Global perspective on food security challenges and opportunities under the new normal shared

“COVID 19 is a wake-up call for all of us, irrespective of country.”

Thus said Dr. Paul Teng, chair of the board of directors of the International Science for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

Teng was one of the speakers during the webinar organized by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD).

Themed, “Food security challenges and opportunities under the new normal,” the virtual event commemorated the 9th anniversary of PCAARRD, the merged councils of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources (PCARRD) and the Aquatic and Marine (PCAMRD).

In his presentation on “Food security challenges and opportunities under the new normal --- A global perspective,” Teng started with the pre-COVID situation or the “baseline normal.”

Teng characterized the pre-COVID situation as providing “context on what we need in going forward to the new normal.”

He said that in terms of food security status, Asia has two faces: one face experiencing spectacular economic growth and growing food demand and the other with large numbers of poor people with significant undernourishment.

“These two faces persist until today,” Teng continued.

Then he added that the agri-food landscape faces many threats, either acute or chronic.

“COVID is just one of those threats that farmers and societies face,” he said.

He also cited that “We live in a region that has the highest frequency of extreme weather events. And every year, the calamities that befall us are the biggest causes of food insecurity.”

Moreover, both farmers and scientist face the evergreen problem --- pests and diseases.

“We are fighting a battle to keep ahead of pests and diseases,” he added.

Despite all the threats towards food security, Asia is a source of many food products.

Teng reported that Asia ranks top three in agricultural exports in the world. At the same time, Asia is a major importer through the trade of soybean, wheat, corn, and animal proteins with long supply chains.

Asia imports about 70–80% of the world’s surplus soybeans annually and two of the world’s top three rice importers are in the region.

“Every part of the supply chain is impacted (by COVID) in different ways in different countries.”

“One of the most obvious and potentially harmful (impact) is export restrictions,” he said.

Teng stressed that the restriction has “the potential to wreak havoc in all supply chains.”

He then enumerated the effects of the pandemic on the supply side: shortage of inputs and labor for farming and food processing, agri-food enterprises going out of business, and price hikes.

On the demand side is reduced demand for agri products that leads to increased hunger and under-nutrition especially among the vulnerable sectors of society such a daily wage earners, children, pregnant women, and others.

He also observed the close down of food and beverage (F&B) outlets in other countries.

At the macro level, he emphasized that Singapore and other countries that rely much on food imports are particularly susceptible due to the reduction of cargo movement. `

To meet the challenges that COVID 19 has imposed on the supply side, he recommended to shorten supply chains; formulate/implement policies to avoid export restrictions; and increase production/productivity of existing farms, self-production, support for locally produced food, R&D investments and entrepreneurship, and number of technology-enabled farms.

Teng added that there is the need to safeguard supply chains and develop supply chain connectivity agreements between groups of countries.

On the demand side, he mentioned to reduce waste and reuse food from decreased activity in F&B outlets; provide food for the vulnerable population; improve nutrition security; and privately and government-sponsored safety nets.

As for opportunities, Teng stated that agricultural technology has been seeing increasing investment and impact even before the pandemic.

There is also the digitization opportunity with digital farm economy, smart farming, ensuring inclusiveness, among others.

Other opportunities he mentioned are supply chain logistics/risk management technologies to identify disruptions, availability of biotech-derived crops and food, and exploration of new farming modalities and production of novel food.

Because COVID 19 is a wake-up call, most of the countries’ response to the pandemic is merely reactive.

Teng highlighted the need for a paradigm shift in dealing with the pandemic, from reacting to preparing.

“At the bottom of all these, we must not forget the smallholder farmers who grow most of the food in Asia. Smallholders are hit hard by COVID 19.”

“It is important to continue to ensure the availability of agricultural inputs to them; strengthen land tenure security; promote inclusive agribusiness models; and facilitate better risk management for smallholders,” Teng said in conclusion.