I am quite alarmed reading the various news about rice and other agricultural products. I remembered when I was at another place, we always discuss on the implication of Brunei relying solely on Thailand only as the rice supplies. But other alternative producers such as Vietnam and Indonesia curb exports as soon as there are problems in their domestic economy. Understandable but definitely worrying if you are a rice importer like us. Given our size and our soil condition, Brunei will never be able to achieve 100% sufficiency in rice, that we have to accept (unless we can find a variety of rice that can grow 12 times a year or something). I remembered asking an economist friend about food security in Brunei more than a year ago. I thought I will retrieve that entry and here it is:-
Recently, I got engaged in a little, yet very interesting, discussion with Mr. BR about the notion of “food security” in the context of Brunei Darussalam. Interesting because of two reasons. First, food is abundant in Brunei. All you want to eat is available in this country. But Brunei imports most of its food. (Well, I guess most of us know it already). Second, food security is far from being a simple issue.
So, I then looked into statistics to check the source of the food that I eat everyday. And here is what I saw. We import almost all the rice we eat. The bulk of our vegetables are also imported. We also import lots of fruits. Practically, we don’t produce flours that we use to make cakes, noodles, cookies and all the delicacies we eat here. We import sugar. We bring salt from overseas. We bring chilies from neighbouring countries, Although from time to time we still import eggs, but most of the eggs we eat are actually produced locally.
So perhaps it is only natural if some people think: “…hey, we need to produce our food ourselves.....”. But do we really need to produce most of our food ourselves? Here, let me share with you what I think.
On paper, we have two alternative strategies: either we produce our food ourselves, or we continue to rely on import. Producing all the food locally is certainly appealing. And the benefit is perhaps clear to many: we can be food self-sufficient and food secure at the same time. But then: at what cost? When I look around us, really there is no country in this world that produces all their food themselves. Perhaps because they know that the cost of doing so far outweighs its benefit. (Well, some did try to do it. And indeed the cost was enormous: the resulting inefficiency from producing all the food themselves really killed their economy).
On the contrary, the benefit of importing all the food is also clear. The idea of importing is especially attractive to most international economists and traders. Indeed in many cases, international competition helps push the prices of food downwards, and benefit the average households like myself. But such a strategy poses importing countries with dangers. When international market structure in, say, rice or flour or vegetables, change; or when the exporters and middlemen are able to form a cartel and or exercise their power, then it is me, the average household, who will suffer. My kitchen will be exposed to fluctuations in the prices of commodities, with all the consequences.
Since both alternatives have risks, I guess we need to follow a course of strategy that lies somewhere in between those two polars. Let me call it the third strategy. We can start by, first of all, define “the level food self-sufficiency” or "food-security” that we want to have. This means, we need to define more concretely the notion of food-self sufficiency. For example, we should can define the level of “vegetable self-sufficiency” that is considered safe for the country. Whether it would mean 30 percent (of all the vegetables we need in a month should be produced locally), or 40 percent, or even 25 percent, the key is that such a level must be clearly defined and decided. This step should be followed by the next step: to design additional strategies to make up for the difference between what we produce locally and what we consume. Such additional strategies should have elements of the so called “food buffer stock”, food logistics, and investments in selected agricultural subsectors, in order to guarantee that all households are food secured. Lastly, assess as to whether the government budget can afford to finance such strategies in a long term.
Now that we start to touch on so many complex issues, I think I like to stop here…