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Asian and European policymakers meet in Chiang Mai, Thailand, next week for talks on food security amid fears that currently volatile food prices could trigger a new “food price shock” similar to the food crisis in 2006-2008.

Rising food prices are spurring inflation and unease in Europe – but Asia is especially vulnerable. The region’s poor families spend over 60 per cent of their income on food compared to 10 per cent spent in developed nations. The rising cost of food is hurting Asia’s rural poor and urban middle classes.

The Asian Development Bank has warned that a sustained 10 per cent rise in domestic food prices in developing Asia, home to 3.3 billion people, could push an additional 64 million people into extreme poverty. Recent gains in poverty reduction made in Asia could be seriously undermined.

The statement echoed similar warnings made earlier in the year by World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick that “more people could become poor because of high and volatile prices.”

The meeting in Chiang Mai on May 9 and 10 provides an opportunity for enhanced Asia-Europe cooperation to help defuse current uncertainties and improve global food security.

Using the platform provided by ASEM, Asian and European countries can share experiences, exchange best practice and undertake joint initiatives to tackle the array of factors responsible for the rising cost of food.

There is no dearth of issues to discuss. The 48 ASEM partners, including food producers, exporters and importers, must work together to improve farmers’ livelihoods, ensure sustainable agricultural and food production, encourage “responsible” agricultural investment and strengthen agricultural research.

Sharing agricultural innovations and promoting technology transfers are important. Countries must work together to provide for food security arrangements in case of emergencies and share information on food security.

ASEM members need a frank discussion on the many factors responsible for the current situation. Bad weather, including floods in Australia and Pakistan and increasing oil prices (immediately affecting the price of fertiliser) – worsened to some extent by the political turmoil in the Middle East – are clearly contributing to the problem.

Countries’ efforts to reduce their dependence on oil by producing crops for fuel rather than food, can also impact on prices. Increases in population and added demand for more food by the world’s rapidly growing emerging countries – many of which are Asian – have further contributed to the pressure on food prices. An increase in the cost of farm inputs such as fertilisers and speculation in the futures market is aggravating the situation.

To come to grips with the problem, governments need to focus attention on strengthening entire food systems from farm production, processing, retail and distribution to consumption. There must be increased emphasis on agricultural research which can increase crop yields.

It is a daunting task requiring national initiatives but also collective action. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has agreed, through the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework, to establish an emergency regional rice reserve system.

The European Union is also well-placed to provide its experience and expertise to Asian countries. Once criticised for its system of costly farm subsidies and high farm tariffs, the EU has revamped its common agricultural policy and thanks to efficient and modern farming techniques, remains a leading exporter and importer of food products.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, spends about 600 million euros a year on food security projects and programmes in developing countries.

An EU food facility worth one billion euros is under implementation as a rapid response to the 2008 food crisis in developing countries. Most of the projects are expected to be completed by end-2011.

With experts warning that if food and fuel prices continue to surge, economic growth in the Asian region could be reduced by up to 1.5% this year, the stakes are high for ASEM. In an inter-dependent world, changes in Asia’s growth prospects will have a strong impact on European economies.

As a paper prepared for the ASEM meeting in Chiang Mai underlines, “Food security has become a serious challenge for our communities.” As such, it requires joint Asia-Europe action.