December 27, 2018

Policy changes, CRISPR and mobile apps: The ingredients for fixing food systems in Asia

Policy changes, CRISPR and mobile apps: The ingredients for fixing food systems in Asia

A new report from The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), funded by Cargill, takes a closer look at how to address food security in Asian countries. They found that with Asian cities poised to expand by 578 million people by 2030, it will take a shift in technology applications, public-private partnerships and supply chains to bolster food security.

The report, titled Fixing Asia’s Food Systems, is based on a survey of 820 regional industry leaders, desk research, and expert interviews. The data show that fixing food system problems—and finding a way to gauge success—is urgent.

“The research shows that business leaders overwhelmingly agree that there is cause for alarm around Asia’s food security, with 90% of survey respondents expressing concern about local food systems,” write the researchers.

This emphasis on local food availability is one area where production in Asia contrasts with current western food production. The researchers note that the supply chains in many Asian countries are fed by small local farms, rather than large commercial operations. “Greater inter-regional co-operation could help alleviate some of the stress,” they write. In fact, their survey respondents “supported collaborations to enforce food safety standards, educate farmers and improve supply chain infrastructure.”

They write that these industry-driven solutions are limited by uneven national regulations, border policies, import duties—all of which require policy solutions. "Experts see a lack of coherent policies, institutions and regulations as fundamental issues that need to be addressed for Asia’s food system to truly make the needed progress,” they report.

This is where public-private partnerships may prove useful, they write. As one example of this effort, they cite the 2017 launch of Grow Asia, “a multistakeholder initiative in South-east Asia aimed at helping farmers with knowledge, technology and finance.”

Where is this life-saving new technology going to come from? The EIU tackled that question in a follow-up report titled Food 4.0: Leveraging food innovation in Asia.

The researchers found that while there has been a growing effort to use genetic research to fortify foods like rice, there is still resistance to using genetic modification. There is hope though that CRISPR, which introduces mutations rather than foreign DNA into an organism, may prove more acceptable as producers look for more sustainable and nutritious crop varieties. CRISPR may also be useful for livestock production, they write, citing the use of CRISPR by Chinese researchers to develop a pig with leaner body mass. Cell cultured animal products may also be a possibility in Asian countries.

Interestingly, the majority of survey respondents said their companies are invested in food innovation research.

“Seventy-five per cent of companies surveyed say they spend more than 15% of their R&D budget on food and agriculture-specific innovations,” the EIU reports. “However, food producers face a wide range of obstacles to progress. In identifying their top three challenges, survey respondents cite innovation development costs, a weak research base, and insufficient patent protection as foremost.”

One technology already making a difference is mobile apps. More and more apps are being used to close gaps in the food supply system, the EIU found. For example, an app used in India, called No Food Waste, connects non-governmental organizations with hotels and restaurants that have excess food. This food can then be distributed to those in need.

These two EIU reports are part of a five-part research program. To access the reports as they come out, go to: https://perspectives.eiu.com/sustainability/fixing-asias-food-system/white-paper/fixing-asias-food-system.