Securing the Future of Asia’s Food

Note: This article was first published by, and for, Social Entrepreneurship Forum: http://www.seforum.sg.

Think of “Food” and “Asia” and what comes to mind is a rich and diverse mosaic of landscapes and sentiments: on the one hand, we can imagine golden fields of rice tended by tight-knit communities, abundant harvests at year-end festivals, and sprawling, animated markets; however, we also have unsavory images of grain rotting in the heat, poverty-stricken and hungry children, and food riots in urban centers.

Rice, wheat, vegetables, fruits, corns, and pulses, are important not only as nourishment for the people of Asia but, more importantly, as livelihood. Asia accounts for over 80% of the world’s agricultural workforce, amounting to almost one billion people concentrated in the food exporting countries of China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Given this dual importance of food in the Asian context, food security has become one of the topmost priorities for the region.

One man’s meat

The prospects of food for Asia are mixed. The region has seen a remarkable boost in agricultural output since the 1960s.

Between 1980 and 2000, production per hectare generally rose – in China by 60%. Increased income also meant that people could buy better quality food. In Asia, from 1996 to 2006, overall meat production rose by 40%.

Yet in spite of the rise in farm output and employment, and the rapid development in food production and storage technologies, Asia still has a large hungry population. The most reliable statistics indicate that16% of the region’s total population of 542 million people, are suffering from malnutrition. More than half of the world’s underweight children live in Asia.

Ironically, Asia’s hungry are our agricultural workers who spend up to 70% of their total income on food. With food prices rising 51% first half of 2008 compared to 2007, and commodity markets increasingly volatile, next year could be ‘another dangerous year for food prices in poor countries’.

Is it possible the region to develop alternative, sustainable and equitable food systems? What opportunities and possibilities can social entrepreneurship bring to address this complex and critical situation?

Sowing organic, reaping well

(c) Raitong Organics Farm

Farming at Raitong

One of the pioneers in sustainable agricultural production is a two-year old organic rice farm in one of the poorest provinces of Thailand. Co-founded by Mr. Bryan Hugill and Ms. Lalana Srikram, Raitong (“Golden Land”) Organics Farm has evolved from the Srikram-Kewandee family farm that has cultivated top-grade Hom Mali rice under rain-fed conditions since settling in the Sisaket province some 200 years ago.

Environmental sustainability and education are two of the main motivations for Bryan and Lalana to choose the organic path. In essence, this is a production method that uses natural, rather than chemical, methods to enrich the soil and is characterized by “polyculture”, the cultivation of different crops together in the field, as opposed to “monoculture” – concentrating on one or two crops. Says Lalana, “Organic production improves the quality of the soil as it improves the soil structure over time. Polyculture and the use of appropriate microbes and bacteria encourages carbon-storage and the fixing of nutrients in the soil, ensuring a healthy and high quality rice crop.”

Cultivating 25 rai (approximately 10 acres) of Hom Mali rice, Raitong Organics is the first certified organic farm in the Sisaket province, with international accreditation from the Organic Agriculture Certification Thailand (ACT) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

“In contrast to popular belief, small farms are more productive than large ones,” Bryan explains, “Farmers know their land much better and spend more time on their land, leading to better management.”

Indeed, Bryan and Lalana’s success with their small farm – producing some 11 tonnes of rice per year with saved seed – has inspired other farmers in the community. Despite being initially resistant in the first year, farmers were much more receptive to organic farming methods after comparing their crop with that grown organically, which looked much healthier at the end of the growing season. Healthy and delicious rice – potentially a niche product for the region, has also sparked the interest of local provincial authorities. The Land Development Authority is now offering agricultural extension to promote organic certification, offering such services as ploughing farmer’s land for free and providing beans for farmers to grow nitrogen-fixing legumes.

One of the missions of Raitong is to enhance the awareness of the benefits of organic agriculture to local farmers and, when requested, assist them in implementing the necessary change. Bryan and Lalana firmly believe that organic farming represents a powerful way to spread income through the community in a sustainable way because, as a growing niche market, an increased supply of organic crop will create greater market opportunities for the entire community.

Raitong Organics is currently supplying a restaurant in Bangkok directly, bypassing exploitative middlemen and market structures. “Selling directly to food services establishes a direct connection between farmers and consumers,” Bryan explains, “This raises consumer awareness of organic food production, facilitates direct and immediate feedback, builds consumer trust and enables both parties to enjoy a fair price.” What system could be better?

“We hope that organic food production will snowball in the years to come, as more farmers learn about the benefits of, and consumers create demand for, healthy organic food, thus creating a greater market.” Bryan asserts, “We just have to keep demonstrating.”

Organic farming represents one of ways the food system can be changed at its source. Through promoting and facilitating the development of sustainable production methods and the direct distribution of farmed food to urban populations, social enterprises such as Raitong Organics Farm shows that an ethical alternative is possible. (For more information on Raitong Organics Farm, do visit: http://www.raitongorganicsfarm.com/.)

With Singapore serving as an important food trading hub in Asia, there is both the premise and opportunity for food businesses to engage directly with the local and regional community – addressing gaps in our current profit-driven food system through socially-innovative initiatives.

No free lunch?

Think again: There may be many.

In the highly-competitive food industry, market players are not on a level playing field. In Singapore, food suppliers incur high costs in order to have their products listed and sold in supermarkets – there is even a premium for locating products on eye-level shelves!

