Thailand is the kitchen of the world

Dr Robert Berendes
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The importance of food and agriculture to Thailand is undisputable. About 40% of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood and it contributes to about 10% of GDP. The country is the world’s leading rice exporter and has successfully positioned itself as the “Kitchen of the World,” with the annual value of food exports expected to exceed 1 trillion baht in 2012.

Thailand has also reduced overall poverty levels in recent years. It has recorded consistent economic growth and at the macro level is a food surplus country. However, access to sufficient affordable and nutritious food at the household level is a critical challenge, particularly in remote rural areas – as in many parts of Asia.

In fact, Asia’s food security challenges are formidable. The region is home to more than 60% of the world’s population and some of the world’s fastest growing economies but has only 34% of the world’s arable land and 36% of the world’s water resources. Complexity is added by declining agricultural performance, food price volatility, changing climatic conditions and natural disasters, such as the devastating floods that hit Thailand in 2011

These factors threaten the capacity and ability of Asia to feed itself in the long term.

While food security commands attention at the highest levels of government, government alone cannot solve the issue. It is also more than an agricultural responsibility, with a complex matrix of drivers touching many public and private sector stakeholders.

Given the complexity and magnitude of the challenge, it seems clear that major collective action is urgently needed.

This is easier said than done.

Before we can act together we must come together and establish a formal dialogue. Forums and tools to support dialogue, alignment and action are essential

One key forum already exists: the New Vision for Agriculture (NVA), which will feature prominently at the World Economic Forum on East Asia which opened today in Bangkok.

The NVA is successfully executing multistakeholder collaboration and a shared agenda for action to achieve sustainable agricultural growth through market-based solutions. It has rolled out innovative public-private collaborations in Tanzania, Vietnam, Indonesia and Mexico and is working through several global forums to build momentum.

Moreover, the Rice Bowl Index, a new diagnostic tool, which fully supports the NVA ethos, will be introduced on the sidelines of Forum. It aims to shift the focus of the food security debate from insoluble problem to pragmatic solution.

Rather than recording a positive or negative measure of food security in a country, the Rice Bowl Index considers enablers and disablers of food security, to assess how robust a country’s capacity is to withstand and address the challenges of food security.

Four key levers of food security are identified: Demand & Price; Environmental Factors; Farm Level Factors; and Policy & Trade. Each lever is a composite of reputable and publicly available data.

One key conclusion is that a focus on all components contributing to a country’s capacity to withstand and address the challenges of food security is necessary for stability. Reflecting the importance of an integrated system-wide approach, essential improvements must be achieved in a sustainable manner to drive long-term food security improvements.

The challenge will be to transform the insights of initiatives such as the World Economic Forum’s NVA and the Rice Bowl Index into the collective action needed to address one of the most complex and intractable challenges facing Thailand, and Asia as a whole.

Author: Dr Robert Berendes is Syngenta’s global Head of Business Development. He is also Chairman of the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture Initiative.

Image: A customer buys mangosteens and rambutans at a fresh food market in Nonthaburi province, on the outskirts of Bangkok, REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

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