From Field To Fork

Science and technology play an important role in ensuring food security in Asia, says Professor Paul Teng, senior fellow at the Center for Non-Traditional Security Studies in Singapore.

AsianScientist (Jun. 25, 2015) – Asia’s leading food security expert Professor Paul Teng, senior fellow at the Center for Non-Traditional Security Studies in Singapore, tells us about the role that science and technology can play in ensuring food security in Asia.

What is food security and why is it a major concern in Asia?

Food security is a major concern to Asian leaders because the lack of it leads to serious consequences. Between 2007 and 2008, there was a food crisis caused by disruption in food supply, which led to price hikes and precipitated food riots in many countries worldwide. This happened again in 2011. Many countries have since declared food security as a top priority. At the 2012 ASEAN Summit held in Cambodia, all the heads of state identified food security as one of the major problems affecting the region.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations describes food security to exist when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Food security involves four key dimensions: physical availability, which is to make food available through production, imports or stockpiles; physical access, which is to make sure that food produced in the farm reaches the consumer; economic access, which is about ensuring affordability of food; and food utilization, which is to make sure that food contains sufficient nutrients and is safe to consume.

All four dimensions are critical towards ensuring food security in a country. However, food utilization is an increasingly important issue for Asia. Safe consumption is especially relevant to countries with a growing middle class. On the other hand, malnutrition is a problem that affects many poorer Asian countries which have limited access to food. There is also the problem of overnutrition, which is more prevalent in the developed regions of the world including some Asian countries.

How are science and technology addressing food security issues?

Science and technology affect all dimensions of food security. In terms of making food more available, the biggest challenge facing the world today is growing more food on less land, with less water and less labor, and under a more unfavorable climate.

Science and technology can also make more food available through reducing losses and wastages along the supply chain. It has been estimated that when food is transported away from the farms where they were produced, the loss can be as much as 30 percent. Another 30 percent of food is subsequently lost through consumer wastage. Scientists continue to find ways to prolong the shelf life and improve the packaging of food, to ensure that more food will reach the hands of people, especially those living in cities.

Biotechnology is an example of new technology which makes crops more resilient to the diseases and pests that cause low yields. Asia is a large importer of corn and soy products from the West, because our corn farms are harmed by diseases and insects that result in poor yields. However, there is one Asian country that grows biotech corn. The Philippines has, over the past decade, transformed itself from a corn importer to a corn exporter, thanks to the use of biotech corn. This is a clear success story.

Biotech crops have been a major success not just in Asia, but across the world. Since its first commercialization in 1996, there are now about 174 million hectares of biotech crops planted annually worldwide. Growing these crops has not only made our access to food more secure, but also benefited poor farmers greatly.

The Four Main Components of Food Security. Credit: Asian Scientist Magazine.
The Four Main Components of Food Security. Credit: Asian Scientist Magazine.

What issues surround the use of biotechnology, and how have they been addressed?

Food safety is one key concern. The public has raised the question of whether biotech crops are as safe as naturally grown crops. In particular, people want to know if the crops are toxic to the human body, if there are allergic reactions to the crop, or whether there are any long term effects to health. However, every biotech crop approved for planting goes through a very rigorous process of inspection by national food safety committees. These committees in turn use protocols and guidelines set by international organizations, including FAO and the World Health Organization.

Another issue is environmental safety, which addresses the question about whether the cultivation of biotech crops is hazardous to the environment. There are fears that pest-resistant crops may kill harmless insects and disrupt the ecological food chain. However, before any permit is granted by food organizations to plant the crop, national biosafety committees evaluate experimental data from crops planted and measurements taken over typically three growth seasons. So far, there is no scientific evidence indicating that the use of biotechnology has affected the environment or any non-target organism populations.

Suffice to say that no country allows the release and sale of any biotech crop and food without having undergone independent, science-based risks assessments conducted by the government.

You were formerly Asia-Pacific vice president at Monsanto. How has that experience shaped your views?

I pursued pure research with the public sector for about two years before joining the private sector. I wanted to understand how they did business. I felt it was an important learning experience that I was lacking as a scientist.

