2015 is looking to be a good year for the rice exportation industry in Southeast Asia.

As reported in the Bangkok Post earlier in January this year, Thailand is seen to further increase its rice import, from 10.8 million tonnes from last year to as much as 11 million this 2015. Myanmar has also started preparations to formalize rice export in China. In a report in Eleven Myanmar, the country is currently in talks with the China Certification and Inspection Group (CCIC) to legally export rice in China, one of Myanmar’s top export markets for rice.

Meanwhile, while Cambodia has been forced to revise its original expectation of exporting one million tonnes of rice this year, the 600,000 tonnes estimate is still a significant jump from previous year’s export performance. Hean Vanhan, deputy director-general of the General Directorate of Agriculture, remains optimistic about Cambodia’s rice export performance given the competition from Thailand and Myanmar.

Export and food security – what’s the deal?

Exporting agricultural products typically means a surplus, a chance for the industry to dispose of the extra supply. This also has a far-reaching meaning in that exporting would mean sufficiency in the production of the agricultural crop. A country’s capacity to export a good such as rice means that there is more than enough supply and an indication of improved production systems overall.

But is a country’s ability to reach – and even outperform – its export targets truly food secure?

This seems to be part of the ongoing debate on agriculture and food security among the Lower Mekong countries. As an article from the VietnamNet Bridge argues, self-sufficiency in the production of crops like rice does not automatically equate to food insecurity. In Vietnam for example, the poorest of the poor remain poor and in the face of increased rice production for export, many of those engaged in agriculture still do not have adequate access to food.

A similar argument is forwarded in a paper by Somporn Isvilanonda from Kasetsart University. While Thailand may have achieved self-sufficiency in rice production, many rural households have inadequate consumption to meet nutritional needs. These households are those that typically produce rice for their own consumption, but poverty has also made access to other food sources difficult, limiting the nutritional intake of the household.

Perhaps even more glaring is the case of Myanmar which has one of the highest malnutrition rates in Southeast Asia. Dr. Ohnmar Khine, Project Coordinator of the Food Security Working Group explains that while the country is exporting rice, nutrition at the household level is low. Balanced diet is a major issue since farmers do not earn enough that will allow them to buy other food that they do not or cannot produce.

A World Bank report released in November last year also pointed out that for a rice exporting country, the price volatility of rice in Myanmar is one of the highest. Farmers do not earn higher profits and have lower household income, keeping them from accessing other food sources as well as other basic services.

Indeed, food security goes beyond self-sufficiency in production. An apt reminder again is how it was defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the 2001 The State of Food Insecurity Report:

“Food security is a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” – (FAO, 2001)

While a country’s export performance is one of the clear indicators of improved production systems and self-sufficiency, as well as one of the most practical ways to boost trade and the economy, there should always still be a focus on the more important issue of access to food. While there may be more than enough supply, this does not automatically translate to access especially by the vulnerable sectors of the community. If this cannot be addressed, then it would seem that the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency in production is lost.

Keywords: access to food, malnutrition, food production, food access, export