Opinion : Feeding the Future

15 JUNE 2018
Feeding the future: Why it’s time to put nutrition at the heart of our food systems 
Imagine a very different Malaysia: where agricultural fields are filled with diverse crops in more challenging climates; where children do not suffer from the double burden of malnutrition; where people are actively conscious and aware of the health implications of their diet and choose foods that deliver balanced nutrition; where healthy food is consumed from locally grown crops; where Malaysia exports more food than it imports, and foreigners come to Malaysia to study and learn from our successes. 
Agriculture sits at the nexus of three of the most multifaceted challenges, known as ‘the perfect storm’, faced today: population growth (estimated 40.7 million in Malaysia by 2050), depleting natural resources and changing climates. Our entire food system is in a precarious state, propped up by a narrow elite range of major crops – maize, wheat, rice and soybean – which are already stretched to their limits as food, feed and even biofuel. Not only do these challenges pose imminent threats to the productivity and yield of these crops, but they also affect their nutritional content. 
I made my move to Malaysia 10 years ago. Within a few kilometres away from my house, I can purchase the same fast-food and boxed cereals as in back home in the UK, which comprise the same few ingredients vulnerable to the perfect storm.  Wherever we live we are increasingly in the eye of the storm.
But if we look to nature for inspiration, we can see that biodiversity provides a ‘green ocean’ of opportunities for agriculture. There are 7,000 species of plants that have been cultivated for consumption in human history. However, at present, the four major crops are responsible for 60% of our energy intake. This figure is alarming to many, but with our fast-emerging economies, rural-urban shift and an appetite for global trends, the homogenisation of our diets is becoming the new norm. 
So, what can we do to mitigate the challenges imposed on our food systems, while ensuring we nourish ourselves in the process? A good way to start would be to turn to the diverse range of currently underutilised and neglected crops that can provide a beacon of light in the perfect storm. 
As a young scientist, I went to work in Africa and in India where I saw local crops being grown, harvested and consumed by people without any agricultural science background. People like me were not looking at those crops. I then came back to Nottingham as a young lecturer wanting to explore these underutilised crops, but was told “if they were any good, we would have discovered them by now. They are underutilised for a reason.” But, I like a good challenge, and for 20 years I carried on working on these crops to see what hidden features and properties they could reveal to us at the crucial, yet unpredictable scenarios of the future.
Underutilised crops, such as bambara groundnut, moringa and sesbania, provide ample opportunities to diversify and nourish the human diet, as well as that of animals. While their common names may ring a bell to some, there remains a lack of awareness and scientific exploration on the health and environmental benefits they possess. Many of us do not know that these crops are nutritious, climate-resilient, and thrive on marginal soils. Sesbania is an example of a non-food crop that can be used in animal feed. At Crops For the Future, we are developing novel and sustainable aquaculture feeds using insect meal comprised of Black Soldier Fly larvae fed on locally-sourced underutilised crops. The nutrition analysis indicated that amino acid levels for the insect meal closely resembled those of fishmeal. The use of underutilised crops as substrates for insect meal represents a breakthrough, and reduces the demand for unsustainable fishmeal and provides economic uses for non-food crops.
We can no longer afford to take the business-as-usual route in agriculture. Malaysia’s food import bill has been steadily increasing – from RM26.3 billion in 2009 to an unsustainable RM45.4 billion in 2015. We are also importing a staggering 600,000 tonnes of aquaculture feed, and this is projected to reach 1.5 million tonnes by 2025. These imported ingredients mean that Malaysia is also dependent on a handful of countries for their agricultural productivity, which makes it ever more vulnerable to supply shocks and volatile prices.
Exploring the vast diversity of underutilised crops that have sustained us in the past may seem a risky move to some, but if we wish to transform agriculture for the better, we need to look to our past for answers. We must shift our current thinking of ‘food security’ that centres around a ‘food production’ paradigm, to one that puts nutrition at the heart of our food systems. 
Imagine cultivating crops that could provide us nutritious foods and feeds, that are climate-resilient, and generate new economic opportunities for smallholders to no longer compete with big industrial markets on commodities. With the incredible diversity found in Malaysia – culture, cuisines and crops – why are we not cultivating or mainstreaming the vast diversity of our local crop species?
There are about 30,000 plant species that have been grown or collected by human beings for food. Of these, around 7,000 have been grown as crops throughout our human history.  We have yet to explore even a fraction of these that have the potential to provide nutrition and income options for the poor, new `agripreneurs’ and urban farmers in climates of the future. As risks become more prevalent in our changing climates, resilient underutilised species serve as alternatives to our total reliance on the major crops that may fail in more volatile environments. 
Underutilised crops are not here to replace current major staples such as rice, wheat and maize, but to provide alternatives that can ensure continuous food sustainability and nutrition security. The diversification of agriculture to benefit humanity, our health and our planet could not come at a better time.
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