Can agritech or agroecology solve Southeast Asia's food problems?

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Whether agritech, agroecology, or a combination of both solutions, what should Southeast Asia choose?

By Pushpanathan Sundram, CEO of PublicPolicyAsia Advisors

The solutions proposed at the recent United Nation's Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) were heavily criticized for prioritizing the profits of large agri-businesses and the interests of international organizations. Nonetheless, there was consensus that the world must urgently transform our current food systems to avoid threats to our long-term food security agenda and irrevocable damage to our planet.

Whether agritech, agroecology, or a combination of both solutions, what should Southeast Asia choose?

Southeast Asia moves forward with agritech

Global food demand is expected to double by 2025. Therefore, the ability of Southeast Asia to supply a steady source of food and nutrition as one of the most productive agricultural baskets and exporters in the world will have a direct impact on the world's food security.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been pushing for agritech solutions. According to the Economist Impact's Global Food Security Index, all countries in Southeast Asia have made positive gains in improving their food security score in terms of greater food affordability, availability, quality and safety and resilience in the past decade.

Southeast Asian governments are aggressively investing in agritech to enhance their domestic food security and export growth. For example, agritech initiatives are marked as a priority in Thailand's 4.0 strategic economic development plan. Companies are given up to 13 years of tax exemptions and other considerably generous incentives to adopt agritech.

With agriculture being the dominant sector in most Southeast Asian economies, venture capitalists and governments believe that this approach will bring greater food sustainability, security and boost farmers' incomes to raise living standards in the region.

Agritech solutions are not enough

However, the widespread adoption of agritech innovations has been slow. According to Grow Asia's, successful technologies must have a business model that offers the farmer substantial value and need a behavioral pathway that can guide farmers to use the solution. But providing these services to small customers in remote locations is prohibitively expensive and currently carried out in an ad hoc manner which is not sustainable in the long term.

Second, while the majority of agricultural lands are in the hands of giant corporations who are using agritech, they tend to produce crops that are used for animal feed or biofuel rather than food to feed the population directly.

Third, agritech does not address the point raised at the UNFSS that "unequal relationships and power dynamics… [shape] who is hungry and malnourished and who is not." The solution, therefore, must address the imbalance of power relations driving food systems now.

Agroecology or other alternatives?

Agroecology relies on natural processes such as crop rotation and limits the use of chemicals for greater food production sustainability. It also focuses on promoting values such as equity and inclusiveness to correct unequal socio-economic and power relations.

Women in rural India, for example, had adopted agroecology means to access the agriculture sector. Their initiative, the System of Rice Intensification, had made it possible for them to oppose local destructive mining activities, boost their incomes and gain empowerment within their community.

However, for large-scale adoption of agroecology to flourish, it will require governments to tackle deep-seated and politically sensitive matters relating to socio-economic inequality, culture, access to land use, etc. While re-thinking these issues are critical to developing an equal and sustainable food system, it will take valuable time that the world does not have. There is also the assumption that local knowledge is available, easily accessed, and complete.

COVID-19 has further weakened and exposed the food system's vulnerabilities, such that 161 million more people face hunger in 2020 compared to 2019, and more than 1.2 billion people in Asia are facing moderate or severe food insecurity now.

No silver bullet for food system problems

The numbers are staggering, and solutions are urgently required. Whether agritech or agroecology, the solution should target the problem and not the other way around. There is a good scientific basis and proven results that both solutions can increase food productivity and reduce emissions. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but states must decide the priority issue they are trying to solve.

During the 1960s Green Revolution, the world was focused on increasing food productivity, leading to the indiscriminate use of high-yield seeds and chemical fertilizers for quick results. While it made huge strides to reduce global hunger, today, the world faces problems of land degradation, loss of biodiversity, climate change, etc., partly due to the abuse and lack of farmers' knowledge when implementing that technology. To avoid similar mistakes, any future solutions should be carefully considered in relation to its ecosystem.

There are also varying levels of priorities within the five action tracks identified at the UNFSS. For example, some might want to increase food production, while others are focused on strengthening food system resilience. Regardless, the concept of sustainability should be at the center of any chosen solution.

As a continuation of the UNFSS, world leaders will meet again at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) to tackle the challenge of climate change. States will have to showcase their action plans to reduce their emissions while ensuring their domestic food security.

Making up one of the largest agricultural economies globally, Southeast Asia has a responsibility to tackle the fact that most of the hungry and malnourished population are in its backyard. Therefore, how the region chooses to supply the world with its food will have a lasting impact on food security, social equality, and the sustainability of our planet.

Pushpanathan Sundram is the CEO of PublicPolicyAsia Advisors, a premier business advisory firm in Singapore with expertise in food and agriculture issues in emerging Asian markets. He was the former Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN.

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