Dr. Siang Hee TAN is currently Executive Director of CropLife Asia, the voice of the plant science industry across the continent and part of a global federation. At CropLife Asia, he is responsible for directing regulatory, crop protection, seeds, intellectual property, biotechnology as well as communications and outreach programs in 15 Asian countries. His other professional experience includes: establishing the University of Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) Genome Centre; management of two startup ventures developing bioinformatics software and prenatal genetic testing; and establishing the biotechnology section for the Sime Darby Technology Centre among other roles. Dr. Tan holds a BSc in Plant Pathology from the UniversitiPertanian Malaysia, an MSc in Genetic Engineering from Universiti Putra Malaysia and a PhD in Molecular Biology (Plant Virus) from Okayama University in Japan. Professional recognition includes a Silver Award at the 2005 Geneva International Exhibitions & Inventions of New Techniques and Products, a US Government Cochran Fellowship for biological research at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, and UPM awards for Research and Development.
1. Should Food security be restricted to staples, how crucial is nutritional security for Asia Pacific?
A: Since the outbreak of COVID-19, countries have been hard-pressed to manage food security by maintaining a steady flow of food from farm to fork. The issue of nutritional insecurity is exacerbated as horticulture cash crops like flowers and ornamentals are equally impacted, reducing farmers’ income and their ability to provide their families with sufficient food and nutrition. Should food sources be restricted to staples alone, nutritional security would become an even greater challenge among Asia-Pacific countries, India included.
With food security and food system resiliency, India, like most countries, faces its fair share of challenges – even prior to COVID-19. Whether considering its rank in the 2019 Global Hunger Index (102nd out of 117 countries) or troubling malnutrition rates with a “large number of people, especially women and children, suffering from micronutrient deficiencies” as noted by the World Food Programme (WFP) – there are areas of concern where food value chain stakeholders within the public and private sectors can do more by working together.
2. Do you think countries should depend less on imports and grow food locally?
A: While achieving food autarky may seem ideal, it also poses risks. For example,in the event of natural disasters, countries that rely solely on domestic producemay not have alternative food sources to fall back on.Agricultural productivity is also highly dependent on the comparative advantages of countries. Being able to import food that can be produced at a lower cost compared to domestic production will give people a greater variety of options at potentially cheaper prices.As such, it is preferable for countries to balance the use of imports and local produce to diversify food baskets and minimize the threats of food insecurity.
For countries like Singapore that have limited capacity to produce domestically, it is imperative that strong trade relations are created and maintainedto ensure a steady supply of food to feed the nation. Although 90% of food for local consumption is imported, Singapore was ranked as the most food secure country in the world by The Economist Intelligence unit (EIU). This ranking was based mainly on high affordability of food with the average household in Singapore spending less than 10% of its income on food which is 20-40% less than some of its neighbours. Singapore’s case shows that reliance on imports should not always be perceived as a deficiency butcan actually be used as a means for bolstering food security.
3. What will it take for third world farmers to treat agriculture as a business venture and not means for sustenance?
A: To encourage a shift from subsistence to commercial farming, public and private sectors have to work together to ensure farmer adoption of practices that can increase farm output, profit and their own welfare.
There was enlightening researchconducted in Indonesia recently to better understand why farmers there engage in either subsistence or commercial farming; it revealedcertain contributinginternal and external factors.Internal factors reported include financial endowment and farmer knowledge. External factors included access to credit, technology (including crop protection products as well as quality seeds), and market information. In situations where these factors werefavourable, farmers were more inclined to farm commercially.
To overcome reservations that farmers have about moving into commercial farming, there is a need toreform marketing systems and price regulation for the agricultural product being farmed. Agribusiness terminals and marketing infrastructure can also be used to increase market efficiency, so that the harvest during peak season can be absorbed and distributed evenly to other marketing regions.Soft loan or microcredit should also be accessible and locally available.
4. How does CLA support active outreach for technology to counter anti-technology propaganda?
A: As the chief advocacy organization for the plant science industry in Asia, CropLife Asia is represented by two national associations in India: CropLife India and the Alliance for Agri Innovation India. Collectively they serve as the national voice promoting crop protection and plant biotechnology innovations to better enable and empower India’s farmers in driving food production. Both have partnered with numerous food value chain, government and civil society stakeholders in advancing broader adoption of the technologies as well as responsible use practices that go along with their use.
We have a strong history of partnership with food value chain stakeholders from around the region – particularly with national governments. That collective work and spirit of private-public sector partnership are both at the core of our outreach and advocacy efforts.
5. How is COVID-19 impacting the seed movement in the Asia Pacific region?
A: While things are improving, early indications about the impact of the pandemic on seed movement were troubling. According to a survey done by the Asia Pacific Seed Association (APSA), seed companies reported a negative effect on the demand for seeds as a result of measures implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19. Nearly all aspects of the seed business have been negatively affected in some way and varying degrees – international and domestic seed shipments, difficulties in getting inputs, difficulties getting labor for seed production and processing, and reduced access to finance. International seed shipments were the most severely affected, as problemsarose with getting export and import permits, phytosanitary certificates, and customs clearance.If left unchecked, such reduction in seed demand and international seed shipments couldcertainly have consequences for the region’s food and nutrition security and the income of smallholder farmers.
