Driving Better Nutrition in Asia Through Public-Private Partnership

By Professor Jeyakumar Henry
Director, Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC), A*STAR, Singapore

According to studies published by the World Health Organization (WHO), 1.9 billion people worldwide are considered overweight and obese, while another 925 million people are on the other end of the spectrum, suffering from hunger. On top of this, at least 2.8 million people die every year, from complications related to being overweight or obese.

More so than infectious diseases and other traditional healthcare issues, obesity is fast becoming the top risk factor targeting public health. The Asian population, in general, is much more at risk of being diagnosed with diabetes, as compared to Western populations. These issues of malnutrition are, collectively, likely to be the number one healthcare challenge that we face over the next few decades – governments need to be aware and ready to take action.

The Asia region is a paradox, in that we have some countries that are highly affluent, like Singapore, and others with large populations that are facing extreme poverty. Therefore, in Asia, we have the classic example of a double burden – people who are overweight and obese, but also those who are severely undernourished. So on the one hand we have people who do not even have access to two meals a day, while on the other, we have a growing number of people who overindulge at risk to their own health.

In Asia, this double burden of obesity and undernutrition has become an emerging threat to health and healthcare systems in the region. It requires immediate action, which needs to be driven not only by governments and regulators, but by innovations in the food industry driven by the private sector, as well as scientists and academics, operating in the region.

Singapore is home to one such unique public-private initiative, convened by the Health Promotion Board (HPB), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) and Food Industry Asia (FIA).

Set up at the beginning of 2015, the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) is about leveraging public-private partnership, to bring together experts from government, academia, industry and civil society sectors across Asia, in order to initiate and sustain regional, multi-stakeholder dialogue on the role of food innovation in tackling obesity and chronic disease in the region.

This group of key decision-makers works toward fostering a conducive forum to support dissemination of science-based information on the causes and drivers of obesity and chronic disease, as well as improve clarity on the barriers and enablers for food innovation and research and development in the region. ARoFIIN leverages effective public-private partnerships and stimulates scalable, cost-effective and multi-stakeholder strategies that drive food innovation and positive change in consumer behaviour.

As a group, we have articulated ARoFIIN’s vision – as one “Addressing Asia’s public health and nutrition challenges through partnerships and innovation.”

ARoFIIN presents us with a tremendous opportunity to bring a diverse range of multi-disciplinary expertise to the table. Our members are key decision-makers in their respective fields, coming together to work toward the single goal of tackling obesity and chronic diseases through food innovation.

To effectively tackle a global issue like obesity, collaborations – particularly public-private partnerships – are necessary to the process. The teamwork across this unique public-private platform gives us the ability to scale up projects at a quicker rate, ease the transfer of technology and skills, and conduct wider outreach and dissemination of knowledge and resources.

Recently, ARoFIIN took a significant step forward since its launch, with a call for appointments to four taskforces that will coordinate the work of the Roundtable over the next few years.

Taskforce 1 focuses on establishing a clear governance structure for ARoFIIN and facilitating communications and debate. Its members will develop strategies in order to accelerate knowledge-sharing on product reformulation and innovation that address obesity and chronic disease.

Taskforce 2 is focused on consumers. Its members will establish a research consortium to facilitate research and development in food innovation related to diets and consumer preferences in Asia, and commission a cost-impact study on the burden of obesity in Asia.

Taskforce 3 looks at processes and enablers that will cultivate a positive regulatory climate for innovation.

Taskforce 4 will look at the double burden of undernutrition and obesity in Asia, and assess how food supply-distribution mechanisms can be optimised through joined-up dialogue in inter-governmental fora.

With the ARoFIIN Taskforces in place, we hope to incubate on-the-ground projects that will deliver measurable outcomes based on sound scientific knowledge. These multi-stakeholder collaborations transcend language and culture, uniting minds through shared values of improving nutrition for people in Asia.

On 29 January 2016, nearly 40 senior practitioners from government, academia and the private sector will gather again in Singapore for the 2nd Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition. With the theme “From knowledge to action: listen, learn and lead to deliver results,” delegates will be tasked with developing a clear Mission and Roadmap for 2016 and beyond. The delegates at the 2nd ARoFIIN Roundtable will have the opportunity to launch into real action within their respective Taskforces, and to brainstorm scalable solutions for tackling obesity in Asia.

We believe that Asia has great potential to be a leader in the field of food and nutrition – which has yet to be explored, given the growing conducive ecosystem and leadership in research and development. Using the resources that are already available in Singapore and the region, and working in partnership with industry, we can tackle some of the biggest health and nutrition issues facing us in Asia, as well as share our best practices and knowledge globally.

ARoFIIN, which is a great example of collaboration between the public and private sectors, is poised to take the lead in addressing Asia’s public health and nutrition challenges through partnerships and innovation.