drives those who are already economically vulnerable to starvation. 

6. Decrease in Purchasing Power 

As the pandemic continues to spread, many businesses have to either temporarily suspend or cease their operations. Job losses and unemployment are soaring, prompting insecurities and distresses on household debts defaults. The vulnerable families and households are feeling the negative impact of the pandemic the most. They typically do not have any savings and work for daily or hourly income. All of these circumstances have led to a decrease in people’s spending capacity and further exacerbated food insecurity. In some places, desperate individuals have resorted to looting and stealing because of hunger. 

Responses to the Problem

1. Urgent Collaboration on Food Security in ASEAN

This pandemic has made Southeast Asians appreciate that none of us is fully food self-sufficient. Some of the crucial essential food such as fresh tropical fruits and rice are not cultivated locally and have to be imported from other countries. As such, effective regional cooperation to ensure food security in ASEAN is much needed. In light of the outbreak of COVID-19, ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry, have released a joint statement and amongst others, agreed to: 

i) minimise disruptions in regional food supply chains by working closely together to ensure that markets are kept open and transportation of agricultural and food products are facilitated, and that quarantine or other non-tariff measures do not impede or slow down the free flow of agricultural and food products in the region; 

ii) ensure that trade lines remain open, including via air, sea and land freight, to facilitate the flow of agricultural and food products, and that critical infrastructure such as our air and seaports remain open to support the viability and integrity of supply chains; 

iii) in accordance with the rights and obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO) covered agreements and the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA), refrain from imposing new export control, restrictions and prohibitions, tariffs and non- tariff barriers; and

iv) strive to reduce excessive price volatility particularly price spikes, ensure adequate emergency food and reserves and provide timely and accurate market information through the effective implementation of the ASEAN Food Security Information System (AFSIS) and ASEAN Plus Three Rice Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR)”.

2. Governmental Assistance

National social safety nets are critical to mitigate the financial fallout, especially for the poor segments of the community. Cash transfers and free food ration can help to alleviate the financial burden and overcome the basic needs of those who are economically most vulnerable. On 24 March 2020, the Philippines passed Bayanihan to Heal as One Act which gives President Duterte additional authority to combat COVID-19. Under this law, the Philippines will distribute an emergency cash aid of P5,000 (US$98.70) to P8,000 (US$157.91) a month to 18 million low-income families in the country. In Indonesia and Vietnam, semi-automated rice distribution centres, commonly known as “rice ATMs”, have been set up to dispense free rice to the needy. Indonesia has also provided additional funding to its Affordable Food Program (Sembako Murah) by 4.6 trillion rupiah (US$324 million). In addition, President Jokowi has also pledged to give 200,000 rupiah (US$13.97) per month to low-income households as part of its stimulus package. Thailand’s cabinet also has agreed to finance a new cash handout programme with an allocation of 39.42 billion baht. This direct cash assistance is aimed to assist 13.14 million people who are experiencing economic hardship caused by the pandemic. Likewise, Malaysia also provides cash handouts to its low and middle-income households, totalling 10 billion ringgit (US$2.2 billion).

3. Prioritization of Agriculture Sector

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the agriculture sector is often seen as an essential service. However, this pandemic has shown that by giving less attention to agriculture, a nation will be exposed to food insecurity.  There is a realisation amongst Southeast Asians that there is a need to be more food self-sufficient and less reliance on international trade for agriculture products. In the midst of the battle to contain COVID-19, the Philippines Department of Agriculture is implementing P31 billion ($608 million) ‘Plant, Plant, Plant Program’ to increase rice production in the Philippines. To boost domestic production of agriculture, fisheries and livestock products, Malaysia recently allocated one billion ringgits (US$230 million) for its Food Security Fund. Each farmers’ organisation and fishermen’s organisation that is capable of developing short term agro-food projects will be granted with special funds of between RM100,000 (US$23,000) and RM200,000 (US$46,000)

Picture by Goh Chai Hin / AFP Photo

Moving Forward

A new direction is necessary in tackling food security in ASEAN. More regional integration is required so that in the event that any ASEAN member state is facing disruption in food production or domestic crop failure, the implication can be mitigated through regional supplies of food. Simultaneously, every Southeast Asian country should develop its food resilience in the face of unexpected shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  Any policy decision by the government must be comprehensive, inclusive and pro-poor development. Instead of concentrating on large-scale agricultural projects only, the poor farmers should also be trained to use technology for their small agricultural projects. Rural-urban connectivity needs to be strengthened in many parts of Southeast Asia.

An efficient road infrastructure and cost-effective rural transportation system will boost the social and economic growth of the poor, thereby increasing food security and reducing poverty. Social safety net programmes aid the vulnerable in maintaining their intake of food. However, this policy will have financial implications in the long run. As such, if the COVID-19 crisis persists, it may be necessary for the government, within its national public expense framework, to reevaluate its revenue source, to fund the social safety net programme effectively. Ultimately, as the nation of Southeast Asia strives to balance between the wellbeing of everyone and restoration of the economy, it is crucial not to leave behind the poor and vulnerable and to safeguard their access to nutritional food.


Ariff Hafizi Radzi is currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He received his Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from University of Bristol, United Kingdom and did a MA in Southeast Asian Studies in University of Malaya, Malaysia. His research interest includes Southeast Asian politics and governance as well as the cultures of Southeast Asia. 

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