The Politics of Rice and Security in Southeast Asia

The stability of rice, a food staple for nearly 690 million Southeast Asians, faces considerable challenges amid recent international conflicts, evolving trade policies, and climate change. Factors including an intensified El Niño, the conflict in Ukraine, as well as growing trade restrictions across Asia have collectively led to a deficit in the global supply of rice, constricting the availability of rice and posing significant threats to public health within Southeast Asia. This diminished supply, coupled with a heightened demand for rice, exacerbates Southeast Asia’s food insecurity, poverty levels, and issues related to public health, highlighting the importance of creating sustainable solutions to address challenges related to the region’s food supplies. 

Declining yields in prominent rice-producing nations have led to soaring rice prices throughout Southeast Asia. Yields in Thailand, the world’s second-largest rice exporter and a major supplier to the region, are projected to decline by between 3 and 6 percent in 2023-2024. Southeast Asian states must adapt to a changing environment and rice industry to sustain their populations and boost their economies. The expansion of new technologies facilitating sustainable farming methods and alternative trade policies will be essential to ensuring the supply and affordability of rice. 

The Impact of Rice Shortages on Southeast Asian Economies 

  With inflation rates high across Southeast Asia, financial hardship is prevalent among tens of millions of people in the region. High inflation rates are attributable in part to the escalating costs of rice. The Philippines has notably experienced inflation rates as high as 4.1 percent in late 2023, with 50 to 70 percent of the inflation being accounted for by rising food costs.  

To counter rising rice costs, Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. implemented a one-month price ceiling on rice to enhance affordability for Filipino consumers. Meanwhile, Myanmar introduced a price ceiling for rice farmers in late September, with the Malaysian government following soon after. Yet, despite concentrated efforts throughout the region to mitigate the rise in the cost of rice, prices reached a 15-year high in December of last year.  

In addition to regional rice policies, Southeast Asia’s rate of rice imports is also contributing to the low supply and high price of rice. In August 2023, India, the world’s top global rice exporter, imposed export bans on non-basmati rice. The rice bans devastated consumers in Southeast Asia, where some nations rely on Indian rice exports for as much as 42 percent of their supply. India’s export ban has further heightened food insecurity in Southeast Asia, causing rice prices in the region to increase as much as 22 percent. For households already struggling with food insecurity and poverty, this price jump amplifies economic hardship, making it difficult to purchase rice. As a result, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are collaborating to overcome the regional rice crisis, giving priority to fellow Southeast Asian countries when it comes to rice trading. 

Regional Public Health Concerns

Escalating rice prices have caused widespread concern about a food crisis in Southeast Asia, which could increase incidences of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition throughout the region. The 2023 global rice shortage created a deficit of over 8 million tons of rice, the largest shortfall since 2004, resulting in high rice prices that stressed households’ purchasing power. As a result, already economically vulnerable communities are falling into deepened states of food insecurity and financial hardship, causing great public health concerns throughout the region.  

Rice consumption constitutes approximately 50 percent of calorie intake in Southeast Asian diets; agricultural production makes up over 10 percent of the regional economy. With such high dependence on the grain, a shortage in rice supplies will increase the incidences of public health issues and poverty among Southeast Asians. The prevalence of severe food insecurity in Southeast Asia continues to rise year after year, making the rice shortage especially detrimental. 

Malnutrition is a persistent issue throughout Southeast Asia. It causes an estimated 46 percent of children to have at least one micronutrient deficiency, 27.4 percent to experience growth stunting, and rates of child wasting to reach more than 8 percent. The prevalence of malnutrition in the region has led to high rates of other conditions such as diabetes among citizens. Diabetes is especially widespread in Southeast Asia—over 90 million adults have been diagnosed with the disease and the International Diabetes Federation projects ​​that diabetes rates will increase by 68 percent to 152 million by 2045.   

These public health challenges are a priority for ASEAN government officials, who are diligently working to curb the implications that the rice shortage will have on public health. ASEAN members met in Kuala Lumpur in late 2023 where they agreed to prioritize regional rice yields for Southeast Asian countries. Indonesia, a rice-dependent country, plans to stockpile rice from Cambodia and Myanmar in preparation for shortages during the El Niño season. Likewise, rice-abundant Vietnam has been supplying over 90 percent of the Philippines’ imports—but in the wake of India’s rice ban, the two nations are to sign a 5-year pact to ensure food security among their populations. However, prioritizing rice trading within ASEAN could have adverse effects on other global populations, including in countries like the United States which imports more than half of its rice from Southeast Asia.  

Innovation and Regional Cooperation 

International trade policy, global conflict, and the impacts of climate change have created a substantial deficit in rice production across Southeast Asia. The repercussions of this shortfall have transcended across the globe and have had immense regional impacts on public health and local economies, leading many Southeast Asians into food insecurity. Technological and agricultural innovation are critical for Southeast Asia to battle its ongoing rice crisis.  

Southeast Asia’s public health depends on rice. The region’s rice shortage is a threat to already prevalent health problems such as malnutrition, hunger, and diabetes. Prioritizing the rice trade between regional partners is a particularly beneficial initiative because it boosts the domestic economy for rice exporters and ensures quantities for rice importers and consumers.  

To prevent magnified public health concerns of food insecurity and poverty, Southeast Asian officials should also look outside of the region’s rice-producing nations to grow food surpluses to feed their populations. An appetite for wheat products has become increasingly popular in Southeast Asia, a sign that greater wheat imports could reduce food insecurity in the region. With ASEAN nations prioritizing regional rice trade, an increase in wheat exports from the United States could make up for the loss in U.S.-ASEAN rice trade.  

As new opportunities for international trade open, India’s rice export ban may prove to be advantageous to Southeast Asian producers. Major rice producers such as Vietnam and Thailand may have the opportunity to fill the shortfall in global rice quantities by increasing production to supply other Southeast Asian countries impacted by India’s ban. But as climate change continues to devastate rice paddy yields throughout the region, measures must be taken to increase the sustainability and reliability of rice production.  

Adapting to more sustainable farming methods and welcoming new technologies will help Southeast Asian countries boost rice production and show resilience amid climate change disasters. Vietnam showcases the importance of sustainable farming methods, with farmers increasingly using networks of sensors and water pumps to decrease the water needed to grow rice during dry spells, preventing soil degradation. To improve soil biodiversity, governments must implement policies that incentivize farmers to manage soil depletion through measures such as crop rotation and intercropping.  

Despite barriers from international trade policies, global conflict, and climate change, Southeast Asian governments have an array of tools to mitigate a further rise in food insecurity and poverty in the region. A combination of increased regional rice production, alternative rice sourcing, and new means of sustainable farming will be essential to preventing economic and public health disasters. 

Corey Donnelly is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Corey Donnelly

Research Intern, Southeast Asia Program