What do we know about the future of agri-food systems in Southeast Asia?

Apr 27 2023

By Nhuong Tran, Harold Glenn Valera, Chin Yee Chan, Valerien Pede, Yee Mon Aung

Food, land, and water systems face daunting challenges in the future, and the body of research exploring these challenges is growing rapidly. This note is part of a series developed by theCGIAR Foresight Initiativeto summarize what we know today about the future of various aspects of food systems. The goal of these notes is to serve as a quick reference, point to further information, and help guide future research and decisions.

Key messages

The food systems of Southeast Asia (SEA) are projected to be under increasing pressure due to multiple drivers including population growth, urbanization, biodiversity loss, and the uncertainties stemming from climate change.

Rice and fish will remain staple foods and the backbone of diets in the region, in both rural and urban areas. In 2019, SEA was responsible for 72% of world’s aquatic food products and 90% of global rice production. Rice provides 50% of calorie intake for its population, while fish consumption contributes more than 50% per capita average animal protein intake. These shares are expected to rise over the next several decades due to population growth.

Production and consumption of staple foods is expected to fall due to the impacts of climate change, potentially jeopardizing the food and nutrition security in the region and other regions of the world. The magnitude of climate change impacts on rice production has large uncertainty depending on the models used.

Previous regional foresight studies have explored the implications of climate change on food production in SEA, but other driving forces and outcomes of food system transformation have received less attention.

Recent trends and challenges

Rice and fish systems are key to food and nutrition security in the SEA region. These systems are subject to increasing pressure due to multiple drivers. The rapid urbanization with high population growth and economic development are projected to increase demand for nutrient enriched cereals and animal-sourced foods (livestock and fish). Global climate change, land and environmental change, technological innovations and changes in dietary patterns as well as accelerated urbanization will trigger food systems transformation in the SEA region. The region will continue to be an important player in global rice and aquatic food markets. With the increasing global annual per capita consumption of aquatic foods during 1961-2019, SEA region’s per capita consumption also grew as it accounted for 72 % of the total aquatic foods available for human consumption (FAO, 2022). Within the SEA region, per capita consumption of rice has been decreasing in Thailand while it is increasing for Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam since late 1980s until 2020 (Bin Rahman and Zhang, 2022) and it is projected to decrease further by 2030 (OECD-FAO, 2021). The future additional rice demand in the region will be mainly due to population growth (Samal et al., 2021).

Yield stagnation and limited land and farming expansion become a key challenge for the region to retain as a major global rice and fish supplier in the context of increasing global and regional demand in future. One of the challenges for major cereals in the region is to meet the increased demand brought by urbanization and dietary pattern change. However, these are also the drivers of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and natural resource degradation. Aquaculture growth in the region continues to increase to fill the demand for animal protein sources; however, its major challenges to the food system are land competition with agriculture, feed competition with livestock and the issue of using edible fish to feed farmed fish (Zurek et al., 2020).

What is the latest foresight research on food systems in Southeast Asia, and what do those studies show?

As food and nutrition security is a major challenge in the region, several foresight works draw pathways to increase the supply of affordable and healthy foods and ensure accessibility of those foods by consumers. Current trends suggest that while diets will improve in terms of calories and some micronutrients, the balance in the intake of foods that contribute to high-quality diets in only small quantities will tip over into excessive consumption (Haddad et al., 2016). By 2025, Woodhill et al., (2021) projected that 11% of population will be living in moderate poverty in East and Southeast Asia, with agriculture in the latter region employing 56% of the extremely poor population.

Haddad et al. (2016) projected that Southeast Asia will be the third fast-growing region in Asia in terms of real per capita GDP by 2030. Sales of ultra-processed foods in East and South-East Asia are expected to approach those of high-income countries by 2035. A key challenge for the Philippines is to bring red meat consumption more in line with recommended levels by 2050. Nearly two-thirds of the South and Southeast Asian population will be overweight or obese by 2030. Findings from Yuan et al. (2022) showed the relatively large exploitable yield gaps in SEA region, particularly in Cambodia, Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand. The study provides insights for increasing regional production on existing cropland by narrowing existing yield gaps. In the deltas of the SEA region, the occurrence of sea level rise is becoming more pronounced, leading to saltwater intrusion and flooding (Schneider and Asch, 2020). The rate of sea level rise is likely to worsen over time and will continue to be the major climate hazard affecting the land used for rice cultivation in the region.

