Opinion: Climate and food for thought

31 JULY 2018
Full article here

OUR world and our planet are changing. Rapid urbanisation, modern diets, emerging technologies and uncertain employment are changing the world that we live in. We need new skills to keep up with the speed and nature of change in both, not in isolation but together. Do our existing educational, research and institutional structures provide the agile skill sets that we need to manage change at both the societal and environmental scale? If not, we need to equip individuals, communities and countries with the skills and knowledge needed to adapt to change and become more resilient to its impacts.
Climate change is an existential challenge that affects us all. However, its greatest impacts are in tropical regions that girdle the planet and where most of us live. Malaysia lies at the heart of the tropics. In fact, by their location, virtually all Muslim-majority countries are on the frontline of changing climates. We can neither move nor hide from climate change but must adapt to its impacts. While science and new technologies may help, it is ultimately people and communities that must become more climate-resilient. Nowhere is this more evident than in the food we eat and the way that we produce it.
Rather than being the largest contributor to climate change, agriculture can become our greatest ally in fighting it. For decades, global agriculture has focused almost exclusively on the production of staple crops, such as wheat, rice and maize, grown as intensive monocultures in a few exporting countries. These elite crops now provide the raw materials for an increasingly processed, uniform and homogenous “global” diet. While modern agriculture has successfully fed most of the world, by itself, it will not nourish a growing global population on a hotter planet nor ensure livelihoods for the most vulnerable communities living in changing climates.
As well as feeding us, we need food systems that nourish us. Our reliance on a handful of staple crops has led to concerns about diets that are energy-rich, yet nutrient-poor. This year, the World Food Prize was awarded to two champions of better nutrition, Lawrence Haddad and David Nabarro. In the words of Haddad: “It’s not about how to feed our world. It’s about how to nourish our world.” Nutrition in an era of climate change is truly the challenge of our times. Rather than “food security” we must shift to policies and food systems that support “nutritional security” while not further damaging the planet or our health.
Like all emerging economies, Malaysia is experiencing rapid change. By 2030, more than 80% of Malaysians will live in cities – similar to current urban levels in countries, such as Canada and the United States. Many city dwellers have migrated from rural environments and cultures to confined urban spaces surrounded by high-rise buildings, industrial estates and close to fast-food chains.
A recent UK study found that the poorest British communities live the nearest to fast-food outlets. It is likely that Malaysia is the same. When price and access dictate our diet, most of us will opt for the cheapest (often least nutritious and diverse) option. With rapid urbanisation, dietary diversity is compromised, with consequences for human health and increases in lifestyle diseases, such as obesity and diabetes.
At present, over 50% of all plant-based food consumed globally depends on just three major crops. If any of these fails, global food security is at risk. Mounting evidence demonstrates that even if these crops can feed us, their nutrient content is diminished. Experimental studies show strong correlations between the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and the nutrient and micronutrient content of staple crops.
Rice, a staple food for millions in the region, provides two-thirds of the calories for most Asians with rice-based diets. Alarmingly, studies have found that staple crops contain less zinc, iron and protein when grown at elevated CO2 levels. This drop has profound implications on our health, particularly that of young children, who, without a proper diet, cannot meet their nutritional and energy needs.
Malnourished children living in urban environments represent a demographic timebomb that can derail economic development and increase nutritional inequalities between and within nations. Just this month, a significant study linked climate change, crop-nutrient concentrations, dietary patterns and disease into a model of zinc and iron deficiency. The authors estimate that lower zinc and iron concentrations of crops caused by elevated CO2 would induce 125.8 million lost years due to diseases globally by 2050. This climate change-induced disease burden will disproportionately affect South-East Asia and Africa.
For Malaysia, instead of increasing our food imports, we need novel options that put local, micronutrient-rich and climate-resilient food systems at the core of our national agenda.
For this we need to explore currently “underutilised crops” that are already adapted to harsh environments and produce nutritious products. As well as delivering more diverse diets, underutilised crops offer economic opportunities for local growers, processors and retailers if we can develop new markets for them. We can’t do this alone but must link research and business across the whole agricultural value chain with policies that encourage innovation and remove bureaucracy.
Critically, we must give communities the knowledge, tools and technologies to adapt to societal and environmental change. By becoming the agents of their own resilience, communities can also help Malaysia meet its commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement and United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This needs nothing less than a transformation of Malaysian agriculture for good.
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