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Australia's Critical Role in Promoting Food Security in Southeast Asia

30 Sep 2022
By Nicholas Whitwell
Germinated rice for hand broadcasting Cambodia
Photo: Chris Graham/AusAID

It is difficult to even think about other problems without first having something to eat. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, supply chain issues, and rampant inflation, it is incumbent on Australia to assist in the stabilisation of regional food prices.

COVID-19 raised many challenges for Southeast Asia and Australia. This year, Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and the resulting dramatically escalating inflation rates have compounded regional food security concerns. Australia is the best placed partner to work with Southeast Asia to coordinate much needed food security.

Critical supply of food goods

It has taken mere months for food security to go from a priority, according to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to prospective regional crisis. Nowhere is this more evident than in Indonesia’s precariously managed foot and mouth disease outbreak, or Malaysia’s export ban on chicken. To ease the pressure, the Albanese government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) must make it a priority to unlock Australia’s role as a much-needed food bowl for the region. Australia must step up to provide carbohydrates, protein, and stability to a market that appears to be buckling under mounting pressures.

The best placed person to lead the effort would be the planned Envoy to Southeast Asia, as this role has a different focus and a different region to engage with than any other person within DFAT. Their role is expected to reflect regional priorities and engage swiftly on issues of critical focus. Food protectionism as a result of food insecurity in the region is growing. Equally, so are nationalistic import quotas to prevent advantage taking of weaker than normal currency and the resultant inflation caused by an increase in foreign, often more expensive, goods in a market. The envoy should seek to ameliorate these concerns before the region enters a true crisis.

This idea of Australia providing a pipeline of food security into Southeast Asia is not new, and Canberra is alive to the need. Foreign Minister Penny Wong said of her participation in the 21st MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Türkiye, and Australia) foreign minister meeting that MIKTA plays a bridging role between developing and developed countries on assorted global concerns including food security. Equally so, think tanks such as the PerthUSAsia Centre have noted that there are significant issues that Canberra cannot solve alone, including food prices.

Improving agricultural trade

To this end, no matter who the prospective envoy is, they will not be able to resolve by themselves Singapore having a third of their chicken imports restrained, Indonesia’s brief palm oil export ban, or the potential formation of wheat and rice cartels in Thailand. What they could do, however, is convene a dialogue with ASEAN member states, Australian suppliers, and other stakeholders to find avenues for effective Australian support. If a priority of the envoy is to bring together experts and businesses from across Southeast Asia, not only would Australian businesses find success, but just maybe they could pivot some ASEAN trade into Australia.

For perspective, the top three ASEAN destinations for Australian agricultural exports – Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore combined – are second only to China. It is no stretch based on the Department of Agriculture’s or DFAT’s numbers to consider that the ASEAN countries could well rival or surpass China as Australia’s number one export destination for agricultural goods. The dedicated envoy, through the influence of DFAT on other Australian portfolios such as Agriculture, could facilitate important and targeted changes to achieve this.

Australia has had two seasons of remarkably high grain yields, so much so that there is a pressing need to export more. By leveraging networks, existing free trade agreements, port processes, and import/export translations, Southeast Asia could be supplied with much needed grains at affordable prices. Doing so would increase the supply of food to the region and assist in ensuring inflation on essential food products does not spiral out of control. This of course goes beyond the immediate need to manage and reduce year-on-year inflation. Restructuring supply chains and empowering regional indigenous food systems should be (and likely are) mission critical for DFAT.

Providing food into ASEAN is just the entree though. Facilitating food exports should be the main course to assist budding two-way trade. Australia has a healthy consumer demand for Southeast Asian food. It is well past due that supply from ASEAN into Australia was made as easy as possible, without sacrificing sacrosanct biosecurity. This could include clearer and more accessible guidelines on biosecurity for regional partners, promoting networking between suppliers and distributors, and fully empowering and unlocking Australian Chambers of Commerce throughout the region – which is to say get those chambers in ASEAN working as well as they do in Japan and South Korea.

Current and ongoing upgrade negotiations of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement should include pathways and commitments to ensuring agricultural two-way trade is as easy as possible. Behind-the-border barriers (non-tariff measures that restrict or discriminate trade such as licenses or quotas) must be eliminated, consumer confidence must be ensured, and firm profits from imported food should build year on year. Starting with leveraging increased grain trade would begin many of these processes for the Australian government.

Climate change and sustainability

Any plans for shoring up regional food security must consider the impact future events will have on the production of agricultural goods. We are seeing record-setting drought and flood seasons across the planet. Southeast Asia will undoubtedly be impacted by climate change, and we are seeing these impacts draw closer already.

Investment in technologies that can and will mitigate climate damage and increase crop and animal yields is markedly increasing in necessity. These productivity enhancing measures will become cost effective and more necessary as the region’s population grows and even more food is needed. Australia can and should be the first placed partner for Southeast Asia to tackle these issues and opportunities before they arise.

Thankfully, Australia takes its role in technology seriously already. The Australian government’s investment through the Mekong Australia Partnership into the Mekong River is money well spent. The investment of Australian money into technologies that protect fish and boost river health is a good step. The Mekong River is the third-longest river in Asia, and it is the primary artery on which the entire region relies. Australia, with both its agricultural expertise and First Nations people’s river management expertise, can apply hard-learned lessons from the Murray Darling River Basin, to support the Mekong’s preservation.

Anthony Albanese started strong by taking senior executives from Wesfarmers on his first bilateral visit to Indonesia. But it will be the role of the new envoy to double down and put action to Australia’s intent. The agriculture sector knows how to export their goods, nobody needs to tell them how to do that. What they could use some help with is regional expertise – something DFAT and the envoy are well placed to provide.

Nicholas Whitwell is a graduate of the Queensland University of Technology and holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Master of Education. In 2022, Nicholas was awarded a Japanese Government MEXT Scholarship to undertake a Master of Public Policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Nicholas has a particular focus on Southeast Asia, and the potential for minilateral cooperation. He is an active member of the #AIIANextGen Policy Experts Network.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.