“It’s not a meal without rice” is a famous saying in Southeast Asia, where rice is the main staple food. Rice provides 50% of the calorie intake for the region’s population. Unfortunately, droughts and warmer temperatures in Southeast Asia have been impacting this staple crop, and we are seeing a decline in rice production. As climate change intensifies, alternative staple foods can support food security in the region.
Rice Production Challenges in Southeast Asia
Rice production in Asia is abundant because of the warm climates, high rainfall, cheap labor, and favorable weather conditions ideal for rice farming. Rice also has strong cultural and historical ties to the region. However, many countries in Southeast Asia are facing a number of challenges in rice production.
For instance, Thailand has requested its farmers to plant less rice to conserve water and to switch to other drought-tolerant crops. Vietnam and Indonesia also face similar issues. Vietnam has announced a plan to switch its exports to high-quality rice, effectively cutting rice exports from the current 7.1 million tonnes to 4 million tonnes by 2030. Due to the changes in weather patterns, the government of Indonesia has decided to import 3 million tons of rice in 2024 to cover the deficit.
Five Alternative Staple Foods
As rice production across the region is disrupted, switching to alternative staple foods would be beneficial. In the Southeast Asian context, alternative staple foods are the basic foods that make up a significant portion of a person’s diet as an alternative to rice. Some promising non-rice crops to be considered as alternative staple foods include:
- Sorghum: It’s a tropical cereal native to Africa and widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical Africa and Asia. Considered a potential staple food, it is a great source of energy with a low glycemic index as it consists of 75% complex carbohydrates. Sorghum is also resistant to drought and grows fairly well in poor soil.
- Maize: Also known as corn, it’s a major grain crop grown in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. On average,100 grams of maize contains 365 calories. It also contains some antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
- Sago: It’s a native plant from Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. Sago can be consumed as a staple food containing approximately 90% carbohydrate per 100 grams. Its fiber content also can help improve gut health.
- Cassava: It’s already a major root crop cultivated in tropical developing countries. It’s also considered an alternative staple food as it provides an essential diet for over half a billion people. Cassava is rich in calories and vitamin C. It is adaptable to different soil types and is simple to grow. Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia are the third, sixth, seventh, and ninth-largest cassava producers globally, covering 3.5 million hectares.
- Yam: This root crop originated from three tropical regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Yam is a source of energy that contains 118 calories of carbohydrates per 100 g. It is also high in vitamin C, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, potassium, and other important nutrients for health.
Food Diversification Strategy
Alternative staple foods are varied and essential in ensuring resilience and food security amidst climate change. Food diversification is also crucial in creating a more sustainable agriculture system. Moreover, it can help promote healthier eating for all, supported by robust agrifood policy.
The food diversification strategies range from transforming agribusinesses from a mono-sectoral approach to diverse food farming activities to providing proper infrastructure to make the harvest products affordable and accessible. Furthermore, public education is also vital to transforming consumer behavior away from rice dependence. All in all, beyond a list of alternative staple foods, achieving food diversification requires all stakeholders to work together to create just, inclusive, and climate-resilient food systems.
Editor: Nazalea Kusuma
Prayul is a Reporter Intern at Green Network Asia. Graduated from the Biology program at Adi Buana University, she has a strong passion in writing about biodiversity, climate change, and the other issues related to the SDGs.