Innovation & the Private Sector: Transforming the Food System in South Asia

For many developing countries, the health problems caused by obesity now nearly equals the public health concerns brought on by undernutrition. The nutrition paradox has become an emerging threat to health and healthcare systems worldwide, and many countries in Asia are struggling to contain and address these issues. In South Asia, the rates of stunting and wasting for children have remained high despite substantial economic growth, with the region having some of the highest global rates of stunting and wasting, according to the World Bank.

On 18 June, FIA partnered with the World Bank on the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI) Roundtable to bring together representatives from government, academia and non-governmental organisations from South Asia. The roundtable sought to explore the impact of promoting high impact and nutrition-sensitive food systems, as well as the advantages of leveraging public-private partnerships and technologies to scale up nutrition efforts. Steven Bartholomeusz, Policy Director at FIA, moderated a panel discussion entitled “Private Sector and Innovation: Contributions to High Impact Solutions and Accessibility” which included panellists Dr. Fabrice Declerk from Bioversity International, Vignesh Raam Ankuraj from Borne Technologies, Yannick Foing from DSM and Holger Toschka from Unilever.

Steven Bartholomeusz, Policy Director at FIA, giving an overview of the nutrition landscape in Asia

Mr Foing, Global Lead of Partner Engagement for Nutrition Improvement at DSM, started the discussion by sharing the partnerships that DSM have forged with other stakeholders to drive improved nutrition, most notably its work with the World Food Programme (WFP) to develop cost-effective and nutritious food solutions. He added that since 2007, DSM has been combining technical and scientific expertise in high-nutrient products alongside financial assistance to help improve the nutritional value of food, while WFP distributes it to communities in countries that includes Nepal and Bangladesh. “We innovate by working closely with our partners in making sure that processed food can be more nutritious, but at the end of the day, the food has to be accessible and affordable for all as well,” said Mr Foing.

Adopting a multi-stakeholder approach is Unilever’s approach to driving innovation, according to Mr Toschka, Research and Development Director for South East Asia Unilever. Mr Toschka shared the example of Unilever’s partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to produce “The Future 50 Foods” report, a collection of diverse, plant-based foods from around the world that focuses on three key factors in a sustainable and healthy food system, with diversification of food being one of them. “Currently, 75 per cent of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species. While people may be getting sufficient calories, these narrow diets don’t provide enough vitamins and minerals,” said Toschka. The partnership has also led to Unilever’s Knorr brand working with governments, NGOs and businesses to inspire chefs, retailers and shoppers to adopt a wider variety of food that fit their lifestyles and budgets.

from left: Dr. Fabrice Declerk, Bioversity International; Vignesh Raam Ankuraj, Borne Technologies; Yannick Foing, DSM; Holger Toschka, Unilever; Steven Bartholomeusz, FIA

Reducing malnutrition is a cornerstone of tackling various social issues such as poverty. With challenges such as resource scarcity and environmental degradation, the food industry is being increasingly challenged to provide adequate, safe and nutrient-rich food for all. Reformulation has been one of the many means to help reduce the prevalence of diet-related diseases. Mr Bartholomeusz shared that according to the reformulation studies conducted by FIA, 80% of companies across the region are currently reformulating products to take out fat, sugar or salt and adding in sources of protein and dietary fibre alongside the fortification of vitamins and minerals.

However, while reformulation is a step forward in providing healthier, nutritious and sustainable food choices, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are facing challenges related to cost and the lack of technical expertise. This is where partnerships and collaboration can help bridge that gap, and governments could also step in to provide financial and fiscal incentives to support the development of healthier solutions across the value chain. While challenges for different businesses may vary, the panellists agreed that maintaining the taste profile of products was one of the top concerns. Across FIA’s reformulation studies in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, the key priorities for consumers when choosing food products were price, taste, quality and nutritional value.

“Product reformulation is challenging because consumers are sensitive to product changes, particularly its taste. Even if products become highly nutritious and affordable, the average consumer will not eat it if it is not tasty,” said Mr Foing.

The food industry has the opportunity to contribute to improved nutrition - from developing nutritious products, to influencing consumer demand through marketing. However, individual efforts by companies will only take the industry so far. “If we continue working in silos, we will never achieve our set targets,” Mr Bartholomeusz commented. He believes that to drive long-term, transformational change, collaboration between the private sector partners, as well as with the public sector and civil society organisations, is vital to ensuring that consumers in Asia get access to food that is not only safe but also contains the nutrients needed to meet their daily requirements. With issues such as malnutrition having transnational, regional and global dimensions, the embracing of partnerships and a cross-sectoral teamwork approach is the way forward to tackle these challenges head-on.

FIA issues regular e-bulletins with analysis on relevant food and beverage industry issues across the region. To subscribe to this service, please click here.