‘No one left behind’: Food system transformation needs greater focus on tech-tradition combos and the potential of aquatic foods

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Dr Shakunthala Thilsted believes all-inclusive food system transformation requires big data and traditional knowledge combination as well as better aquatic food appreciation. ©Getty Images
Dr Shakunthala Thilsted believes all-inclusive food system transformation requires big data and traditional knowledge combination as well as better aquatic food appreciation. ©Getty Images

Related tags Future Food Asia food system

World Food Prize winner Dr Shakunthala Thilsted believes that all-inclusive food system transformation will require a greater focus on combining big data and traditional knowledge as well as better recognition of aquatic food potential and consumer diversity.

Dr Shakunthala Thilsted is the Director for Nutrition, Health and Food Security Impact Area Platform at the international research organisation CGIAR, a Chair and member of various United Nations committees, and the recipient of the 2021 World Food Prize for her work with small fishes for nutritional enrichment.

Speaking at the recent Future Food Asia Awards 2024 event, she highlighted the need for global food system transformation to be all-inclusive, and the inevitable role technology, tradition and aquatic food sources should be playing in this.

“We need to remember that this food system transformation must be all-inclusive so that no one is left behind no matter their location, age, nationality, gender and so on,”​ she told the floor.

“There is so much work still to do in this regard given that women, children, the elderly and more such groups are still very vulnerable and find it very difficult to recover from systemic shocks as we saw during the pandemic.

“There is also the pressing concern of dealing not only with undernutrition and overnutrition but also hidden hunger, which involves a lack of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals from iron to Vitamin B12

“The problems are even greater if we fail in this regard with our children, we are looking at serious consequences for the development of industries and entire nations as this malnutrition means poor school performance and low productivity as adults, not to mention increased costs to public healthcare from non-communicable diseases.”

The Asia Pacific region is home to 60% of the world’s population, and is also home to a myriad of flora and fauna for which deep traditional knowledge is available – and if this knowledge can be combined with new-age technology, these learnings are well-poised to further bolster food and nutritional security.

“The power of big data in transforming the food system lies in its ability to create more efficient solutions tailored to specific needs and demands, and to do this along multiple paths within the food system,”​ she added.

“There is a great deal of potential to combine big data technology with traditional knowledge and maximise efficiencies here – for instance using this tech to understand the uses of molecules and compounds within traditional herbs and spices used here for many years can help researchers to harness these powers towards new frontiers.”

In addition, Dr Thilsted highlighted that many food industry players have till date been very focused on developing new nutrition sources from areas such as plant-based products in order to progress, but there needs to be more of this focus placed on aquatic nutrition as well.

“Looking at plants and animals on land for nourishment is important, but we also need to look beyond these terrestrial sources and open up the vast possibilities available from aquatic sources as well,”​ she said.

“Here I am not only talking about fish or crustaceans, but the entire diversity that is available to us from the oceans and lakes from animals to plants to micro-organisms.

“Take seaweed for example – this alone has already demonstrated lots of possibilities from its own nutritional value to use as packaging material, and with more understanding into this space there is a lot more that has yet to be discovered.”

Adapt then adopt

That said, Dr Thilsted also highlighted that food and nutritional research needs to also take into account the vast diversity of consumers that food systems cater to in order to ensure the ‘no one is left behind’ goal – and this can only be done via research and innovation.

“The thing to focus on here is context, and let’s say we look at research into seaweed – something developed in Singapore might happen to work in Tanzania, but end up not working in the Caribbean, and there would be many potential reasons for this from the people to the culture to the diet to the environment,”​ she said.

“This just shows that nutritional studies as well as product development needs to be context specific, and that shortcuts are not a good idea – the important thing is to take a good product and make sure it is well-adapted to a market then only try to push it out, i.e. to adapt then only adopt.”

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