Commentary: Will Southeast Asia go hungry in the next few decades?

Commentary: Will Southeast Asia go hungry in the next few decades?

With food demand on the rise in Southeast Asia, producers must keep up with advanced technology and foster regional cooperation, argues one trade fair expert.

Kota Kinabalu fish
Workers arranging baskets of fish at the Kota Kinabalu central fish market in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah. (Photo: AFP/MOHD RASFAN)

SINGAPORE: Southeast Asia, home to more than 600 million people, is expected to see an increase in food demand by as much as 40 per cent in 2050 as the region grows in population, according to a recent study released by the World Economic Forum.

As the region grows economically, Southeast Asia's exports is expected to increase by 15 per cent in 2025. The agriculture sector is also expected to see 4.5 million more new jobs created over this same period.

While these trends brings numerous short-term benefits to the region’s developing economies, they will undeniably place heavy strains on the environment and regional food supply.

Myanmar farmers
Myanmar farmers work in a paddy field in Nay Pyi Taw. (Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu)

This begs the question – how long can the environment and regional economy hold out to meet our needs? In order to sustainably meet the challenges of finite resources and increasing food demand, food producers around the world and in the region will have to improve physical infrastructures, leverage technologies and upgrade farming techniques.

These are not only time-consuming but potentially costly as well. Yet without it, Southeast Asia – a region that produces many food staples like rice, fish, eggs and coffee for the rest of the world – could go hungry.


Southeast Asia is increasingly acknowledged to be one of the most successful and fastest growing regions in the world. As economic expansion continues over the next five years, a huge middle class will emerge – which will more than double in size to reach 400 million by 2020. The Economic Development Board of Singapore forecasts that this demographic will make up 60 per cent of the region’s population.

The expected boom of the middle class will be fuelled by the rise of a millennial generation that currently accounts for one in four of Southeast Asia’s population. As they come of age, Southeast Asians will enjoy higher levels of disposable income and develop different taste palates from previous generations, impacting food demand and supply patterns.

Developers with deep pockets have scooped up swathes of land in Ho Chi Minh City, with old villas
The landscape of Ho Chi Minh City has changed vastly over the past five years, with old villas and historic municipal buildings replaced by sprawling construction zones. (Photo: AFP)

It is also predicted that the world’s population will grow to 8.1 billion in 2025. This alone is a troubling figure in the conversation about food supply.

Data from BMI Research shows that consumption among Southeast Asians in two main food groups are expected to increase at an exponential rate over the next five years – fish and sugar, and their related products. What goes under the radar, however, is the toll on the environment the production of these food groups has taken and of the scale of the impact that is to come.

For example, overfishing has been a global problem for a long time now – 25 per cent of world fish stocks are either over-exploited or depleted and half are currently fully exploited. At current rates, unsustainable fishing practices can deplete important fish stocks within the next two decades. This is just the tip of the iceberg, for overfishing could alter delicate marine eco-systems, which could have disaster consequences for the environment, including loss of precious marine species.


With such a dynamic food landscape in Southeast Asia, how can markets then address this strong surge in demand for food, while ensuring that production processes are sustainable enough to conserve the environment for future needs?

To date, the food industry has not optimally leveraged technology to support its ecological efforts. As Industry 4.0 matures, technologies like the Internet of Things, cloud computing and analytics can be beneficial.

By collecting and analysing historical data, big data has the capacity to help predict global climate cycles, local weather patterns and how these affect food supply. Producers can also predict demand and correspondingly increase or decrease supply, ensuring minimum wastage.

For instance, in the case of overfishing, technology can help monitor natural fish populations and areas that are being overfished. Action can then be taken before supplies reach an unsalvageable level.

Currently, there are more than a dozen apps, devices and monitoring systems aimed at tracking suspicious vessels and the seafood they catch. For example, Project Eyes on the Seas uses satellite trackers, radar signals, drone images and radio signals to create a dynamic world map, where analysts use algorithms to identify boats that appear to be illegally fishing in protected areas.

Apollo Aquaculture Group automatic water filtration system 2
Workers at a fish farm in Singapore. (Photo: Wendy Wong)

Also, with the expected rise in sugar consumption, farmers can take advantage of technology to understand the ground they are growing on and the nutrients that might be missing for the growth of sugarcane. Understanding weather patterns will also help prevent mass loss of crops in the event of droughts or floods.

Among the most successful and promising advances is food and agricultural biotechnology, which includes various breeding and genetic modification techniques. We could produce hardier plants, with higher yields, or herbicide-tolerant varieties.

There have been small signs of success that such high-tech farming technologies have been successfully employed. For instance, vertical farming is on the rise in Singapore. These farms leverage technology to solve the problems of traditional farming, like land scarcity and unfavourable natural climate conditions. Vertical farms take only half the time compared to outdoor farms to produce the same amount of crops and the highly controlled environments also ensure that there are no pests.

sky greens vertical farm
Sky Green's vertical farm in Singapore. (Photo: Sara Grosse)

However, the most challenging part of adopting such food production solutions is the cost and technology. Given that many ASEAN countries are still developing and might not have access to the right technologies or resources to acquire them, scaling up high-tech farming methods will be an uphill challenge.

So what can we do to work towards attaining a collectively sustainable future?

The first step is acknowledging that a cocktail of factors come into play when we talk about how we can secure a sustainable future. Therefore, a multi-pronged approach to cooperate, pool resources and expertise to build capacity and step up enforcement will be key.


A key avenue to look to is intergovernmental cooperation, in efforts like the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which already has solutions in place, such as initiatives for easier flow of goods and the sharing of food production technologies across countries. However, while the benefits of a borderless AEC are clear and an ideal that member nations are working towards, it is simply not moving forth as quickly as it should be.

A good group of solutions for the AEC to consider are more specific measures to curb overfishing – these include imposing quotas on identified species, monitoring fisheries’ compliance with these quotas and involving research experts in determining the limits to be set.

There are examples of how such measures are being carried out, such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act which was first passed in 1976 in the US. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that 91 per cent of species are fished at sustainable levels and 41 per cent have recovered to a healthy population size following the implementation of the act.

Such models require coordination, the implementation of formal laws and best practices and non-profit organisations catalysing measures for sustainable development. Admittedly, many existing examples like the US’ fishery conservation act are domestic regulations that are far easier to implement and monitor since fishing takes place within the jurisdiction of one country. For Southeast Asia, where fishing may takes place in overlapping maritime zones, enforcement may be less straight-forward.

People eat their lunch at a street food shop in Bangkok
People eat their lunch at a street food shop in Bangkok, Thailand on Apr 20. (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

In building capacity, regional organisations like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) can also improve the provision of financial support to member states to help food producers explore investments in new equipment and technologies, which will aid the region in working towards a sustainable future.

But ultimately, food producers, scientists and governments need to come together to exchange ideas and solutions to facilitate a difficult conversation about food production and sustainability.

Understandably, the topic of environmental sustainability is a difficult one to broach, and knowing how long the environment will be able to hold out to meet our needs is even more difficult to determine; but with national and regional efforts working in unison, perhaps we’ll be a step closer towards safeguarding the future of our food security.

Mathias Kuepper is Managing Director at Koelnmesse, co-organiser of THAIFEX-World of Food Asia 2017.

Source: CNA/sl