Why we need to rethink how we produce food

With rapid urbanisation sweeping Asia-Pacific, the food industry is under pressure to feed 4.5 billion people with nutritious food that doesn’t cost the Earth.

urban farm hydroponics
As the world's population slowly but surely shifts to cities, urban farming has gained popularity as a solution to food security challenges. Image: Pixabay

Feeding today’s world produces a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the accelerating pace in which people are moving from countryside to the city, changes in land use and the agriculture industry could amount to 70 per cent of total emissions by 2050, according to projections by the World Bank.

“Where we are in agriculture is 30 years behind the other sectors,” said Dr. Juergen Voegele, senior director of food and agriculture practice at the World Bank. “We need to rethink the way we produce our food in a very fundamental way. We cannot solve climate change unless we change the way we produce our food.”

He was addressing business leaders at a panel discussion titled Food to Nutrition: Affordable Access for a Growing Asia, part of this year’s Ecosperity conference. Organised annually by Singapore investment firm Temasek, the conference explores how businesses can provide sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Joined by other industry leaders, Voegele spoke urgently of transforming the food system now regarded as one of the biggest impediments to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, a series of ambitious targets to make the world a fairer, more equal and environmentally balanced place by 2030.

Increasing urbanisation is projected to cause a loss of 2 million hectares per year. Most of that land is arable farmland that has traditionally put food on our plates. Moreover, as more people move to cities, fewer will remain on farms, painting an uncertain future for agriculture.

2.3 billion new middle-class consumers are predicted to emerge by 2030, with Asia-Pacific holding 90 per cent of the growing number of people with greater purchasing power. In the region’s largest country, China, economic growth and changing tastes have resulted in a surge in demand for food, especially animal protein.

“Today we have a relative food shortage globally,” said Dr Koh Poh Koon, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. “Already we are overconsuming more than what we produce.”

Asia-Pacific is experiencing a growing health crisis, with rising obesity rates among children. Shortages in nutrition and disparities in access to healthy foods have led to more than 40 per cent of adults in the region being overweight or obese.

Coupled with the rising constraints of dwindling labour, climate change and land degradation, the mismatch between demand and supply and the troubling state of health poses the question: how do we sustainably feed a rapidly growing Asia with nutritious and affordable food?

Reforming agricultural production 

Growing food in cities could boost food security by making local sources more accessible and improving cost efficiency, experts at Ecosperity said. Across Asia, urban farming through the innovative use of existing infrastructure has taken off. In Singapore, alternative methods such as hydroponics and aeroponics have become a popular way to increase and diversify food supply. More underused spaces in the city such as rooftops are also being transformed into urban gardens.

However, with the high capital needed to support urban farms, challenges to its adoption persist, especially in developing countries where resources are less accessible for the underprivileged.  

Cutting down on food waste

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations, if food wastage was a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world. Despite the alarming contribution food waste makes to climate change, its environmental and economic costs are mostly lost on consumers.

In Asia, there has been a wave of policies and initiatives aimed at reducing the carbon footprint left by discarded food. Seoul is one city imposing the true cost of food waste on its population. A 2013 policy implemented in Seoul meant that citizens would pay for recycling services according to the amount of food they disposed of. Since then, food waste has decreased by 10 per cent and the policy has been introduced to 16 other cities in South Korea. In China, the grassroots-led “Clean Plate Initiative” also pushes for zero food waste when dining out.

Speaking at Ecosperity, Patrick Yu, president of COFCO, China’s largest food processing company, advocated for government regulation in managing the country’s food waste mountain. “If we can structure the restaurants so that all the waste can go to a certain place, we can aggregate the treatment of food waste. It’s important for government to play that role,” he said.

Today’s consumers prioritise safety amid concerns of food fraud and malpractice in recent years, particularly in China. Dr Koh proposed government legislation and more research to eliminate breaches in safety regulations in the food industry.

China, for example, introduced the Food Safety Law after several high profile cases. Chinese multinational Alibaba also announced last year that it was exploring using blockchain technology to map food products along their supply chain for businesses to trace where their products are at every stage of production.

Making the transition to better nutrition  

As cities have grown, so has the consumption of processed and fast foods. Indonesia is a case in point, where processed meat and poultry markets have expanded at a growth rate of 27 per cent per year between 2011 and 2015.

Investing in research into fresh foods and nutrition education might go a long way to influence people to eat healthily. Through redevelopments in packaging and labeling, nutritional information could appear more appealing to the average consumer. “Free-from” foods are already paving their way to the mainstream as they are increasingly perceived across Asia as premium, healthier products.

Food experts at Ecosperity painted a troubled picture of the future of food, one where demand has outstripped supply while causing grave damage to the earth. Nevertheless, consumer mindsets are changing and businesses are adapting to new demands.

“Consumer trends are pushing us to find out where their food comes from, the companies behind it, and the farmers who grow it, and whether these are following the right practices,” said Ehab Abou-Oaf, regional president of Mars Wrigley Confectionery in Asia-Australia, Middle East and Africa.

As such, the food system is making incremental changes towards a sustainable future. But is this enough? As Voegele pointed out, business-as-usual for agriculture is slight, continuous improvement – and that won’t fix the food system. If the energy sector had moved at the same pace as agriculture, we wouldn’t have the solar panel or windmill, he said.

Greater support for technology and education in sustainable practices and behaviours is needed to drive momentum towards a more sustainably fed world. “Nutritional outcomes are so out of whack that 50 per cent of the world’s population is currently malnourished,” said Voegele.

“We need to see investment in truly sustainable food systems. This would incentivise the private sector, which has been outcompeted by a public focus on food.”

Voegele concluded: “Agricultural policies are ready to be disrupted. They’ve been politically difficult to touch, but that has to change.”

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