To alleviate this, governments can try to ease bottlenecks in the seed supply chain by exempting seed production, distribution and trade from lockdown restrictions and ensuring timely processing of import/export permits and phytosanitary certificates. It’s particularly important that bottlenecks are addressed before the upcoming seed production season and thatlocal situationsare monitored closely.
6. What impact can you see on Agriculture regionally and globally due to current crisis?
A: This pandemic has and will continue to put a strain on food supply chains – an inherently complex web involving farmers, agricultural inputs such seeds, chemicals and fertilizers, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more. Logistical hurdles, movement restrictions and retail closures can present challenges in food supply continuity. Media coverage has also profiled growers in India and Malaysia who have been forced to essentially dump vegetables and fruits as a result of transport disruption in the food supply chain.
7. Which crops do you think will be most affected because of the lockdown imposed in India? Do you see prices of agricultural produce sharply fluctuating in the coming months?
A: Highly perishable crops will continue to be affected the most. With street markets and farmers’ markets being temporarily closed to limit public gatherings,smallholder producers and their associations are prevented from selling directly to consumers. This creates bottle necks where perishables are left to waste. In addition, delays due to required sanitary checks and roadblockshave led to losses in quality or complete damage of perishable products and to the accumulation of non-perishable products.
Price fluctuation is likely if countries continue to impose export restrictions and areas with produce surplus are unable to move to areas of deficits. To manage this, policy makers have to monitor consumer stockpiling behavior andmarket shortages by fortifying food reserves.
8. Many countries like Middle East, China, United States and European Union have put in restraints for exports? How do you think it will play out for Asia-Pacific region?
A: The potential combined impact of COVID-19 on unemployment, households’ purchasing power, food prices, and food availability in local markets could severely jeopardize access to food in the most vulnerable countries. Any additional inflationary effect of protectionist policies through import tariffs and export bans could cause a significant increase in the number of people facing severe food insecurity worldwide.Considering these risks, participating Agricultural Ministers in the recent G20 meeting committed to enhancing global cooperation, facilitating trade flows and avoiding the implementation of unnecessary export restraints and taxes to prevent excessive food price volatility. The same goes for the Asia-Pacific region where it is crucial that countries ensure the continued flow of food, products and inputs essential for agricultural and food production to safeguard global food security and nutrition.
9. Due to COVID-19 many agricultural activities have taken a back seat. What do you think is the future of technologies like biotech and gene-editing given the current agricultural landscape?
A: Biotech and gene-editing will continue to serve an important role in agricultural development. Deeper scientific research regarding technology like CRISPR/Cas9 is still required to uncover the potential for creating plant varieties that have desirable characteristics. As the world’s population projection expands to over nine billion people by 2050, the challenge to plant scientists, farmers and the agriculture industry is not only how to meet that demand, but how to do it in an increasingly sustainable manner under changing climatic conditions. The development of crops with increased yield potential, better nutritional value, greater drought tolerance and an increased ability to withstand the dynamics of climate change, will need to utilize all plant breeding tools, including gene editing technology and other plant breeding innovations.
10. Can you share with us some good practices in agriculture and its allied industries adopted by other countries during this crisis that can be implemented in India as well?
A: It is important that provincial/state governments align with national policymakers to make certain movement and lockdown exemptions for agricultural inputs are realized and effective (as is being efforted in Australia and India). India has been responsive and making great strides with this, as evidenced by the Ministry of Home Affairs having issued two addendums to the restricted movement guidelines exempting the manufacture, distribution and sales of crop protection products and seeds, and a majority of state governments have also reinforced the exemption from the current lockdown.
Other countries where similar efforts are underway:
- Australia – Confirmed by the Minister of Agriculture as well as all the governments of all states and territories, the nation’s agriculture, primary production and food systems (including all agribusiness and farming input industries and their respective supply chains) have been declared essential and will continue to function without interruption.
- Philippines – Based on the Department of Agriculture’s Memorandum Circulars No 7 & 9, all healthy farmers and farm workers, fishers and agribusiness personnel are exempt from restricted movement orders (as farming and fishing activities shall be allowed to continue). Additionally, movement of all supplies used for agriculture and fisheries will remain unhampered and all agricultural supply stores/outlets nationwide must be allowed to operate.
- New Zealand – The wider national crop protection industry has been classified by government as essential businesses. This includes all facets of the supply chain and production.
11. What changes will happen in the seed and crop protection industry post COVID 19 crisis?
A: The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need to support farmers with digital tools to manage production using data, providing information and access to farming supplies and markets. Additionally, greater emphasis has been placed on collaboration between the public and private sectors to create more resilient food systems and flexible supply chains.Among industry players, representatives from the Asian Development Bankand GrowAsia have mentioned that they will focus on investments into policy and infrastructure for traceability technology like barcode-based systems, while the International Rice Research Institute will build a stronger portfolio of disease-resistant varieties.
There will undoubtedly be a host of learnings and opportunities in the wake of this crisis. One certainty, farmers will continue to need access to quality crop protection products and seeds to grow the nutritious food we enjoy and depend upon – and CropLife will be there to advocate for them and their access to that technology.