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How can we build food system resilience?

The ASEAN expert and food policy specialist speaks about sustainable food systems, food security and the relevance of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit
An interview with
CEO of PublicPolicyAsia Advisors & former Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN
A farmer passing by paddy fields with rice harvest tied to a wooden pole in Myanmar

The ongoing pandemic has shone a spotlight, among other things, on challenges relating to food security and the resilience of the global food system. Over the past 18 months, disrupted supply chains and reduced incomes have become part of a larger confluence of factors such as natural disasters, weather patterns, water challenges and climate change, resulting in acute food insecurity among vulnerable populations globally.

According to the World Bank, these impacts will continue through 2021 and well into 2022. In this context, the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 in September, cannot come at a better time. Unravel speaks with Pushpanathan Sundram, CEO of PublicPolicyAsia Advisors & former Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN, about the importance of the summit, and about different aspects of food systems. Mr Sundram, who is a food policy specialist, talks about the problems ailing the food system, how we can build resilience and the role of the private sector.

Unravel: How has the pandemic impacted food security in ASEAN?

Pushpanathan Sundram: As ASEAN economies struggle to cope with the effects of pandemic control measures, food security in the region has become increasingly challenging due to supply chain interruptions, despite largely adequate food supplies. Reduced mobility has posed barriers to food access, while lockdowns have reduced access to farm labour, lowering agricultural employment and output. Farmworkers and farming households have been the most heavily impacted and poverty levels have increased across the region, compounding the pre-existing double burden of obesity and malnutrition. Pandemic-induced supply chain interruptions have increased concerns that access to nutrient-rich but perishable foods could worsen, putting vulnerable groups at risk of nutritional deficiencies. 

Unravel: In your view, what are the most critical aspects of food security in ASEAN that require immediate attention?

Mr Sundram: Southeast Asia faces multiple emerging threats from climate change, declining natural resources and the frequent occurrence of transboundary animal diseases. While the food and agriculture sector has led growth in countries such as Vietnam, parts of the food value chain have also been disrupted by natural disasters, increasing overall regional food insecurity. Additionally, COVID-19 restrictions have forced many food businesses to remain closed, and transportation bottlenecks have generated higher transaction costs. These would be the priorities ASEAN will have to address with urgency.

The UN Food Systems Summit offers a timely opportunity to focus on addressing these challenges.  However, it is critical that the role and contribution of the private sector, and the specific needs of the Asian region, are properly considered through the UNFSS process.

The aim of the UN Food Systems Summit is to deliver progress on all 17 of the SDGs through a food systems approach, leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality.

Several other recent policy solutions have been proposed within ASEAN to address food security.  For example, the ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry (AMAF) took steps in April 2020 to ensure the movement of essential products during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. ASEAN also plans to implement guidelines to promote responsible investment in food and agriculture, new employment streams, reduced poverty, and improved food and nutrition security.

Unravel: What is the private sector’s role in building sustainable and equitable food systems?

Mr Sundram: Globally, the private sector must be an equal partner and key contributor in the transformation needed to make our food systems more sustainable, and more equitable – through its capacity to invest in innovation, production practice improvements, supply chain efficiencies and marketing strategies that can shift consumer purchasing behaviour. 

Asia’s private sector comprises diverse actors, including small and large agricultural producers, local and multinational companies, family farms, fishers and individuals. While multinational companies at one end are driving change through sustainability targets to satisfy investors, practice improvements by smallholder farmers help improve efficiencies and livelihoods, while reducing environmental impacts.     

The private sector’s capacity to develop and adopt new technology is especially critical to sustainable and equitable food systems across Asia. For example, innovations that help reduce food waste, increase yields or meet consumer health needs are rapidly evolving as Asia’s food systems continue to be shaped by vertical global value chain integration, growth in consumer purchasing power and COVID-19 impacts. Private sector-led innovation helps ensure these shifts result in economic growth, job creation and meeting consumer demands for safe and nutritious food, especially in rapidly growing urban areas.   

Unravel: How important is technological innovation in addressing food security?

Mr Sundram: Technological innovation such as precision agriculture, mobile technologies, drone technology, new veterinary medicines and feed additives, improved genetics, nutrition and big data analytics are opening doors for a broad digital transformation of agriculture in the region. This is improving farmers’ access to information and markets, raising productivity, streamlining supply chains, improving natural resource management, lowering operational costs and integrating isolated lines of development into smart, connected agricultural production systems and resilient food value chains. But greater efforts are needed to support wider acceptance of innovation across all sectors of agriculture in the region.

Unravel: What are some developments we are seeing in the region?

Mr Sundram: Policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have strongly focused on short-term food security but have not addressed some of the underlying issues. For example, price control policies have reduced the impact of price increases for consumers but have not addressed issues such as poor distribution infrastructure and market imperfections. Similarly, tax cuts, credit extensions and seed and fertiliser subsidies designed to increase agricultural productivity have increased total production but have also increased inefficient food stockpiling.

In addition, trade restrictions have been imposed by some countries to ensure domestic supply, reversing decades of work on free trade agendas. Despite these immediate challenges, ASEAN understands these dynamics and is working to address them under the ASEAN Economic Community.

Unravel: Food is a critical component of several of the SDGs. Can you talk about the importance of food security and sustainability in meeting various SDGs?

Mr Sundram: It is hard to divorce any of the SDGs from food, given the central role that safe and nutritious food plays in every aspect of life. In my opinion, however, SDG 2 on Zero Hunger is the most pressing for Asia. In Asia, extreme poverty and hunger are mostly rural phenomena, with smallholder farmers and their families accounting for a significant proportion of the poor and hungry. Improving the sustainability of smallholder livestock production (for example) will support healthy balanced diets and help grow per capita incomes, empower smallholder farmers, promote gender equality, and help tackle climate change.  

Unravel: How can countries work together to ensure greater food security and sustainability?

Mr Sundram: First, sustainability needs to be an integral part of food security planning across the region, but food security means different things to different nations. The UNFSS will help to create awareness of those differences, and encourage countries (and sectors) to work together to achieve sustainable food security given the interdependence of global food supply chains. 

Another important opportunity to align understanding and approaches is the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate), pioneered by the US and supported by Singapore and Australia, to be launched at COP 26 in November 2021. It endorses global innovation in agriculture and food systems in support of climate action, utilising science-based and data-driven decision-making. The collaboration will enhance existing approaches and deliver new ways to sustainably increase agricultural productivity, improve livelihoods, conserve nature and biodiversity, and address climate change. I hope this initiative will garner the support and collaboration of more countries in Asia.

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CEO of PublicPolicyAsia Advisors & former Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN

Pushpanathan Sundram has more than three decades of experience working in the highest levels of government, international organisations and the private sector. He was the Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN (Deputy Minister) for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) from 2009 to 2011. He also served in several senior positions in the ASEAN Secretariat from 1997-2008 which included Principal Director of the Bureau of Economic Integration and Finance; Director of External Relations and Special Assistant to the Secretary General of ASEAN. He was instrumental in the development and implementation of the first AEC Blueprint and the first Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity.

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