Organic Production – Naturally Green Fields in the GMS: From Food Security to Food Security++(Availability, Access and Use)
Food systems in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) are transforming as these respond to the changing consumer trends that want more than food security, or food security++( availability, access and utilization). The Asian Development Bank (ADB) forecasts that the size of the middle class in South East Asia will rise from 24% of the population in 2010 to 65% in 2030. Only 1% of the population would likely to be living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25/day). By 2030, ASEAN could become the fourth largest single market after the EU, US, and PRC.
This means that food-wise, ASEAN consumers with increasing purchasing capacity would opt for food that is not only sufficiently available and accessible in supply and affordable but would, from a utilization view, be nutritious, safe and sustainably produced. These food security++ principles are enshrined in the 2017 ASEAN Regional Guidelines on Food Security and Nutrition Policy: “... ensure sustainable supply of sufficient, affordable, safe and nutritious foods that meet the dietary requirements of increasing populations in the region”.
Asian middle-income consumers are becoming more conscious of their food choices, linking general health and wellness to what they eat. Around 81% of them believe that fresh foods are much better choices and will buy local and natural alternatives where possible. They are also increasingly seeking out greater visibility through more transparent and accurate information and traceability in labels.
What are the food market trends that GMS economies could strive for? Mintel and others identified some key trends:
In Tradition We Trust: Consumers seek comfort from modernized updates of age-old formulations, flavors and formats (e.g., tea)
Power to the Plants: The preference for natural, simple and flexible diets will drive further expansion of vegetarian, vegan and other plant-focused food.
Clean and Green: Food safety and environment-friendly food chains are becoming important criteria for food. The basic ground rule is that these should follow global metrics like the Codex Alimentarius.
Waste Not: Integral to sustainability is zero food waste
Time is of the Essence: The time investments required for products and meals will become as influential as nutrition or ingredient claims.
The Night Shift: Evening is tapped as a new occasion for functional food and drink formulations.
Balancing the Scales – Health for Everyone: Healthy food and drink are no longer considered as “luxuries” but are essential elements.
GMS beckons to change – too little but not late
In response to changing consumer preferences for food, GMS smallholder farmers, the backbone of agriculture as they comprise more than three-fourths of the sector’s labor force, are moving out of conventional agriculture and trying organic agriculture production. Aside from rising disposable income, health, environment, and food safety and quality have served as major motivators for organically-grown food products.
Organic agriculture in the ASEAN Standard for Organic Agriculture is defined as “A production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of (chemical) inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.”
Organic production is however, in its incipient phase in Asia in general and the GMS in particular. In 2017, only 0.3% of Asia’s agricultural land is devoted to organic production. This is 4.9 million hectares or 9% of the world’s total organic agriculture land. In the GMS, cultivated organic agriculture land area (without PRC provinces) is just 132,490 hectares, or barely 0.2% of total agriculture land of the subregion. Avocados, mangoes, and bananas dominate the organic fruits in ASEAN; major suppliers and exporters in GMS are Viet Nam, Thailand, and Cambodia. GMS, with its huge contiguous agriculture land, good water supply, ingenuous small-scale farmers and multifarious small and medium agro-enterprises, can offer diverse rice products as well as exotic tropical fruits and vegetables to its ASEAN and other Asian neighbors.
GMS is well poised to developing organic food value chains that respond to the market trends. Four essentials for an organic food industry in GMS to flourish are:
Research and innovation for more with less: Shift from conventional to organic production and value chains requires science-based research and innovations for producing more organic crops and food with less use of agricultural land, water, and labor. Improving production and productivity should likewise ensure zero waste in all segments of the value chain. Organic food value chains should also be resilient to the changing climate and the uncertain global geo-politico-economic landscape. Organic food value chains should embed the fourth revolution for clean and green innovations.
Novel multi-stakeholder partnerships: There is need for clustering organic value chains to achieve economies of scale. These would need collaboration through novel contractual and institutional arrangements that link public, private, non-governmental, and research sectors with local communities and food consumers as well as different economic and social sectors like tourism, food manufacturing/services and logistics, education, health, energy and transport. Social networking through the use of ICT can be a driver for sustainable growth and promotion of organic value chains.
Dynamic and forward-looking GMS Entities: The GMS has the insitutional mechanism to think global but act subregional. Its GMS Working Group of Agriculture (GMS WGA) has a proven track record of being an enabler; it just facilitated the endorsement of their Agriculture Ministers of a 5-year blueprint for the GMS strategy to become a global supplier of safe and environment-friendly agro-based products). With technical support from development partners like ADB, Government of Sweden and the Nordic Development Fund, the GMS WGA has catalyzed innovations of ‘ producing more with less’ organic food products through pilot schemes and policy innovations. It has served as an effective bridge for knowledge-sharing between the more prosperous Yunnan, Guangxi, Thailand, and Vietnam with their less advantaged neighbors – Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar. It initiated collaboration with the Food Industry Asia, a regional private sector association The GMS WGA will need to take the subregion to the next level of mobilizing resources for the GMS to harmonize its food safety and quality standards, reduce the transaction costs of cross-border trade, and effectively coordinate with other ministries and GMS-like organizations such as the Lamchang Mekong Cooperation.
Mainstreaming smallholder farmers and SMEs of GMS to SEAP value chains: The real actors in organic value chains are the smallholder farmers and small and medium agro-enterprises. They consitute the bulk of the stakeholders in GMS agro-based value chains. While large in number, they are small-sized in operations, widely dispersed, and fragmented. There is need for effective ways of mobilizing them into clusters to achieve scale economies, while enabling them to collectively participate and be motivated to own and be responsible for the sustainable development of the GMS safe and environment friendly agro-based product (SEAP) value chains. One such way is to encourage the flourishing of participatory guarantee systems (PGS) as a means for them to ensure safe and quality- assured organic products.