Opinion Editorial from Mrs Ser-Low Wai Ming, Organising Chairman, 13th ASEAN Food Conference (11th September, 2013 - The Business Times): Over the last few days, some of the most influential food scientists and technical experts in Asia met in Singapore to discuss the latest trends and technology in food science. While the ASEAN Food Conference 2013, hosted by the Singapore Institute of Food Science & Technology (SIFST), may not be well known to many beyond academic and technical circles, it offers an important platform for some of the most important discussions about ASEAN’s future.

Food security is one of the most important challenges facing ASEAN Government’s in the next decade. In 2050, 56% of the world’s population will reside in Asia; however the region will be producing just 15% of global food and agriculture. Agricultural production will need to increase by 60% to feed the Asia region. With climates varying across the ASEAN region, it’s clear that we will need to open up the trade of food across ASEAN to meet this rising demand – a challenge ASEAN’s Economic Community is already working on.

However opening up the free trade of food, is far more complex than other goods. While trade officials want to encourage the free flow of food to improve the long term prosperity of ASEAN member states, public health policy makers have a duty to ensure that food supply is not only accessible, but safe and nutritious by designing population-specific protective regulations. As a result, it is often a challenge to find a common ground between stimulating free trade while balancing consumer protection.

This is where the science and academic community becomes vitally important. Food scientists and technologists are not limited by political or geographic borders, but connected by common internationally-recognised science. They have an important role to play in balancing trade interests with the protection of consumers, based on sound scientific principles and international standards. The guidelines laid down by Codex Alimentarius are a good example of some of their tools.

Today there are countless different food regulations, acting as technical barriers to the free flow of food across the ASEAN region – many based on science, many are not. As just one example, food manufacturers face different minimum and maximum limits for vitamins and minerals in different member states. One company, with a manufacturing base in Singapore, needs to formulate a food product using four different recipes to access eight target markets, to deliver the same nutritional proposition. These standards have been designed in isolation by policy-makers who are focused on protecting public health in their own country. As we move towards an Economic Community by 2015, we have to involve more of the food science and academic in both trade and public health debates, to ensure we end up with access to safe, nutritious food across the region.

The risks if we don’t are clear. We will end up with food legislation that limits trade and adds little protection to public health. However, if we take a multi-stakeholder approach, the benefits to the public sector and its citizens are significant. The public will have more choice of safe, nutritious food; the Government will benefit from greater foreign direct investment and we’ll all enjoy a more prosperous economic community.

It is great to see Singapore play host to this important community of academics for the third year. Singapore hosted the first ever conference back in 1982 and since then our role as a ‘food hub’ for the region has continued to grow. I look forward to seeing how we can better champion the importance of the science community as we work towards the ASEAN Economic Community.

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