Where are we?
WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 stated that one of the most significant human-caused threats to nature and ecosystems is how we produce and consume our food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defined the food system as an entire range of actors and the interlinked value-adding activities in various stages of the food system such as production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal. It is made up of smaller sub-systems (e.g. waste management system, farming system, etc.) and interacts with other key systems (e.g. health system, energy system, etc.) Thus, the food system is a part of a broader economic, societal, and natural environment.
Over the past decades, the development within and around the food system has provided various advantages and opportunities such as convenient access to food, increased food varieties and improved employment rate. However, the rapid development and its associated transformation also causing various challenges to the economic, societal and natural environmental systems. We will take a look at these challenges in three critical stages of the food system: production, consumption, loss, and waste of food.
The food production system includes everything from all pre-farming and grazing processes such as feed and seed production to transportation and packaging of products. Some of the activities conducted in the food production stage include crop production, livestock rearing, commercial fishing, adding values and labelling of food products, and distributions. During these activities, a multitude of resources (e.g. land, water, energy) are utilised. This complete system produces up to 37% of global greenhouse-gas emissions (McFall-Johnsen & Woodward, 2019).
What we also consume matters and matters a lot. Research to date has helped to establish the global impacts of our consumption (dietary) choices, explaining the multiple coinciding environmental and health crises that we are experiencing today. Numerous recent studies have shown that a global shift toward healthier, more sustainable diets will combat climate change, improve human health and food security, reduce biodiversity loss, save lives (reduce premature mortality), decrease the risks of future pandemics, and unlock economic benefits (Loken B. et al., 2020).
One of the significant portions within the food system often overlooked is the food loss and waste. Loss and waste of food occurred at various stages of the food system such as at the farm, in storage, in transportation, in the shop and during and post-consumption. Globally, an estimated 1/3 of all food produced is lost or goes to waste, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year (FAO, 2019). There isn’t much difference with the situation in Malaysia. According to a 2017 survey by SWCorp, Malaysians throw away over 16 thousand tonnes of food every day, with much of it being avoidable and landfilling as the number one way of disposal.
The current state of food systems is not sustainable. The activities conducted within the system consume large amounts of resources. The relationship between the entire food system and various environmental issues such as loss of biodiversity (marine, freshwater and terrestrial), overconsumption of freshwater and climate change is indisputable and multidirectional. To address these environmental issues from the food system angle, a systemic change is needed. We have to look at all viewpoints within the system: from production to consumption and addressing loss and waste of food.
What is at stake?
Though it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the environmental issues caused by unsustainable food systems previously mentioned do not impact the way we lead our lives daily, it should be noted that unsustainable food systems could and will directly impact our food availability and security. This section will look further into the impacts of unsustainable food systems on the environment and society.
The current practice of food production is considered as one of the largest threats to biodiversity and ecosystems. One of such activities is the practice of large scale agriculture. In 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) reported that the percentage contribution of agriculture (for livestock and crops sectors) to the world's carbon dioxide emission from all human activities was 20% in 2017. LPR 2020 reported that agriculture is responsible for 80% of global deforestation, and it accounts for 70% of freshwater use. It is also indisputable that large scale agriculture drives habitat loss, which sets the stage for potential spread of zoonotic diseases carrying viruses, resulting in the current pandemic condition (iPES, 2020).
The production and consumption of seafood is a notable example of how these areas interlink and impact each other. In the current practice of fishing to meet human demand for consumption, almost 95% of the world’s fish stocks are estimated to be either overfished or fished to their biological limit (FAO, 2020). An assessment found that one in three fish stocks is considered overfished. The occurring accidental catch (called ‘bycatch’) caused by overfishing includes endangered species such as sharks and turtles (LPR, 2020). Such activities result in a severe decline of fish populations, marine wildlife and its habitats, and the surrounding ecosystem.
Malaysian waters are severely overfished. In 2019, the Department of Fisheries Malaysia had revealed that we had lost 96% of our demersal fish stock to overfishing in less than 60 years1. In comparison to consumption, Malaysia ranked fifth of the world’s biggest fish consumers (Ahmad et al., 2016) and Malaysians were eating an average of 59kg of seafood a year in 2016 (FAO, 2017)2. The urgency on overfishing, lack of fish supply, and the unsustainable seafood demand can be seen through the alarming trend between the 1970s to 2010, where seafood consumption increased up to 170% (Teh, 2012). Still, fish stocks were drastically decreased in domestic waters at the same time.
As we looked further into unsustainable food consumption, it is crucial to consider food security and availability, alongside health. The FAO defined food security as “when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Food availability, access to food, utilisation, and stability consist of the four main aspects of food security.
Food security is also heavily dependent upon the health of the ecosystem. A decline in our natural environment observable through the loss of biodiversity and climate change will cause threat and disturbance to food security. For example, the unpredictable weather attributed to climate change has seen a 10 to 15 per cent drop in farm yields in Malaysia. This decrease in profits could see more farmers deserting their fields, consequently harming families and Malaysia’s food security (Norshidi, 2018).
