To be clear, El Niño could cause adverse price effects beyond crops too. For instance, high prices for grains used for animal feed could raise meat prices.
The effectiveness and timeliness of the government's policy response can influence the severity of any economic impact.
Well-targeted policies, such as managing food reserves, implementing price stabilisation measures and providing financial support to affected farmers, can help mitigate any adverse effects of El Niño on growth and inflation.
For instance, India has imposed export restrictions on sugar and rice to cap domestic prices, while Malaysia has price controls in place for rice and has allocated RM3 billion to enhance paddy farming infrastructure.
Indonesia has been distributing rice assistance (10kg per household), while the Philippines has reactivated an inter-agency El Niño Task Force to coordinate efforts to mitigate potential adverse effects. Lower debt levels also help.
For instance, the combination of a relatively low debt ratio and stronger-than-expected revenue collection year-to-date offers Indonesian policymakers a significant buffer to act if needed.
The road ahead
For now, most weather models suggest the current El Niño will not match the strength of that seen in 2015-16.
But in the event of severe and prolonged droughts, intensified crop losses and food price pressures, fiscal support is arguably the most appropriate prescription to cap inflation.
Indonesia appears to be best positioned, both in terms of its fiscal buffer and political willingness to intervene – not least given the upcoming elections in February.
The threat of rising food inflation is likely to keep central banks hawkish, particularly in India and the Philippines where food inflation is either re-accelerating or still elevated.
If price pressures broaden and threaten to unhinge inflation expectations, then a resumption in rate-hiking cycles across the region cannot be ruled out, especially if local currencies come under pressure and exacerbate imported price pressures.
The Philippines faces a particularly challenging combination given its status as a net food importer and its already sizeable current account deficit.
All this means the impact of food prices on inflation across the region is set to be closely watched. A lot will depend on how they react as the El Niño evolves.
Krystal Tan is an Asia Economist with ANZ