6 June 2024

Food insecurity might not be an issue that many people in Thailand worry much about. The recent economic hardships from the impacts of COVID-19 and the conflict in Ukraine, which is having a ripple effect on the rest of the world, have, however, resulted in a rise in the cost of nutrition. This is having a direct effect on society’s vulnerable groups, including those in Thailand.

Food security in the Asia Pacific region has deteriorated in recent years, not only because of the pandemic, but also due to many other factors, such as climate change, that lead to a loss of natural resources production and productivity, and the immediate impact of the war, resulting in critical price rises.

Thailand is not doing too badly and the country is on the right track in handling the issue of food security, according to a United Nations expert, Sridhar Dharmapuri, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Food Safety and Nutrition Officer. He said the steps Thailand has been taking throughout the pandemic are good, and it should continue doing this, but the country needs to be watchful.

Thailand is, has been, very fortunate. It’s a country which is blessed with rich natural resources, particularly in terms of soil, water and rain. So, although the COVID pandemic has impacts on other sectors as well, such as tourism, on agriculture, in the rebound post-pandemic, especially right now, there is an opportunity to earn higher incomes for the farmers, with the products that they are able to export now”.

Dharmapuri said that the indicator as to whether any country is facing food insecurity is pricing. How much people can actually buy for a given price and how much of the household income they are actually spending on food for their families. “That’s the indicator that everybody watches, to make sure that they have enough income left over, after the food purchase, to spend on other things, preferably on health, education, child care and things like that,” he said.

Healthy food becomes unaffordable

Studies by United Nations show that, in the Asia Pacific region, one and a half years ago, the cost of an energy-sufficient diet was approaching one dollar per person per day. The cost of a healthy diet per person per day had exceeded 3.50 dollars. That makes healthy food unaffordable for many people when the poverty line is 2 dollars per day.

“Now, buying food is about 40% of their household income. So, as that proportion increases, there are two things; the expenditure is more on energy-efficient food, so it’s not a healthy diet. Second, if more families spend their household income on food, they’ll have less money for healthcare, for education, for all the other things which are also important for human development,” said Dharmapuri.

Market interventions

Some governments try to help their people by capping the prices of some food products and restricting the export of some food items. Experts say those strategies are not helping the global situation.

One of the recommendations from the FAO is to let trade flow organically, which will help stabilize the pricing on the international market. The benefits of such restrictions are very limited, and they make food even less affordable for vulnerable groups. At the same time, exports allow local farmers and food producers to earn more.

As for Thailand, Dharmapuri said there is now an opportunity to export more food and produce more. The country announced it aims to become the kitchen of the world, “maybe they can also aim to be the kitchen “garden” of the world,” he said.

No one should be left behind

The most urgent issue in food security is how we can protect the vulnerable. Each country needs to have social protection measures and provide social safety nets, to ensure that no one is left behind, no one is hungry and everyone has access to safe and affordable food.

 Opportunity for change

The current situation is an opportunity to change the food system, the agro-food system, and how we produce, so that we have a plan for the future, where we are to produce more food using fewer natural resources and, at the same time, assure income for all of those who are involved, said Dharmapuri.

He thinks Thailand has been doing quite well in supporting vulnerable groups, but the country should still look into more investment in more social protection programs.

“More in benefit transfers, cash transfers to those who are vulnerable and need financial support to buy food, access food, so that they actually have the means to do so,” he said.

By Tulip Naksompop Blauw