Based on a reference scenario with international agricultural R&D continuing along current trajectories, Kruseman et al. (2020) projected that both production and consumption of the major staples in Asia such as rice, maize and wheat will increase between 2010 and 2050. The major cereals retain a dominant role in both the supply and demand side of the agri-food system. Therefore, investing in agricultural productivity in Asia is imperative to increase cereals production considering rural transformation to tackle the challenge of increasing demand brought by urbanization and dietary change. In terms of projected kilocalories growth in the region, the share of cereals consumption to calories intake declines as diets become richer in animal products and high-value products between 2020 and 2050.

Regarding the linkage between food systems, the environment and climate change, Zurek et al. (2020) reported that the agricultural GHG emissions (particularly rice production, livestock production and fertilizer use) are projected to increase by at least 28 % between 2010 and 2050, suggesting this contribution could reduce GHG emissions through the development of technologies or strategies. Cenacchi et al. (2021) also projected that climate impacts are expected to hit most of the cereal crops in SEA with a negative effect on income and total calories availability and an increase in the population at risk of hunger (relative to a no-climate-change scenario). They also indicated that enhanced investments in public international agricultural research and development can offset the climate impacts on food security across the region. Mason-D’Croz et al. (2016) analyzed agricultural investment, enforcement capacity and regional collaboration, land degradation, and markets scenarios in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The authors projected an increase in rice yield of 10% to 20% by 2030 using the IMPACT and GLOBIOM models. Using kilocalorie availability as a metric, the authors also showed modest improvements in the food security in the future.

In the ASEAN region, fish production and consumption are projected to continue growing to 2050. A scenario that is favorable to aquaculture sector development will contribute to increasing fish supply and demand and fish exports and reducing consumer prices compared to business-as-usual (BAU) (Chan et al., 2017; Tran et al., 2017). However, alternative scenarios such as disease outbreaks in aquaculture and climate change result in declining fish supply, demand, exports and nutrient supply from fish in Bangladesh (Tran et al., 2022). Climate change represents a potentially significant threat to sustainable fishery production in Vietnam (Tran et al., 2022). Using the IRRI Global Rice Model, Balié and Valera (2020) simulated the potential impacts of the removal of quantitative restrictions on rice imports in 2019 and imposition of a 35% import tariff in the Philippines. They projected that the reform would lead to a sharp increase in imports while domestic production would decline. Perez and Pradesha (2019) also conducted a similar simulation using the International Model for the Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT) and estimated that the removal of QR would substantially lower both farm and retail prices of rice. Policy makers would need to consider using the revenue from the tariff to support rice growers either to increase their competitiveness and modernize their rice production or shift to other crops.

What are key gaps, questions, and opportunities for further foresight research?

Although a few studies have looked at the future of specific commodities under the various scenarios in SEA region, particularly rice and fish, we are not aware of analyses that examine the implications on other outcomes areas such as gender equity, employment, aquaculture investment cost, GHG emissions, nutrition and poverty and environmental sustainability associated with different future projected trends. Future research is needed to explore the impact of major drivers such as policy change, food system regulations, urbanization, the technology-innovations and dietary change issues on food system activities and outcomes in the region. Dietary pattern change towards sustainable, healthy and balanced diets could be a major driver of change towards more-climate friendly food systems, but more work is needed to understand how diets will evolve and how policies can encourage desired outcomes. There is a need for future foresight work to highlight interactions, trade-off and synergies among multiple development outcomes such as economic development, green growth/greenhouse gas reduction, poverty alleviation, environmental protection. Resolving some of the uncertainties regarding the food system transformation outcomes through future foresight work can support in evaluating how and when to bundle the interventions. The foresight studies will highlight the need for more holistic national policies and investments in agri-food system to mitigate the climate change effects with achievement of climate-smart food systems and achieve some Sustainable Development Goals targets.

The authors of this note are Nhuong Tran,  Applied Economic Senior Scientist, WorldFish; Harold Glenn Valera, Scientist, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI); Chin Yee Chan, Scientist, WorldFish, Valerien Pede, Senior Scientist, IRRI; Yee Mon Aung, Lecturer, Yezin Agricultural University (Myanmar).

If you have any feedback or questions about this note, please get in touch with Nhuong Tran (N.Tran@cgiar.org).

For more information, check out these resources:

SDC Climate change foresight analysis 2020: Global and regional risks and hotspots | weADAPT

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT) Dataverse. https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/impact.

