Food Security in Myanmar: Future ‘Rice Bowl’ of Asia?


The right to food is a very important human right and is at the heart of FAO’s mandate to ensure a world free from hunger. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in its Article 25, states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of themselves and their family – a right that includes food as essential for leading a dignified life. Right to food is closely linked to the concept of food security. It entails an obligation on the part of the state to respect, protect and ensure access to adequate food for its entire people, at all times. Food security has three important parameters: firstly, food availability, which is a function of domestic production of food grains and imports/exports. Sustainability, including environmental sustainability, is critical to long-term food availability. A second parameter is food accessibility, both physical and economic. This parameter includes employment opportunities, levels of poverty, functioning of the public distribution system and the running of employment/poverty alleviation schemes. Finally, the third parameter is food absorption, which means the ability to assimilate the food consumed for a healthy life. Food absorption depends upon multiple factors like the health of the individual, environmental sanitation, hygienic and safe drinking water, a balanced diet, knowledge of nutrition, and good dietary practices.

Myanmar, the erstwhile ‘Rice Bowl’ of Asia has been undergoing fast-paced transformation in recent times, but a crucial question remains to be answered: can the country achieve food security for all in the near future? There was a time when the former British colony exported large quantities of milled rice per year, but independence, followed by misjudged policies and economic sanctions affected the agricultural sector. Development led by agriculture is a necessity as approximately 80% of the population still lives in rural areas, with agriculture comprising one-third of GDP and providing more than 60% of total employment. However, food insecurity at the rural household level remains a serious challenge.

Numerous reports (links here, here, and here) make clear the multiple challenges to achieving food security for Myanmar’s population. Not only have unstable climate conditions made agricultural production difficult to sustain, but changes in rainfall, dry spells, and an increase in natural disasters have devastated crops and livestock. Human-induced barriers to agricultural production have also taken their toll, with new construction and mining projects coinciding with fragmentation of land holdings and poorly coordinated rural development programmes.

Fast paced extraction of resources with little concern for ecological impact has caused further devastation. The presence of the Myanmar military, ethnic militias and land mines has limited border communities’ access to land and forests. Armed conflict, massive displacement of people and forced cultivation of jatropha (instead of food crops) has created further complications such as involuntary migration and an increase in the numbers of refugees; both of these have resulted in neglect of local agriculture and sustainable community-based agrarian practices.

Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS) analysis has found various townships in Myanmar to be highly vulnerable, with food poverty in the Chin state being the highest. This was further reiterated by the fact that the state also had high levels of severely and moderately malnourished children. Cyclone Komen in July 2015 has caused rice prices to increase, which has enhanced the vulnerability of the non-skilled day labour households living in remote areas, with low agricultural productivity and poor resilience.

One also sees a decline in the share of primary crops in Myanmar, for example in cereals (from 37% of GDP in 1995 to 21% after 20 years), whereas the share of the livestock and fisheries sectors have gone up. This trend (both in terms of area and production) needs to be studied as diversification away from major food-grains could affect food availability. 66% of Myanmar’s farmers use home-produced seeds which are often of poor quality, with low fertilizer use and non-optimum irrigation efficiency. There are multiple challenges, including the fact that most farmers are still not aware of the latest consumer preferences and price competitiveness. Linkages between farmers and markets remain poor, with weak market intelligence and inadequate transparency, poor transport connections and a lack of early warning indicators. The country also suffers from chronic malnutrition (many women and children suffer from anaemia) and micro-nutrient deficiencies with Vitamin A deficiency estimated to affect between 4% to nearly 33% of pre-school age children. Furthermore, IDP camps have poor diet diversity and meal frequency. Financial constraints, lack of knowledge, and displacement are some of the causal factors which affect the quality and quantity in children’s meals especially in conflict affected areas.

Similar concerns and trends in food security have also been observed across the frontier in India. The country has witnessed right to food campaigns which have held public hearings (Jan Sunwais) in states like Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha; these campaigns have helped in increasing both awareness and accountability. Agriculture, which is considered a way of life in India, saw a decline in public investment in the 1980s along with the signing of the AOA (Agreement on Agriculture) in 1994 as part of the GATT Agreement. Removal of quantitative restrictions, decline in commodity prices since 1999-2000, rising indebtedness followed by farmer’s suicides in several states are all signs of the agrarian crisis.

Like Myanmar, India too has seen the decline in yields, a move towards cash crops/non-food crops and non-farm activities, an increase in small and marginal holdings, depletion and over-exploitation/misuse of ground water resources, fertile soil and forests, agrarian unemployment and resultant rural distress. Cultivators in India declined from 1951 to 2001 whereas there was an increase in the numbers of landless agricultural labourers during the same period. This was a disturbing sign as the living standards of the rural poor depend on their access to land; thus landlessness can be identified as a cause of rural poverty. Lack of adequate institutional credit, leakages in the public distribution system and sub-optimal functioning of the welfare schemes have compounded the challenges. Moreover, nutritional poverty has been alleged to be higher than official poverty figures.

Myanmar today needs to promote climate-smart agricultural practices along with higher rural household incomes by improving smaller farmers’ access to better seeds, credit, technology, storage facilities and markets. Fairer division of profits and benefits from resource-use, land reforms, coordinated information sharing between relevant departments, better nutritional surveillance and nutrition security, robust disaster preparedness, natural resource management, agro-ecological zoning, and better data collection systems are immediate requirements for the country. The ‘last frontier of biodiversity’ needs to attract extra attention through special conservation arrangements for the border areas, which are richly endowed and therefore often plundered.

The country has initiated certain schemes and plans. The National Economic and Social Development Plan (2011/2012-2015/2016) aims to achieve the twin goals of development of rural and border areas. The National Strategy on Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation (launched in 2011) has 8 priority areas: agricultural production, livestock and fisheries production, rural productivity and cottage industry, micro savings and credit enterprises, rural cooperatives, rural socio-economy, rural renewable energy and environmental conservation. Although the Agriculture Sector Review 2004 was undertaken to develop a consolidated data base on rural activities, the Food Security Working Group (FSWG) in 2010 indicated that individual organizations were collecting data from different areas using different indicators which were often not comparable. The National Plan of Action for Food and Nutrition (2011-2016) hopes to achieve food and nutrition security for all in Myanmar. The country’s government also plans to use media sources more effectively for information dissemination in the future.

It remains to be seen how Myanmar will tackle the challenges affecting agriculture and rural development, two areas which are crucial for food and livelihood security. Emphasis on food security brings into focus the politico-economic processes which affect poor people. Thus, food security needs to be an intrinsic part of national development plans and priorities. Both growth mediated (economic growth improving human capability) and support led food security (government provisions for public support systems) will be relevant for the country. The burgeoning and vibrant civil society can play a critical monitoring role for the creation of a food and nutrition-secure Myanmar. V.S.Vyas, an eminent agricultural economist has thus rightly observed that ‘it is only when the civil society institutions, market and state policies converge that we will come closer to the ideal of food security for all’.

Author: Dr. Reshmi Banerjee

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).