Building Resilience in the Greater Mekong Subregion’s Agri-Food Sector

Smallholder farmers play a vital role in strengthening the resilience of food systems in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Photo credit: Landell Mills.

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Enhanced policy dialogue and regional cooperation hold the key to improving food security and a strong COVID-19 recovery.


The COVID-19 is an ongoing global threat to public health. It has been especially disruptive to agri-food supply chains, affecting food security and the livelihood of smallholders.

In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), significant progress over the last decade to promote more inclusive and sustainable smallholder value chains is at risk of being lost. Smallholders’ lack of access to more advanced financial and information services has undermined their resilience against the COVID-19 shock, while agri-food supply chain disruptions hindered access to markets and finance. Perishable products are the severely affected, increasing the need to secure inputs and support extension, information, and logistical services as well as institutional innovations (certification, cooperatives, and contracting) to facilitate better risk management. This calls for a more determined commitment to policy coherence, extensive and inclusive policy dialogue, harmonized standards, trade facilitation, and market integration.

This policy brief is based on the COVID-19 Food Security Response and Recovery Actions in the GMS report produced by the GMS Agriculture and Food Security Program. It provides recommendations to policy makers in the subregion and its development partners.


The major challenges to the agri-food sector in the GMS prior to COVID-19 were the inconsistent supply of raw materials, low level of automation and technological adoption, infrastructure gaps, a lack of access to key enablers, such as financing, technologies, and skilled labor, and a lack of environmental sustainability and shifting consumer purchasing behaviors. These challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic.

While initially able to contain the spread of the virus, the GMS saw a surge in the number of cases in June, July, and August 2021. The spread of the virus and the measures to curtail it caused shifts in demand for food and beverage products, a breakdown in the supply of production inputs, and increased food protectionism policies.

The pandemic, as well as policy and other behavioral responses to control it, pose a diverse array of risks to the global agri-food sector and food security. Most notable among these is the disruption of supply chains that are the lifeline of 79% of the world’s poor who live in rural areas. Trends suggest that low-income countries stand to lose a decade’s worth of income gains because of the pandemic, including direct and indirect threats to food security and agricultural productivity for the years to come. Heterogeneity of initial conditions, resources, and institutional capacity created complex dynamics of impact, adjustment responses, and economic and social recovery.

Women are the hardest hit by the pandemic because many of them are in informal employment. Migrants too remain vulnerable to income loss due to travel restrictions, though their prevalence in essential work has mitigated remittance losses.

The pandemic has rapidly accelerated digitalization and e-commerce, yet infrastructure and connectivity must be addressed to ensure equitable access to technology.

A situational assessment showed that regional cooperation was limited in the COVID-19 response of GMS countries. They have national response and recovery strategies, but the scope and inter-agency coordination varied significantly. There was relatively uneven coordination between countries and even limited inter-ministerial coordination within several member country governments. This meant that resources made available for adjustment assistance for COVID-19 response varied greatly and were quite scarce in several countries, and that public perceptions of risks and response varied within and between countries.

Policy Options and Recommendations

Suggested areas of policy action to bolster the agri-food production and food security include enhancing supply chains, strengthening the industry’s added value, raising productivity rates, and building industry resilience.

Options for enhancing the efficiency and transparency of supply chains are investing in reliable data management systems and harmonizing standards for food products. To strengthen the industry’s added value, efforts should be made to expand the food product range and to attract investments and companies. A focus on research and enabling policies to ensure a more consistent supply of raw materials will raise productivity rates. Solutions for reinforcing agri-food industry resilience are streamlining regulatory functions, strengthening the local agro-processing ecosystem, and pursuing food-related circulatory policies.

