Better Nutrition In Asia: A Shared Responsibility

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) celebrates World Food Day (WFD) each year on 16 October, the day on which it was founded in 1945. Among the objectives of this event, the FAO seeks to encourage attention to agricultural food production and to stimulate national, bilateral, multilateral and non-governmental efforts to that end; heighten public awareness of the problem of hunger in the world; and strengthen international and national solidarity in the struggle against hunger, malnutrition and poverty, drawing attention to achievements in food and agricultural development.

On the occasion of World Food Day 2015, Professor Jeyakumar Henry, Director of the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC) in Singapore, discusses issues related to hunger and malnutrition in Asia, as well as the importance of public-private partnership in developing a solution to tackle these issues.

The Asia region is a paradox, in that it is home to countries that are highly affluent, but also a huge range of nations with populations facing extreme poverty. Therefore, we have this classical paradigm of a double burden – people who are overweight and obese, but also those who are severely undernourished; people who do not even have access to two meals a day, and those who overindulge at risk to their own health.

The dual burden problem, of over- and under-nutrition, is present within individual countries, which are trying to address food intake – minimising it in one quadrant, yet maximising it in another. The onus of finding a solution rests on the tripartite of government, industry and academia, to work together to end this problem.

This year, World Food Day focused on eradicating poverty and food security in rural agricultural regions. In urban regions, we also deal with issues of malnutrition. If you live in an area where you have poor nutrition, then your productivity is reduced. If your productivity is reduced, you can’t earn as much, so your earning capacity declines. If your earning capacity declines, then you have no adequate income to buy proper food – it’s a vicious circle. So there’s an important link between food and productivity, mainly because the human body needs fuel and nutrients to perform well as an engine. If you don’t have proper food, the body can’t perform effectively, and that’s exactly why it’s a global public health concern to improve the health of urban populations.

Mindset of social responsibility and social protection

Given that most organisations have now embraced corporate social responsibility, food companies have an added advantage and opportunity; dealing with a basic human need – food – gives them a unique opportunity to innovatively work across the food chain. Many companies have responded to this call, but I believe more will follow suit, making a significant impact on reducing hunger.

There’s great irony in our food system and our food manufacturing system; it’s that we only look at the top of the pyramid – those that are in the upper- and middle-classes. The economist C.K. Prahalad said that the bottom of the pyramid is in equal importance to the top – you can make a lot of revenue given the mere capacity of the large numbers at the bottom.

I think food companies will have to look at a challenging model; be imaginative – why don’t we look at food production and food supply on the bottom of the pyramid, where you can benefit mankind, but also, as a company, make some income? Industry might want to explore research that looks at under-exploited plants and foods in the world at large, which we can use to make low-cost food items. In other words, the paradigm has to shift from supplying and providing food for only the middle- and upper-middle class, to foods that are actually amenable and useful for the lower-income group as well.

Additionally, we need to find a way to empower our younger generation; that they recognise their responsibility to give back to society – to reflect on this question: “What’s my social responsibility to my community, to my people, to my country, to my citizenship”?

The CNRC’s role

Now that we have seen and observed these issues, we need to use rigorous science to identify the solution. This is where the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC) comes in. The CNRC, opened less than two years ago, is a very unique centre that’s a tripartite between the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the National University Health System (NUHS).

At the CNRC, we do fundamental research on Asian foods, and on the Asian phenotype. Let me explain what the Asian phenotype is: In Singapore, we have three major ethnic groups – the Chinese, Indians and Malays – all living cheek by jowl on this island. Now that makes it a unique testbed, where we can study these three ethnic groups that already represent 3.6 billion people in the world. So you have an island state – Singapore – which houses three ethnic groups that make the greatest contributors to population, in one place where you can experiment on them using Asian foods, in working to find a solution for Asian problems.

Hence, it’s important to note that the CNRC is Asia-focused, with a global vision. By focusing primarily on the Asian phenotype, we understand how metabolic health effects affect us in Asia. Most importantly, we look at foods and food ingredients that are locally available, which can be used to reduce the risk of obesity and non-communicable diseases like Type 2 diabetes.

Asia has great potential to be a leader in this field of food and nutrition, which has yet to be explored, given the growing conducive ecosystem and leadership in research and development.