Safeguarding food security with open trade

Danial Norjidi

Members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) should adopt an open trade policy to safeguard food security in the region amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was highlighted in a press release by the APEC Policy Support Unit (PSU), which is a policy research and analysis arm for APEC that supports member states in improving the quality of various deliberations and decisions whilst promoting policies that are aligned with the APEC goals.

Meanwhile, APEC aims to create great prosperity for the people of Asia-Pacific by promoting balanced, inclusive, sustainable, innovative and secure growth while accelerating regional economic integration.

According to a recent policy brief by the APEC PSU, various movement restrictions implemented across borders have affected the supply of food, especially perishables such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, seafood and meat.

Its Senior Analyst Carlos Kuriyama said, “Some governments have reacted to episodes of panic buying by implementing export bans or restrictions on certain food products, hoping to secure the availability of food” which threaten food security and increase food prices, thus creating a “detrimental scenario for the citizens, especially the poorest households”.

He believed that regardless of whether or not the export restrictions are allowed by the World Trade Organization (WTO), “it would be good to improve access to food by reducing import tariff rates” as “domestic consumers and firms will have access to great quantities of food products at lower prices due to the increased availability of imported products”.

While the number of export restrictions and bans in APEC member states does not appear to be high at this point, Kuriyama said, it is nonetheless important to “stay vigilant and intensify cooperation efforts to avoid any escalation of these types of measures”.

Meanwhile, APEC Secretariat Executive Director Dr Rebecca Sta Maria said, “The last thing we want to see in the current pandemic is a food crisis where the availability of food staples are scarce and prices are high.

“APEC needs to ensure that the food supply chain remain open and available for all of our citizens, including vulnerable communities.”

While food security is in a better shape in this pandemic, as compared to the global food crisis of 2007-2008, APEC PSU said less than one third of the member states improved their rice and wheat ratios, and more than half are currently experiencing stocks-to-use ratios for maize at low levels (below 10 per cent).

As such, there is “the need to keep open trade policies as a tool to improve food stocks during this pandemic”, reiterated Kuriyama.

He also affirmed that strengthening food security requires collective efforts such as maintaining connectivity, improving resiliency of food supply chains, keeping transparency and reinforcing international cooperation.

According to APEC PSU, food security is an important and complex area that requires further analysis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to worsen food security conditions in the APEC region,” it said. “However, APEC economies have the resources to implement measures at both individual and collective levels to prevent a health crisis from becoming a food crisis as well.”

It added, “The impact of COVID-19 is an opportunity to increase international cooperation on issues that are critical to food security. Several APEC economies have already done so.”

It cited New Zealand and Singapore’s Declaration on Trade in Essential Goods for Combatting the COVID-19 Pandemic on April 15 as an example, which committed to eliminating customs duties and export restrictions for 124 essential goods, including food and healthcare products.

Meanwhile, on May 3, 11 participating states, including six APEC economies (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore) issued a Joint Ministerial Statement promising to maintain open and connected supply chains.

“International cooperation and transparency are essential for sharing information in a timely manner to prevent food security deterioration in APEC economies,” said APEC PSU. “APEC economies could exchange experiences and learn from efforts to keep the food value chain moving during the pandemic, an example being measures allowing small and medium farmers to keep their production going and avoid bankruptcy.”