The key to implementing these solutions is enhancing regional dialogue and establishing more homogenous standards, best practices, and policy coherence between countries in the region. Progress was made in enhancing policy dialogue during the ASEAN-Plus Three Summit in November 2020, where member states committed to the Hanoi Plan of Action on Strengthening ASEAN Economic Cooperation and Supply Chain Connectivity in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. This aimed to safeguard trade in the region, address trade disruption, and ensure the flow of essential goods. The agreement included refraining from unnecessary nontariff measures during the pandemic, enhancing communication of trade-related measures, improving cooperation and dialogue between member states, honoring commitments to international bodies such as the World Health Organization, and strengthening supply chain connectivity in response to COVID-19 and future shocks.

Initiatives, such as the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle Area and the Cross-Border Transport Connectivity and Economic Corridor Development, are an indication of increased coordination in the subregion.

The actions of development partners should build on or complement the policies being implemented or initiated to facilitate recovery. These policies include direct fiscal and financial assistance to producers, processors, and supply chain intermediaries, and enhanced support for extension services and e-commercialization.

Targeted assistance for the agri-food sector should leverage existing pathways in each GMS country to engage with producers at every step of the supply chain. This will have the effect of streamlining assistance and capacity development for agri-food producers. Accelerated digitalization offers opportunities to improve competitiveness, particularly for agri-food supply chain actors that are increasingly dependent on technology for operations. However, heterogeneous technology access and connectivity should be a primary consideration to ensure assistance for producers is inclusive.

To support regional cooperation in the sector, development partners should play the role of harmonizing interventions to enhance the efficacy of standardization and pave the way for seamless intra-regional agri-food trade.

The following initiatives may be considered:

  • A GMS Secretariat on regional biosecurity for agri-food. Centralizing monitoring and coordination around biosecurity for agri-food, while adopting a One Health[1] approach, will have the effect of improved regional responses to health-related threats. This will enhance the capacity for safe and traceable intraregional agri-food trade, dually protecting economies from trade disruption and food insecurity.
  • A GMS negotiating party on agri-food trade facilitation. A mechanism to facilitate conflict resolution, trade policy, intraregional trade logistics facilitation, standardization, and certification can help protect economies from the extensive disruption the COVID-19 pandemic caused. A negotiating party will enhance trust between countries and work to align supply and demand to ensure economic resilience and sustained growth.
  • Multilateral initiative to improve the GMS agri-food investment climate. A coordinated initiative to improve the agri-food investment climate will accelerate innovation that can be shared across borders and ensure equitable capacity development between countries. Such an initiative could increase foreign direct investment, draw together investors with common goals, and concentrate investment initiatives on key challenges in the agri-food sector.

[1] The One Health High Level Expert Panel defines One Health as an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals, and ecosystems. It recognizes that the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and inter-dependent. (World Health Organization, 2021).


Asian Development Bank. Regional: Greater Mekong Subregion Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security Program Sovereign Project.

ADB. 2019. Asian Economic Integration Report 2019/2020: Demographic Change, Productivity, and the Role of Technology. Manila.

Asia Regional Integration Center. Asia-Pacific Regional Cooperation and Integration Index (ARCII).

The Economist. 2021. How COVID-19 Could Impede the Catch-Up of Poor Countries with Rich Ones. 22 May.

United Nations, Asian Development Bank, and the United Nations Development Programme. 2021. Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leaving No Country Behind. Bangkok: United Nations.

United Nations, Asian Development Bank, and the United Nations Development Programme. 2021. Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leaving No Country Behind. Bangkok: United Nations.

World Health Organization. 2021. Tripartite and UNEP Support OHHLEP's Definition of One Health.

Srinivasan Ancha
Principal Climate Change Specialist, Climate Change, Resilience, and Environment Cluster, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Department, Asian Development Bank

Ancha Srinivasan received his doctorate degree from Cambridge University, United Kingdom. He has multidisciplinary experience in climate science and policy, implemented more than 50 climate change projects, and contributed to global initiatives, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Environmental Outlook, and Millennium Ecosystems Assessment.

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Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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Landell Mills
Management Consulting

Landell Mills is an international development consulting firm, which provides a range of development-oriented services that aim to assist countries and their peoples in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. Its mission is to assist clients to participate actively in the global economy while protecting fragile environments and vulnerable communities in the process.

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