THE Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the global economy and people’s livelihoods.
It has accelerated the digital transformation of many nations, with citizens having to learn and work from home, and businesses going online. The pandemic has exposed sectors that lack preparedness in the regional, national and global supply chains.
Some sectors that seem distinct actually operate dependently. In the news, we saw farmers dumping hard-grown produce and ploughing crops back into the fields, while the department stores were empty. Robust and diverse food supply is an essential part of the health and nutrition response to infectious diseases.
It is high time we strengthened the country’s food policy to ensure resilient and sustainable food security in the long run against any pandemic. Four clusters under three ministries and one agency have been established by the cabinet committee on the National Food Security Policy, which was set up in May and chaired by the prime minister.
The holistic nature of this effort is reflected by the four clusters: Availability, Accessibility, Food Safety & Nutrition, and Stability & Sustainability. In the past, policies and strategies on food were developed in silos, with little integration between communities working on agriculture, food, nutrition, health, environment, water, climate, employment, transport and trade.
Together, they will address various aspects of the food supply chain. These include manpower, technological applications, financial resources, investment, infrastructure and land use.
Hopefully, our country’s agrosector will grow to a greater level to strengthen food supply and self-sufficiency through increased domestic production, modern technology expansion, and reduced dependence on food imports. Innovations are needed all the way from the farm to fork.
These involve novel farming systems, bioenergy and biomaterials, innovative food, agri-biotechnology, agricultural technology (agtech) infrastructure, farm management system, sensors, and Internet-of-Things (IoT), as well as in-store retail and restaurant technology.
Agtech infrastructure for largescale plant genotyping could also be redeployed for the community screening of patients in case of future pandemics.
We must realise that food is no longer just food, but part of a complex supply chain involving farmers, delivery and e-commerce with many stakeholders.
Understanding the connections of this supply chain is important for post-Covid-19 recovery and resilience to prevent a breakdown in case of future pandemics.
Systems’ thinking—an approach to understand the dynamic interactions between interdependent domains in a system — will help.
This integrative systems’ view will prevent policies that provide cheaper food in certain categories but lead to high rates of diet-related diseases or market innovations and production systems that emphasise efficiency but compromise biodiversity and exacerbate climate change.
Hence, the government needs to bring together siloed communities to discuss how food should be produced, processed, distributed, marketed, regulated, cooked and eaten.
For such a holistic transformation of food systems, national policymakers should continually gather ideas from all stakeholders, including farmers, producers, agricultural companies, social and environmental representatives, researchers, nutritionists and businesses.
Apart from a national framework for change, local and regional stakeholders must be empowered to shape the food systems to reflect local values, resources and priorities. Emerging technologies will leapfrog food supply systems with digital agronomy.
The whole unorganised food supply chains should be digitalised for easy monitoring and tracing. Transparency in the food delivery chain will ensure the quality and safety of farm products through verified suppliers with accessible product data.
Furthermore, farming is shifting towards more informed decisions based on data analytics collected by sensors and IoT.
This intelligent infrastructure for smart agriculture is in line with the fourth industrial revolution. A cloud platform for agricultural companies to optimise the supply chain will be important to boost yields, quality and productivity. F
inally, artificial intelligence can help to track and analyse species’ interactions in various farm ecosystems to show the linkages between consumers and the environment.
As the host country of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting this year, Malaysia is in an ideal position to lead further discussions on regional food security.
The writer is an Associate Professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, leading the Plant Functional Genomics Research Group at the Institute of Systems Biology.