Future Food Asia 2024

Inclusion and affordability: Why emerging Asian markets risk being sidelined in the sustainability agenda

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Developing markets in Asia and Africa risk being sidelined in the efforts to create a more sustainable food system. ©Getty Images
Developing markets in Asia and Africa risk being sidelined in the efforts to create a more sustainable food system. ©Getty Images

Related tags Sustainability Future Food Asia Emerging markets

Developing markets in Asia and Africa risk being sidelined in the efforts to create a more sustainable food system, unless inclusion and affordability are placed front and centre to improve nutrition.

Sustainability has been a major trending topic within the food and beverage industry over the past several years and especially since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But despite its long-term importance, experts now fear that developing markets could be sidelined from any progress if equal emphasis is not placed on the topic of inclusion.

“Whilst transitioning towards low-carbon agrifood systems, certain crucial aspects of food, such as nutrition have been side-lined as carbon emission reduction has been the rallying cry of most stakeholders,”​ VC investment firm and Future Food Asia (FFA) 2024 organiser ID Capital Founder Isabelle Decitre told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“Amidst a worldwide economic downturn, there has been a reshuffle of the economy impacting funding of innovation across many asset classes, including the agrifood-tech sector which has experienced significant declines in investment in recent years - With this reshuffle in priorities, it is time for the sector to reflect on the last decade.

“Sufficient nutrient intake is key to a healthy diet and needs to be considered alongside all the efforts in sustainable food production from an environmental angle [but] those have been the most side-lined are developing markets, mainly in Asia and Africa, which happen to also be those with the most important contribution to demographic growth.”

The argument for sustainable agrifood-tech innovation often comes alongside the argument for investing into technology-driven solutions, but many of these tend to come at a steep price point which automatically precludes consumers in lower socio-economic brackets from accessing these.

“With [the food security downwards trending] situation now critical, every nation needs to balance affordability and availability but also quality and safety, and exposure and adaptation to climate change - In that context, the mission of innovation is very clear: it’s to provide solutions at scale,”​ Decitre added.

“It’s fair to say that technology-driven innovation comes with some development risks which usually requires products to be priced at a premium at the beginning, but if the end goal is not to deliver affordable solutions to the masses, then it may be a bit of a virtue signalling exercise that diverts our attention and dollars from more needed solutions.”

Data from the Global Food Security Index, published by The Economist Impact, has shown that big gains in food security which were made between 2012 and 2015 have already been wiped out by the shocks arising from the pandemic over the past three years, revealing structural issues in our food system – and already it has become clear that poorer populations are the ones bearing the brunt of these issues.

“A major problem is that poor rural populations are not well taken into account in food systems modelling approaches, so it’s not proven that changes proposed will improve these livelihoods,”​ she added.

“Unless we make socioeconomic inclusion more central we may very well overfocus on food systems transformation to reach environmental objectives, hopefully better nutrition for some as well, but on the backs of the rural poor.”

That said, it is not to say that sustainability should be taken out of the picture and placed on the backburner as according to Cargill this is a topic that many consumers tale seriously from a health and wellness perspective as well.

“While APAC is a price-sensitive region, Asian consumers are also becoming more discerning about their food consumption choices with growing affluence and education,”​ Cargill Food Solutions Specialised Nutrition Commerical Director APAC Jing Yu told us.

“According to our TrendTracker 2023 study, ‘Conscious Consumption’ was a macrotrend called out for APAC [where] the pandemic has caused consumers to recognise the vulnerability of their own health as well as the health of the environment.

“Sustainability is increasingly viewed by consumers as a license for companies to operate, no longer just a competitive market advantage, so to win in APAC and with Asian consumers, food manufacturers and suppliers must not only deliver products that are good for consumer health, but also uphold and communicate clearly on their sustainability commitments.”

According to data from the Cargill study, two out of three APAC consumers were ‘very concerned’ about the environment impact of how their food is grown, processed and delivered; 84% of said it was important that food and drink brands look to reduce their carbon footprint; and 69% said they would change their purchases if a product did not meet their environmental standards.

“There are strong societal expectations for food manufacturers and suppliers to be sustainable, ethical and innovative in their business practices – to deliver products that are not only good for people but also for the planet,”​ she said.

‘Collaboration’ cannot just be a buzzword

When it comes to strategies to solve broad challenges such as food security or sustainability, the word ‘collaboration’ is very often thrown around as a solution – but given the often less-than-stellar conclusions to many of these collaborations, ID Capital now believes that much more is needed.

“‘Collaboration’ is one of the words we have banned at ID Capital, because it’s so much overused that it tends to not mean much, or describes a situation where [it is not clear] what each party should do and be accountable for, so [there is] deflection by saying they should collaborate,”​ Decitre added.

“Of course collaboration is needed, the same way no single innovation will fix the food system and we need businesses, governments and civil society to join forces [to] reach the scale necessary to truly transform our food systems - However, we realized many collaborations abort after a couple of years of piloting.

“When trying to understand why, we found out that they were often not enough meaningful, sensible, rewarding for at least one critical party [so] eventually this party gets disengaged and the house of cards fall apart - Goodwill is great, but it does not scale well.”

 

Nutrition and Inclusion is set to be a major topic discussed at Future Food Asia 2024, taking place in Singapore this year on May 15th and 16th.

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