I found that most public sector research is technology-driven, whereas private sector research is market-driven. This creates fundamental differences. Private sector firms typically conduct market research first to determine industrial demands and niche products, and they work backwards. They ask what is needed to create the product before they conduct any scientific research.

In contrast, public sector research has a more laissez-faire attitude. Basic research is funded, and the view is that out of 1,000 projects, maybe one project will see some practical application. This is important for the advancement of knowledge. Sometimes, one discovery can have a major impact on human society. So I think both approaches have a role to play in society.

Thus, one of the biggest challenges is to build public-private partnerships to address common goals. Food security in particular definitely requires public-private partnerships; we wouldn’t be able to address food security issues without them. The public sector may have a strong presence in agriculture, but the most impactful biotechnological R&D comes from the private sector. The private sector is responsible for being a reliable source of many of the inputs to produce food. Fertilizers, for example, cannot be provided by the public sector in a reliable and affordable manner. They are all manufactured by the private sector. The same is true of pesticides.

The Ever-Increasing Global Demand for Food. Credit: Asian Scientist Magazine.
The Ever-Increasing Global Demand for Food. Credit: Asian Scientist Magazine.

What do you think can be done to improve scientific communication in Asia?

I think having more forums to exchange knowledge and information is the key. I work with an NGO called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). ISAAA has done a lot to bridge the public-private sector disconnect in biotechnology. They have a website that is updated regularly, as well as a weekly crop biotechnology e-newsletter that reaches out to both public and private sectors. There is a lot of sharing of experiences and knowledge.

Through sharing, you break down the walls, which will lower levels of distrust. In many less developed countries, there is a lot of distrust between the public sector and the private sector, and the lack of a platform for open communication is partly to blame. Successes of public-private partnerships need to be made known.

The Asian Development Bank is a strong advocate for public-private partnerships. They recognize that there is only so much that the public sector can do, and that the private sector plays an important role in driving technology to create maximum impact. Our experience with agricultural technology has shown that the private sector has a strong advantage in making their products available to farmers and making sure the farmers use their technology.

In general, scientists need to be more involved in communicating their work to the lay public to create improved awareness of science and technology, and also to garner continued support for science in society.

Finally, what are the main obstacles hindering the translation of basic research into practical applications?

One problem is the ignorance of the technology transfer process in the commercialization of pure research. When I traveled to India in the 1990s to give talks on technology transfer, most scientists were not aware of a material transfer agreement (MTA). Today, many more scientists do. Even then, there are scientists who have not been exposed to such concepts.

Most universities have addressed this ignorance by setting up tech transfer offices to help their faculty commercialize research products. The private sector may also provide help, and some of them do. Private companies have donated technologies and shared their intellectual property rights on certain technologies.

Academic researchers tend to do what they do best, which is to focus on a specific area of deep research. But when it comes to doing business, they face much difficulty. There are certainly many more stories of failures than successes in research commercialization.

Although financing is a major challenge, it ultimately depends on the individual scientist if he or she should explore commercialization. There are scientists who are perfectly happy to stay in a lab and not worry about the applications of their research. I used to be like that. But if you want to make a real impact on the real world, then seeing your product go through the innovation process is very rewarding.

When I was working in North America, one of my research discoveries was a forecasting method for a sugar beet disease. I saw it all the way through to get farmers to use it. We developed computer programs as well as surveillance programs to help the farmers, and they are still using it today. This has been one of the most rewarding accomplishments for me as a scientist; to see my research reaching out to its final beneficiaries.

This article was first published in the print version of Asian Scientist Magazine, October 2014.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Nanyang Technological University.

To read more, subscribe to Asian Scientist Magazine in print and receive four issues of Asian Scientist Magazine delivered directly to your mailing address for 12 months, inclusive of taxes and postage.

Alan Aw is a maths enthusiast who likes sharing the fun and beauty of science with others. Besides reading, he enjoys running, badminton, and listening to (and occasionally playing) Bach or Zez Confrey.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist