Dr Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI
), met with the Food Industry Asia (FIA) Secretariat, members and stakeholders for an FIA Dialogue Session, which took place on 3 November in Singapore, to discuss challenges facing food security and nutrition in Asia.
In this video, Dr Fan speaks about the factors contributing to malnutrition across the region, as well as solutions in the form of knowledge communication and innovations in technologies and fiscal policies. He also states that there are opportunities for the private sector to engage in multi-stakeholder partnerships to improve nutrition and, in so doing, benefit the whole of society.
Why are some countries in Asia still struggling to feed their populations? At the same time, why are we seeing obesity rates in Asia rising faster than those in most other regions?
Dr Shenggen Fan (DSF):
So why is the region still struggling with all these different challenges and burdens? Well, as I can see, one reason is policy issues – the policy has not been well-designed so as to use new technologies to increase yield, nor enhance nutrition, nor save water and energy.
For example, certain technologies, certain newer crop varieties – rice varieties, corn varieties, wheat varieties – can enhance nutrition through biofortification and the addition of micronutrients. In the meantime, water and energy can be saved through drip irrigation, solar panel irrigation and so on. Equally important is policy – right now, policy subsidises unhealthy and unsustainable food, at the cost of more nutritious food, a more sustainable diet; for example, these are subsidies on water, electricity and fertilisers to produce more rice, wheat and maize. These subsidies have encouraged farmers to overuse water, overuse fertilisers, overuse electricity; and has probably led to the production of more carbon emissions as well.
So my proposal is that we should really reshape technologies and policies to cut down on unhealthy food, and to produce and support more nutritious, healthy foods – vegetables, fruits, dairy. And through biofortification, add micronutrients to rice, wheat and maize.
What are the threats that could impact food security and nutrition in Asia?
Number one is climate change. We know that climate has changed, temperature has risen; we have seen more heatwaves, more floods, more droughts. And in the future, we’ll see more of this – more frequent, more extreme weather events. So that’s the number one threat. Number two is urbanisation. This is an opportunity, but it could also be a threat to our food nutrition security. When people move to the cities, they need better and more food. They will also use more water and land when they move to cities.
Then there is food safety – food safety is a top concern for many people here, whether it’s general citizens, policymakers or those in the private sector. When the food is not safe, and somebody consumes it, you lose all the nutrients – his or her health will be affected, so that’s another concern. All these threats will continue to challenge our food and nutrition security here in the region.
How should we mitigate these threats?
I think the policies, technologies and communication will play critical roles in making sure that we increase the awareness of all these threats, as well as to change policies. To change policies is to produce more nutrients with less. This means innovating new technologies and best practices to reshape our global food system, or our regional food system, to make sure that the whole food system will produce more nutritious healthy food, while reducing carbon emissions and water footprints, and also providing job opportunities for youth in the region.
What opportunities are there for governments, civil society and the private sector to work together?
I think the partnership will be so critical, and I believe that there will be certain areas in which everybody can win. Consumers will win, because they will consume better, more nutritious, healthy food. The private sector will also win, because it will be able to make money from citizens who are healthy, who are economically prosperous; toward the end of the day, that is the source of our business aspirations. And government will also win, as a result of citizens benefitting from better nutritious food and thus, better jobs.
So how can we push for these opportunities? I think the platform for a dialogue like this is very critical. You bring the private sector, citizens, NGOs and research organisations together to find the opportunities, to share the data. Hopefully, through shared opportunities, we can pursue some joint ventures, joint conferences and workshops, joint projects and programmes, and even joint research, to bring the data, knowledge and information together, so that everybody can be on the same page.
Do you think taxation can have a positive impact on reducing rates of obesity and under-nutrition?
I think we need a “carrot and stick” approach. Carrots: Can we support healthy and nutritious food production through innovation, policy work, knowledge communication and changing behaviour? Sticks: I think, toward the end of the day, companies or consumers have to pay the full cost – whether its an environmental cost, social cost, or health cost that has not been reflected in pricing. Taxing is only one approach, not the silver bullet. Another approach is the removal of subsidies – bad subsidies. It’s already there, so I think it’s an easier gain. Remove the subsidies that produce unhealthy, unsustainable food, and use that money to support and promote more nutritious food production in the value chain, as well as infrastructure and research. Perhaps even offer some incentives for private sector companies to engage in these solutions. Taxing is one – only one – approach, and I would rather use a more comprehensive one. Removing subsidies, to me, is an easier gain.