One key to change is on our plates

  • Letters
  • Friday, 09 Nov 2018

Choices of vegetables to be put into the noodles of selection.

IN a landmark report released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), experts have warned that urgent actions are needed if we are to keep global warming below 1.5°C to prevent catastrophic environmental collapse that would impact on the health, livelihoods, food security and economic growth of vulnerable communities around the world.

The 1.5°C target was derived from a global pact made by 195 nations in Paris in 2015 to strengthen global response to climate change by “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.”

Alarmingly, current levels of human–induced warming are already about 1°C above pre-industrial levels. Even this increase is damaging our food systems, impacting not only crop yields but also the nutritional content of food.

A threshold of 2°C will further disrupt the sustenance, nourishment and livelihoods of communities in regions such as Malaysia.

The IPCC report provides an urgent call for governments and communities to commit to behavioural, mindset and food system changes that reduce vulnerabilities and empower climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Better “business-as-usual” is not an option. We need transformational change if we are to move from carbon-heavy food systems to ones that consider the environmental, societal and economic benefits of climate-smart options.

So how can we as individuals support this transformational change? A good way to start is to look at the diversity on our plates.

Malaysia’s nutritional status is alarming. Eating habits have shifted towards a fast-food culture based on a homogeneous diet from a few, mainly imported, ingredients.

With changing lifestyles, nutrition-related conditions (cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity) are now widespread in this country.

Bad diets are a costly matter. In 2016, obese and overweight citizens cost the nation between RM4.26bil and RM8.53bil.

Hikes in food prices, socioeconomic constraints on low-income households and the urban-rural shift all influence our eating choices; the cheapest foods are often the least healthy, most energy-rich and nutrient-poor options.

A balanced diet derived from diverse ingredients is key to optimal health and nutrition. If we can build agricultural systems that support diverse diets, many nutritious ingredients can be sourced locally.

But this needs policies that go beyond “food security” to ensure that the quality of our food can meet our dietary needs from crops that can withstand warming climates.

The cultivation of forgotten, or neglected, fruits, vegetables and other under-utilised crops can also provide livelihoods for thousands of small-scale farmers and processors. These crops, often rich in minerals and vitamins, can be grown in marginal environments, thereby providing resilience to unpredictable climates.

For Malaysia, exploring new options from local crops is crucial if we are to sustain agricultural biodiversity and mitigate and adapt to climate change. Such crops are literally on our door steps; we just need to look at them with fresh eyes, open minds and new thinking.

We have yet to explore even a fraction of those that can provide nutrition and income options in climates of the future. Harnessing new technologies, gathering academic evidence and attracting investment can transform our food systems for the good of humanity, the planet and future generations.

In this regard, the International Scientific Conference on Indi­genous Crops organised by the UPM Bintulu campus in Kuching recently is hugely encouraging. For the first time, delegates discussed the potential of indigenous crops for commercialisation on the island of Borneo, which hosts 5% of the world’s plant species.

A key catalyst will be multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral approaches, where public and private entities work together on common challenges that transcend disciplinary and political boundaries.

However, nothing will change without individual commitment. At our recent event at Crops For the Future (CFF) to celebrate World Food Day, each employee gave a personal pledge towards the target of “Zero Hunger” and sustainable development. While personal pledges such as “I will eat less meat” or “I will eat more local fruits” may seem insignificant, their national impact could be enormous if such commitments were repeated in offices and businesses across the country.

The Mid-Term Review of the 11th Malaysia Plan provides specific opportunities for agricultural diversification to support regional and inclusive development, enhance environmental sustainability and increase resilience to climate change and disasters.

By driving new business, diversification provides opportunities for indigenous and local communities to conserve natural resources through economic uses for plants that would otherwise be victims of the bulldozer.

What better way to deter deforestation than providing meaningful livelihoods from nutritious crops grown on lands that are increasingly too marginal for commodity crops and plantations?

The IPCC report observes that diversified food and agricultural systems would deliver nutritious, affordable food for a growing world population, generate higher incomes – especially for the world’s 1.5 billion smallholders – and help restore forests, freshwater resources and vital ecosystems. Perhaps uniquely, Malaysia has the natural resources and opportunities to lead the transformational change to a new vision of agriculture.


Chief executive officer

Crops For the Future

Semenyih, Selangor

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