With obesity and diabetes on the rise in Malaysia, the country has been working to bring together domestic scientists with their international counterparts and institutions in the hope of mitigating the problem.
Food security and nutrition research are among the main topics under discussion by Malaysia's Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC), an assembly of all-star Malaysian and international experts and leaders, which was created to support sustainable development for Malaysia.
The GSIAC’s panel includes leading education, economics, business, science and technology experts from across the world, including two Nobel laureates, each volunteering to help Malaysia achieve an environmentally sustainable, high-income economy driven by knowledge and innovation. The body is chaired by Malaysian prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
Statistics show the percentage of calories Malaysians derive from cereals, starchy roots, fruits and vegetables has dropped from roughly 60% in 1960 to just under 50% today—the difference being made up by more meat, fish, dairy, oils and fat. Moreover, the availability of sugar and sweeteners in Malaysia was almost 50kg per capita in 2007, second only to the USA.
Compared with a population snapshot in 1986, almost twice as many Malaysians are today considered overweight, and obesity has almost quadrupled.
At a recent GSIAC meeting, Malaysia's health ministry formalised a partnership agreement with the New York Academy of Sciences’ Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, providing the country's health officials and scientists with access to extensive new global resources.
The country will be the first national government to join the institute, which focuses on the identification of gaps in knowledge about food and nutrition and coordination of research worldwide. In December, Malaysia will participate in the launch of the Sackler Institute-World Health Organisation's collaborative Global Research Agenda for Nutrition Science in New York.
Dr Mandana Arabi, director of the institute, told the council that nutrition interventions are needed for populations to make better food choices as their income increases and their access to modern foods grows.
"The wisdom of the past and traditional foods get lost," said Arabi. "Dietary diversity with lots of fruit and vegetable consumption is not as good as it should be. People tend to move to consumption of more animal-sourced foods and lower-nutritional-value foods that are high in calories and salt, which puts people at risk of diseases like obesity and, later, diabetes.
"In order to figure out how to design a programme with optimal impact you need to do your research. That's what we're hoping to achieve in our collaboration with Malaysia—to come up with specifics to address the problems effectively."
Meanwhile, the GSIAC is also looking closely at the issue of food security in Malaysia, which ranks among the government’s key domestic issues.
Heeding the warnings
In a presentation to the council, agricultural experts of the National Science and Research Council Malaysia (NSRC) warned that, after decades of decline in real terms, food prices are forecast to jump due in part to a reduction in world agricultural production this year caused largely by severe droughts and floods.
Ministry of Agriculture figures show that Malaysia is self-sufficient in fish, eggs, pork and poultry, but depends increasingly on producers in other nations for such staples as milk, mutton, beef, vegetables, fruits and rice. Between 1990 and 2011, the difference in value between Malaysia's imports and exports rose 1,400%, from US$0.33bn to US$4.6bn.
Such dependence makes Malaysia vulnerable to price shocks, as experienced in the global food crisis in 2008 when the price of rice jumped almost 75% and wheat soared 130% due to supply shortages and strong demand from a growing world population.
"Malaysia must now put a higher priority on R&D on strategic crops such as rice, using the latest techniques from modern biotechnology," said Zakri Abdul Hamid, the science adviser to the prime minister.
Zakri added that in December, the government will hold talks with world experts on how to secure its rice supply. This dialogue will look at ways to build on Malaysia's commitment towards agriculture research, which include the country’s new Crops for the Future Research Centre (CFFRC), which opened in June.
Earlier this year, Dr Aalt A. Dijkhuizen, the Dutch agricultural scientist and chairman of the Wageningen University research centre, had told fellow GSIAC members that Malaysia will need to double its food production by 2050, due to population growth and rising living standards.
He advised that meeting that challenge would be possible but results will be gradual and efforts must begin now. Ways to secure the future of the country's food supply will come through seed research, a more sophisticated and universal system of forecasting relevant crop prices, and high-tech-assisted precision farming.
The NSRC’s group of experts from various universities, research institutions, private sector and NGOs likewise struck an optimistic note on achieving food security, outlining Malaysia’s strong R&D capabilities, rich biodiversity, abundant agricultural biomass and by-products, and supportive government policies and regulations in key areas like biotechnology, nanotechnology and biosafety.
At the GSIAC meeting, the NSRC cited a definition adopted at the 1996 World Food Summit: "Food Security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."
However, they also quoted a recent Science Academy of Malaysia statement saying: "Food security is not just about producing enough rice; it covers the need for adequate sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, and dietary fibre to ensure a healthy and balanced diet. Problems such as obesity and certain cancers can be addressed with a proper diet, which includes eating more fruits and vegetables."