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Rice merchant in Santa Barbara Market, the Philippines, by David Guyler / CC BY-NC 2.0

Rice market interventions

Food security challenges in Southeast Asia are complex and involve many factors, including external drivers. This article uses current rice-growing trends in Southeast Asia to highlight the impact of recent international trade agreements on food production in the region.

Problems in complex adaptive systems are difficult to tackle. The most persistent problems are called “wicked” – problems that are so entangled in the system that unravelling them takes sustained and coordinated effort.

Food security is a classic example of a wicked problem. This article from the International Rice Research Institute gives us an overview of the many and complex factors that are involved in managing and maintaining a stable and secure rice market.

And there are still other factors to consider. In Southeast Asia, one prominent external factor is the favoured status given to Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by the European Union (EU), called “Everything But Arms” (EBA). The provision enables all exports from LDCs, except arms, to have tariff-free access to the EU marketplace.

This has dramatically changed the rice-growing landscape in Southeast Asia. Cambodia and Myanmar, both classified as LDCs, have greatly ramped up rice production, with ripple effects throughout the global rice market. Cambodia’s rice exports to the EU in the 2013–2014 season alone were 51% higher than the previous year, representing 22% of total rice imports to the EU. Myanmar’s 2014–2015 rice exports to the EU, meanwhile, were up by 81% from the previous year. Thai and Vietnamese rice exports to the EU, on the other hand, have dropped.

The impacts of such trends may be concerning for neighbouring countries. Rice production in Cambodia takes place predominantly during the wet season. If Cambodia wishes to irrigate all of its rice area during the dry season, the flow of Mekong River water to Vietnam during those months might be reduced by 31%. This would have quite an impact on dry-season rice production and on aquaculture in Vietnam. As there is only so much water in the system during the dry season, an increase in irrigation in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand would reduce the volume of water available in Vietnam.

For Cambodia and Myanmar, and especially their rice farmers, EBA status may initially seem like a positive development. However, a 2013 report by Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International found some troubling unintended consequences of the EBA initiative. With an increase in economic opportunity on such a large scale, the private sector and other foreign investors have capitalized on the newfound potential, leading to conversions of smallholder farms into large-scale agro-industrial farms that have displaced and evicted thousands. It has also contributed to the rapid conversion of forest and other land to large agricultural plantations which may have environmental implications.

This example shows the complex nature of the “wicked problem” of food security, and how achieving food security, particularly stability, requires a multi-actor, systems approach to solving these complex problems.


Equitable Cambodia & Inclusive Development International (2013). Bittersweet Harvest: A Human Rights Impact Assessment of the European Union’s Everything But Arms Initiative in Cambodia.

Erban, L.E. & Gorelick, S.M. (2016). Closing the irrigation deficit in Cambodia: Implications for transboundary impacts on groundwater and Mekong River flow. Journal of Hydrology, 535, 85–92.

European Commission (2015). EU Rice Economic Fact Sheet. Directorate-General For Agriculture And Rural Development.

Reyes, L. (2015). Unleashing the rice market. Rice Today, January-March. International Rice Research Institute.

Image Source: “Rice merchant in Santa Barbara Market, the Philippines” by David Guyler / CC BY-NC 2.0

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This article is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute