Asian Scientist Magazine (19 October 2022) – Amidst rising sea levels and extreme heat waves, 2015 marked a momentous year when members of the UN signed the Paris Agreement. With this commitment, the international community sought to cut carbon emissions and limit global warming to just two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Our everyday experience of a temperature difference of two degrees may seem insignificant, but the scale of the planet is very different. Even limiting the rise to just 1.5 degrees could mean 61 million fewer people exposed to severe drought and up to 270 million saved from water scarcity problems. By threatening the livelihoods of agriculture and fisheries, these impacts can also extend to economic issues and – significantly – food insecurity.
The food sector has deep ties to the climate action agenda and highlights the need for more sustainable food procurement, production and distribution systems. Indeed, a sustainable food system has the power to both mitigate climate change and support lasting food security. Transforming and improving these systems can begin with a better understanding of how our society consumes food and the consequences of such choices.
From consumption to climate
Acres of neatly demarcated paddy fields dotted with houses surrounded by fruit trees and well-nourished livestock paint an idyllic picture of the sector that fundamentally sustains our society. In addition to feeding the masses, however, the food and agriculture industry also contributes to around 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Among other sources, cattle produce methane gas through their digestive processes, while nitrous oxide is released from the addition of manure and fertilizers.
With billions of mouths to feed worldwide, different sectors are coming together to figure out how to grow food without exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions. Not surprisingly, food systems became a central point of discussion at COP26, leading to a global action agenda on Transforming Agricultural Innovation. The strategy focuses on investing in agricultural research and innovation to meet the demand for food in a way that builds low-emission and climate-resilient systems.
The issue was also addressed at the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021, where member states came together to align targets for their food environments and push for more sustainable production, consumption and resilience – especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in designing these solutions, standards are also needed to identify what works, as world leaders and stakeholders will need to reach a clear consensus on what sustainability means for our food systems. To that end, research conducted by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT on food consumption patterns in northern Vietnam can provide insight.
Overall, efforts focused on the food environment, which includes food availability, affordability, availability and acceptability. By identifying diets and nutritional status, consumer behavior and the flow of the food supply chain, the researchers aimed to paint a clearer picture of the food environment in each community.
Local produce is a daily staple in the rural district of Moc Chau, located on a plateau that offers ideal farming conditions, including fertile soil on flat terrain and a cool climate. However, various factors such as economic background may hinder their uptake of healthier and more sustainable food production. For example, while the survey states that everyone in the community can afford rice and vegetables, a whopping 65.4 percent of locals consider meat too expensive to buy regularly.
One of the barriers to access to food lies in the considerable distance that separates consumer households from traditional markets. With ethnic minority groups making up more than half of the district’s population, they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the agricultural stress and food insecurity that can come with it.
Meanwhile, food systems and technological innovations are intertwining in Dong Anh, where the local government is launching an agricultural restructuring plan while simultaneously pushing for Smart City investment. Although the availability of convenience stores has contributed to an increase in the consumption of unhealthy foods such as chips and soda, about 40 percent of the food consumed in this peri-urban district is locally produced.
That’s thanks in part to Dong Anh’s favorable location in the Red River Delta, where fertile soil flanks a rushing river to provide irrigation and support agricultural activities. The large land also proves beneficial with specialized sections dedicated to different raw materials and types of products.
With the introduction of various agricultural technologies, smart farming practices help increase production efficiency and food supply. In terms of distribution and mobility, the district has also improved its transport infrastructure, now equipped with a traceability system to promote integrity along the food supply chain.
By integrating innovations into food systems, production and consumption patterns throughout the local community can be steered towards high-value but sustainable food processes.
Finding the right balance
Apart from technological innovation, consumers in the surveyed rural, peri-urban and urban areas indicated a high preference for healthy and safe foods – possibly representing a critical stepping stone in the sustainability roadmap.
While health emerged as a top priority for these communities, dietary patterns told a different story. Local communities in the towns of Cau Giay and Dong Anh still consumed a large amount of meat, while many families in Moc Chau did not meet nutritional requirements consistently.
To address these challenges, attention to food security, improvement of transport systems and investment in infrastructure can create a ripple effect towards achieving climate resilience and improving human health at the same time. Consuming safe food is part of maintaining one’s health, which makes infrastructure development such as traceability systems a potentially effective solution, not only for environmental sustainability, but also for human well-being.
In addition to reducing barriers to access such as geographic distance and cost, initiatives such as nutrition education campaigns are also needed to promote better health and sustainability. Fostering a deeper understanding of the connection between food, people and the planet is especially important when consumer demand drives the value chain – influencing stakeholder decisions, investment of resources and action plans.
Example: Moc Chau District Government increased investment in developing high-value crops on the back of increasing demand from urban markets. Over in Dong Anh, farming is a family affair – with many households involved in food production. Continued investment and support for these smallholder farmers has been the backbone of the district’s food supply and economic opportunity and largely mirrors the successes of other Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia and Cambodia. Such strong engagement with small producers has shown great potential for food growth and they have played a role in improving sustainability while meeting the nutritional needs of local communities.
By encouraging responsible food production, a sustainable food supply chain can improve access to healthy food for those who need it most and establish a more reliable and resilient system – ultimately making a difference to the health of people and the planet.
What we eat today can transform the fate of the planet tomorrow. By changing dietary patterns and supporting sustainable food practices, everyone can play a role in creating a food system that can feed all while reducing our environmental impact.
Images: Alliance Bioversity-CIAT
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