Balié, J., & Valera, H. G. (2020). Domestic and international impacts of the rice trade policy reform in the Philippines. Food Policy, 92, 101876. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2020.101876

Bin Rahman, A. R., & Zhang, J. (2023). Trends in rice research: 2030 and beyond. Food and Energy Security, 12(2), e390. https://doi.org/10.1002/fes3.390

Cenacchi, N., Dunston, S., Sulser, T. B., Wiebe, K. D., & Willenbockel, D. (2021). The future of diets and hunger in Southeast Asia under climate change and alternative investment scenarios: Technical report based on IMPACT model results. Wageningen, The Netherlands: CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). https://hdl.handle.net/10568/117912

Chan C.Y., Tran, N., Dao, C.D., Sulser, T.B., Phillips, M.J., Batka, M., Wiebe, K., & Preston, N. (2017). Fish to 2050 in the ASEAN region. Penang, Malaysia: WorldFish and Washington DC, USA: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Working Paper: 2017-01. http://ebrary.ifpri.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15738coll2/id/131069

FAO. (2022). The future of food and agriculture- Drivers and triggers for transformation. The Future Agriculture, no.3. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc0959en

Haddad, L., Hawkes, C., Waage, J., Webb, P., Godfray, C., & Toulmin, C. (2016). Food systems and diets: Facing the challenges of the 21st century. https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/19323/

Kruseman, G., Mottaleb, K. A., Tesfaye, K., Bairagi, S., Robertson, R. D., & Mandiaye, D. (2020). Rural transformation and the future of cereal-based agri-food systems. Global Food Security 26: 100441. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2020.100441

Mason-D’Croz, D., Vervoort, J., Palazzo, A., Islam, S., Lord,S., Helfgott, A., Havlik, P., Peou, R., Sassen, M., Veeger, M., Soesbergen, A.van., Arnell, A.P., Stuch, B., Arslan, A., & Lipper, L. (2016). Multi-factor, multi-state, multi-model scenarios: Exploring food and climate futures for Southeast Asia. Environmental Modelling & Softwares 83(2016)255-270. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2016.05.008

Perez, N.D., Pradesha, A., 2019. Philippine Rice Trade Liberalization: Impacts on Agriculture and the Economy, and Alternative Policy Options (NEDA-IFPRI Policy Studies). International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C. https://doi.org/10.2499/p15738coll2.133371

Samal, P., Babu, S.C., & Mondal, B. (2021). The global rice scenario towards 2050: Results for six continents. International Conference of Agricultural Economist. August 17-31, 2021 online.

Schneider, P., & Asch, F. (2020). Rice production and food security in Asian Mega deltas—A review on characteristics, vulnerabilities and agricultural adaptation options to cope with climate change. Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science, 206(4): 491-503.

Tran, N., Chan, C.Y., Aung, Y.M., Bailey, C., Akester, M., Cao, Q.L., Trinh, T.Q., Hoang, C.V., Sulser, T.B., & Wiebe, K. (2022). Foresighting future climate change impacts on fisheries and aquaculture in Vietnam. Front. sustain. Food Syst., 04 August 2022.  https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2022.829157

Tran, N., Rodriguez, U-Primo., Chan, C.Y., Aung, Y.M.,Chu, L.,Islam, A.H.M., Barman, B.K., & Phillips, M. J. (2022). Future scenarios of fish supply and demand for food and nutrition security in Bangladesh: An analysis with the AsiaFish model. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquaculture.2023.739288

Tran, N., Rodriguez, U.P., Chan, C.Y., Phillips, M.J., Mohan, C.V., Henriksson, P.J.G., Koeshendrajana, S., Suri, S., & Hall, S. (2017). Indonesian aquaculture futures: an analysis of fish supply and demand in Indonesia to 2030 and role of aquaculture using the AsiaFish model, Mar. Policy 79 (2017) 25–32, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol. 2017.02.002

Woodhill, J., Kishore, A., Njuki, J., Jones, K., & Hasnain, S. (2022). Food systems and rural wellbeing: challenges and opportunities. Food Security, 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1007%2Fs12571-021-01217-0

Yuan, S., Stuart, A. M., Laborte, A. G., Rattalino Edreira, J. I., Dobermann, A., Kien, L. V. N., & Grassini, P. (2022). Southeast Asia must narrow down the yield gap to continue to be a major rice bowl. Nature Food, 3(3), 217-226. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00477-z

Zurek, M., Hebinck, A., Selomane, O. (2020). Food and Agriculture Systems Foresight Study – Implications for climate change and the environment. Independent Science for Development Council (ISDC)

Photo: Food fish harvesting in Gaibandha, Bangladesh/WorldFish.

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