As the largest market players, supermarkets have the power to charge high markups that are then passed on to consumers. Many supermarkets also hoard products for display that may remain unsold on shelves until they are thrown away, says an industry insider.

Unlike Australia, are currently no systems for salvaging and distributing unsold food in Singapore. Neither has there been any initiative from within the private, public nor people sectors here to comprehensively improve the allocation of food.

A 2008 report by Singapore-based research group Food for All revealed that although there is a large diversity of food programmes in Singapore that have been set up to address the issues of hunger, community food security and food waste, most of them are only stop-gap measures.

Such food rations programmes include monthly dried food distribution programmes conducted by Volunteer Welfare Organizations (VWOs) and Residents’ Committees (RCs), and the distribution of food vouchers by Community Development Councils (CDCs).

A well-established non-profit organization Food from the Heart operates three food rations programmes: a bread distribution programme coordinating some 1700 volunteers to deliver unsold bread from local bakeries to 11,000 beneficiaries every month; 17 Self-Collection Centres which distribute packets of food to 2900 needy individuals; and a food goodie bag programme in neighbourhood schools assisting 2700 needy students.

Given that the country is completely dependent on food imports, yet produces significant amounts of wasted food that could be redistributed within local and regional communities, the need for social enterprise to step in and propose holistic solutions to improve the efficiency of current systems of food distribution, as well as manage unsold food effectively, is urgently needed.

FoodXervices, a Singapore-based food distributor, is one of the first food businesses here who have taken the lead to change this situation – collaborating with civil society organizations in a number of food projects that aim to raise awareness of food issues, strengthen the connection between industry and the public, and integrate community service as part of the food business model.

A successful recent project was the “Every One Can” Warehouse Sale cum Food Donation Drive in October 2009, coordinated with anti-poverty group ONE (Singapore) as part of the Stand Up Against Povertycampaign. During this event, the first of its kind spearheaded by an industry player, members of the public who came to the warehouse to purchase food were invited to pledge essential food items such as rice, cooking oil and sugar for a food donation drive. By the end of the day, a 14-foot truck, equivalent to a 20-foot container, was filled with food at a total retail value of over $20,000 – all to be distributed by Food from the Heart to needy families around the island.

Following from this, FoodXervices and Food for All begun the Food Matching Programme, which aims to provide a service redistributing unsold food from warehouses around the island to the local and regional hungry communities.

Food for All has also begun a campaign to encourage community food programmes, as well as consumer groups, to purchase food directly from food suppliers and wholesale markets, rather than retailers, which will give them better access to fresh and nutritious food at affordable prices.

Soup for the soul

Encouraging industry players to actively reflect on food issues, and engaging them directly in community service that tackles structural deficiencies in the food system, is the first step. The second is to bring the public on board in this fight.

Few organizations make better use of community energy than food banks and soup kitchens, common in American and European cities – but rare in Singapore.

One of the pioneering soup kitchens in Singapore is The Soup Kitchen Project run by local vegetarian cafeFood #03 as one of their core projects. The Soup Kitchen Project, which is conducted every Monday, engages some four-five volunteers to prepare vegetables, occasionally salvaged from surrounding markets, into healthy, vegetarian meals.

The hot meals are then distributed by a separate team of volunteers to needy residents in Little India, as well as elderly tenants at the Thieves Market, an open-air flea market close by.

Considering the number of under-utilized kitchens across the island, in Child-care Centres, Senior Activity Centres and Community Centres, there is great potential for starting more soup kitchens to reduce food waste, bring communities together and create employment opportunities for the elderly and temporarily jobless.

Soup kitchens need not be charities; many are set up as cooperatives that employ ‘beneficiaries’ directly in collecting, preparing or distributing food, thus empowering people to take direct control of their food supply. Fresh food could be sourced from warehouses and markets – but they could also be obtained fromcommunity food gardens and local farms in Lim Chu Kang and Kranji, thus supporting the local food economy.

An integrated system of local farms and gardens, soup kitchens and food banks (warehouses that store and sell unsold, but edible foods at a discount or distributed for free), together with an innovative private sector and reflexive population, may be just the ingredients needed to create and sustain a vibrant, secure food community in the long-term.

…and the rest is gravy!

What is clear from the case studies of Raitong Organics Farm, FoodXervices and Food #03 is this: creating a sustainable food system needs to start from the bottom-up.

The dominant industrial food system, while successful in funding technological development to mitigate environmental changes, and producing the quantities of food needed for the growing populations of Asia, cannot achieve an equitable distribution of food, or indeed sustainable production of food, in the long-term.

Other stakeholders in the food system need to intervene – smaller, better managed organic farms, conscientious and innovative food businesses, food research organizations, and engaged food consumers everywhere.

Through engaging with wider society through social action, farms and food businesses can help raise awareness of challenges and gaps in the food system that social entrepreneurs from the private and people sectors seek to collaboratively address.

Importantly, the success of such social ventures can impress upon policymakers the need for holistic, community-centred strategies to address food security.

Food has a special place in Asian hearts: it feeds our stomach and our souls. As the source of nourishment, a fundamental livelihood, the cornerstone of social gatherings and a cultural product refined through centuries of cross-cultural interaction, it is imperative that us, as Asia’s future leaders, take active, socially innovative steps to address food security today.

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