Over the past two decades, the ASEAN region has seen continual economic growth. However, since the pandemic in 2020, growth has contracted by 3.8 percentage points. This shift has disrupted the lives of millions with broad lay-offs and reduced income-generating opportunities and contributed to increased poverty rates and rising inequality.

As the governments in Southeast Asia work to restimulate their economies and move towards a ‘new normal’, policymakers have a unique opportunity to implement an equitable and climate-sensitive agriculture strategy that can ensure long-term food security, self-sufficiency, food tracing and supply chain management.

Among other land-based sectors, agriculture is a major source of food security and contributor to national employment and economies. ASEAN has shown great resilience so far in overcoming disruptions in labour, markets and transport to meet new demands resulting from the ‘new normal’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. They have adjusted trade barriers and other market impediments and enhanced risk management. Despite these efforts, farmers, workers and retailers have suffered devastating losses because the effects of the pandemic were worsened by the effects of a changing climate, with abnormally high rainfall and flooding that damaged crops and irrigation infrastructure.

Clearly, ASEAN’s strategies for recovery in the agriculture sector will need to go together with action on the climate. Agriculture sits on both sides of the climate debate. Not only is the sector extremely vulnerable to slow and sudden onset climate impacts, it is also the greatest contributor globally of methane and other greenhouse gases. The sector has potential to utilize ‘climate-smart’ approaches, working to not only mitigate its emissions throughout the supply chain, but also adapt against climatic hazards.

ASEAN’s collaborative approach to equitable recovery

To its credit, ASEAN has recognized the importance of a collaborative approach and drafted a collective and long-term socio-economic recovery strategy called the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF) – along with a corresponding implementation plan.

The ACRF highlights existing vulnerabilities exacerbated by the pandemic while showcasing the importance of sustainability and coordination across affected sectors. It recognizes the role of climate-smart agriculture, food security, social equity and climate change mitigation and adaptation for promoting a sustainable response to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Including climate action, food security and social equity as means to sustainable pandemic recovery is an important step for the region, but implementation is key and may look different in each ASEAN member state depending on national capacities and priorities.

While a holistic recovery is urgently needed, it is important to consider what response efforts have already been under way over the past 18 months. At a recent event hosted by the ASEAN Climate Resilience Network (ASEAN-CRN) on 8 June 2021 addressing the nexus between Covid-19, climate change and food security, national focal points of the ASEAN-CRN presented national experiences to address challenges related to the nexus.

Viet Nam’s fast and efficient response to the Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point, with its two-pronged effort to encourage sustainable economic development and growth alongside control of Covid-19. The government of Viet Nam has worked with food producers to include food security in its response and recovery planning, including the diversification of production and market channels, improved access to market information and upscaling the use of digital technology in trading and goods distribution.

Viet Nam stands out from other ASEAN members, with the country guiding its strategies by information from the ground. Local authorities conducted surveys of rural households to understand how they were affected by the pandemic and integrated this information into national strategies.

Other countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are putting short- and long-term strategies to enhance resilience and competitiveness of the agriculture sector as well as investment in research and development as well as innovative technologies.

These national experiences showed that addressing these complex challenges requires continued efforts to break down silos to solve complex problems, enhanced cooperation and collaboration across sectors and across countries, dedicated financing and sustained dialogue on how to work together as a region.

To ensure a comprehensive recovery, the national focal points of ASEAN-CRN recommended emphasizing synergies with ongoing climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts and a strong push towards a more equitable society.

A major concern in the region is the growing inequalities that have further worsened by the pandemic. ASEAN has already committed to pursuing a ‘pro-poor, inclusive, gender-, culture- and climate-responsive approach’ to recovery. In order to realize this commitment in practice, national and regional actors must make equity and a just economy core goals of development, resilience and climate action plans.

Equitable adaptation is of particular importance to the agriculture sector as it allows those most vulnerable to climate change to contribute to and benefit from adaptation actions. Furthermore, focusing on equality acknowledges potential trade-offs to make sure that those who are disadvantaged are not adversely impacted by recovery initiatives.

Implementing the ACRF’s short- and long-term recommendations will require a new way of doing things. To ensure that multiple objectives are meaningfully and simultaneously addressed, a high-level cross-cutting coordination infrastructure is needed that will oblige ASEAN silos at the secretariat and working group levels to open up and increase communication.

Coordination, collaboration and consensus remain constant challenges at the national, regional and inter-ministerial levels. Regional recovery efforts like those outlined in the ACRF not only provide an opportunity to move in this direction, but also dismantle certain traditional ways of communication to which ASEAN is so accustomed. This would be the environment with which the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework can be efficiently implemented.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a lot of tragedy, it also provides an opportunity to reset some of the region’s development objectives to contribute to a greener and more sustainable ASEAN with a long-term vision for how social equity, climate action and food security can be ensured in the future.

The ASEAN Climate Resilience Network is a platform for regional exchange on climate-smart agriculture. Its most recent event, “Exploring the nexus of climate change, food security and the COVID-19 pandemic”, provided an opportunity for ASEAN focal points to discuss national experiences responding to climate change and COVID-19 pandemic in the agriculture sector.

Read more information about the event here .