Earlier last year, a Cabinet Committee on National Food Security Policy was set up to look into related issues. Experts within the food security ecosystem advocate for a holistic and sustainable policy that will address the problem from its various angles and standpoints throughout the entirety of food systems (Azman, 2020).
The National Health and Morbidity Survey published by the Ministry of Health Malaysia in 2019 highlighted an issue where amidst the rapid urbanisation and availability of food, Malaysia is still reporting high stunting levels combined with rising levels of obesity. 1 in 2 adults and almost 30% of children aged between 5 and 17 in Malaysia were overweight or obese. In children under five years of age, we see stunting in 21.8% of them. In the same year, UNICEF through their State of the World’s Children summarised the situation as “far too many children and young people are eating too little healthy food and too much unhealthy food.”
Another impact of an unsustainable food system is food loss and waste. Food loss and waste occur in various stages of the food systems from production, within the food supply chain and at the consumption stage. In October 2020, SW Corp reported that over 4,000 tonnes of food waste collected is classified as still edible and could be used to provide three meals a day for over 2.9 million people.
Why are these signs, especially on our side as a consumer. Most people fail to see that when food that is meant for human consumption goes to waste, the resources used in making it also go to waste. Preparation of food requires labour, water, electricity and land use. All these utilisations contributed to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In an example provided by Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (FOMCA), to prepare a simple dish of our national favourite, Nasi Lemak, a period of 4 months is needed for the rice to be planted, grow and harvest, a similar period before a chicken starts laying eggs and a good five years for a coconut tree to grow.
Further down the line, the massive combination and mixes of all waste types are diminishing the condition (minimal amount of oxygen) of the landfill, causing the food waste gathered to be rotting down instead of properly decomposing. This then leads to methane production, a significant greenhouse gas (GHG) that is more potent than carbon dioxide. The FAO also reported that carbon footprint from food wastages contributed to 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide of GHG released into the atmosphere per year. Food loss and waste are responsible for at least 6% of total global greenhouse gas emissions (LPR, 2020). In Malaysia, landfills are the third-largest contributor to GHG emissions (MESTECC, 2018).
Food availability and security related issues are further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic globally. The pandemic leads to disruptions within global and national food systems. The movement and export restrictions have had effects on the food supply chain. FAO also reported that the potential recession in light of the pandemic could significantly affect the readily vulnerable food systems with producers unable to produce enough food, leading to a future lack of food globally.
The pandemic brings forth additional challenges alongside the existing food insecurity and hunger issues for the most vulnerable. The marginalised communities across the globe are facing income loss, supply interruptions and price hike of food items, among others (iPES, 2020).
How do we do this?
Globally, WWF through a partnership with other environment conservation bodies and governments is working towards a new global biodiversity framework called the New Deal for Nature and People (NDNP) too stop and reverse the decline of biodiversity and restore nature 2030. One of the significant problems the environment is currently facing is caused by unsustainable production and consumption of nature’s resources. The NDNP aims to halve the footprint caused by consumption and production. To achieve sustainability, WWF-Malaysia is currently looking into transitioning to sustainable practices in various food-related areas such as agriculture, fisheries, and food waste management.
To address and improve the tur food system’s sustainability and any potential disruption to our food security, various stakeholders must pull our efforts together. Government agencies related to the food system should serve as enablers to ensure our food producers are provided with the support they need in terms of access to market, technical and knowledge provision, innovation and technology for sustainability, and much more
Policymakers could look into policies that will ensure the food system could minimise its impacts on the environment and our natural world. The involvement of private sectors into the discussion should also be brought together into the discourse as they would bring with them prospects of investments and play the role of knowledge and technology partners.
Last year, it was reported that 9.5 million youth make up the entire population of Malaysia. It is undeniable that youth is one of the nation's most abundant resources, and could be the changemakers in our food system.
On the production side, a statistic provided by Farmers Organisation Authority in 2016, only a maximum of 15% of their 80,000 members are below 40 years of age. With the recent shift made to the community’s age bracket, this percentage could be much lower. We will look into sharing and equipping youth with knowledge about various methods and opportunities, alongside the utilisation of technology via modernisation and automation in sustainable food production.
Youth should also be guided in using their creativity and resourcefulness to look into innovation and potential social entrepreneurship ventures and opportunities within the food system. This will help develop the community and assist the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of people within the community. There are also aspects of getting support from various entities (government, private and CSOs) to tackle the lack of the supporting mechanism beneficial to both producers and consumers.
On the consumption side, youth could utilise the knowledge on the food system to understand the direct link to making responsible consumption decisions not only when purchasing and eating food as part of daily dietary choices but also to reduce food waste and keep it out of landfills.
VIBES+ by BB4SCP will look into how youth can be enabled as a driver to transform the current food system with sustainable food production, consumption and waste management through several thoroughly narrated seminars and learning opportunities. We will also look into how youth could support marginalised communities struggling with food security that have been amplified due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. At the end of this conference, VIBES+ aims to equip youth with the necessary knowledge to recognise, demand and operate sustainable food systems that work for nature and people.
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