Asian Scientist Magazine (Oct. 19, 2022) – Amid rising sea levels and extreme heatwaves, 2015 marked a momentous year as members of the United Nations signed the Paris Agreement. With this commitment, the international community looked to cut down on carbon emissions and limit global warming to just two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Our everyday experience of a two-degree temperature difference may seem negligible, but the planetary scale is much different. Even limiting the increase to just 1.5 degrees could mean 61 million less people exposed to severe drought and up to 270 million saved from water scarcity problems. By threatening livelihoods in the agriculture and fisheries industries, these impacts can also extend to economic issues and—significantly—food insecurity.
The food sector has deep ties to the climate action agenda, highlighting the need for more sustainable food sourcing, production and distribution systems. In fact, a sustainable food system has the power to both mitigate climate change and support lasting food security. Transforming and improving these systems can begin with better understanding how our communities consume food and the impacts of such choices.
From consumption to climate
Acres of neatly defined paddy fields interspersed with homesteads surrounded by fruit trees and well-nourished livestock paint an idyllic picture of the sector that fundamentally sustains our communities. However, in addition to feeding the masses, the food and agriculture industry also contributes to about 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Among other sources, cattle produce methane gas through their digestive processes while nitrous oxide is released from applying fertilizers and manure.
With billions of mouths to feed all over the world, different sectors are coming together to figure out how to grow food without aggravating greenhouse gas emissions. Unsurprisingly, food systems became a key point of discussion at COP26, leading to a global action agenda on Transforming Agricultural Innovation. The strategy focuses on investing in agricultural research and innovation to meet the demands for food in a way that builds low-emission and climate-resilient systems.
The matter was also addressed at the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021, where member states came together to realign the goals for their food environments and push for more sustainable production, consumption and resilience—particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in devising these solutions, standards are also needed to identify what works, as world leaders and stakeholders will have to arrive at a clear-cut consensus of what sustainability entails for our food systems. To that end, research conducted by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT on food consumption patterns in northern Vietnam may provide insights.
Overall, the effort focused on the food environment, which encompasses food availability, affordability, accessibility and acceptability. By identifying diets and nutrition status, consumer behavior and the flow of the food supply chain, researchers aimed to paint a clearer picture of the food environment in each community.
Local produce is a staple in the rural district of Moc Chau, situated on a plateau that features ideal farming conditions including fertile soil on flat terrain and a cool climate. But various factors such as economic background may hinder their uptake of more healthful and sustainable food production. For example, while the study states that everyone in the community is able to afford rice and vegetables, as much as 65.4 percent of locals consider meat to be too expensive to purchase regularly.
One of the barriers to food access lies in the considerable distance that separates consumer households from traditional markets. With ethnic minority groups making up more than half of the district’s population, they are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the agricultural stress and food insecurity that may come with it.
Meanwhile, food systems and technological innovations intertwine in Dong Anh, with the local government launching an Agricultural Restructuring Plan while simultaneously pushing for Smart City investment. Although the accessibility of convenience stores has contributed to rising consumption of unhealthy food like chips and soda, about 40 percent of the food consumed in this peri-urban district is locally produced.
That is thanks in part to Dong Anh’s favorable location in the Red River Delta, where fertile soil flanks a rushing river to provide irrigation and support agricultural activities. The large land also proves beneficial with specialized sections dedicated to different commodities and types of produce.
With the introduction of various agricultural technologies, smart farming practices are helping raise production efficiency and food supply. On the distribution and mobility end, the district has also enhanced its transport infrastructure, now equipped with a traceability system to promote integrity along the food supply chain.
By integrating innovations into food systems, community-wide production and consumption patterns can be steered towards high-value yet sustainable food processes.
Finding the right balance
Aside from technological innovation, consumers in the studied rural, peri-urban and urban districts indicated a high preference for healthful and safe food products—possibly representing a critical stepping stone in the sustainability roadmap.
While health emerged as a top priority for these communities, the dietary patterns told a different story. The communities of urban Cau Giay and Dong Anh still consumed a high amount of meat, while many families in Moc Chau were not meeting nutritional requirements consistently.
To address these challenges, attention to food safety, improvement of transport systems and investment in infrastructure can create a ripple effect toward achieving climate resilience and enhancing human health in tandem. Consuming safe food is part and parcel of maintaining one’s health, making infrastructure developments like traceability systems a potentially effective solution not just for environmental sustainability but also human well-being.
On top of reducing barriers to access like geographic distance and cost, initiatives like educational campaigns on nutrition are also needed to promote better health and sustainability. Fostering a deeper understanding of the links between food, people and planet is especially important when the demand from consumers drives the value chain—affecting stakeholder decisions, investment of resources and action plans.
Case in point: Moc Chau’s district government increased investment in developing high-value crops amid rising demand from urban markets. Over in Dong Anh, agriculture is a familial affair—with many households involved in the food production business. Continued investment and support for these smallholder farmers has been the backbone of the district’s food supply and economic opportunity, and closely mirrors the successes of other Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia and Cambodia. Such strong engagement with smallholder producers has shown great potential for food growth, playing a part in improving sustainability while meeting nutritional needs of local communities.
By encouraging responsible food production, a sustainable food supply chain can improve access to healthy food for those who need it most and establish a more reliable and resilient system—ultimately making a difference for human and planetary health.
What we eat today can transform the planet’s fate tomorrow. By altering dietary patterns and supporting sustainable food practices, anyone can play a part in creating a food system that can feed all while reducing our environmental impact.
Images: Alliance Bioversity-CIAT
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.