Food for thought

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A right mix of policies and practices is needed to secure food supply and balance the diet

FOOD was very much on the mind of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak at the Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC) inter-sessional meeting on Thursday with good reason. As Malaysia's dependence on imports for virtually every staple from beef to rice makes the country vulnerable to price volatility -- such as the one in 2008 when the rice price shot up and the stockpile had to be released and price controls imposed to stabilise supply and prices, food security has always ranked as one of his administration's top priorities. Then there is the "alarming trend" of the sharp rise in obesity, hypertension and diabetes.

So, though there is no impending food crisis, there is certainly an urgent need to secure food supply and balance the diet to secure the health of the population. As arable land is limited, the key to boosting food production clearly lies in increasing productivity through innovation and biotechnology. But we don't have to reinvent the wheel to come up with "cutting-edge solutions and practical solutions". As the prime minister pointed out, the relevant expertise and ideas to increase productivity are already being developed in other parts of the world, "in the minds of some of the great thinkers that we have assembled" in the GSIAC. Earlier this year at the Manhattan meeting, Dutch agricultural scientist Aalt A. Dijkhuizen detailed ways on how food production could be doubled by 2050 through research on breeds of rice that produce more but use less water, fertilisers and insecticides, a more sophisticated system of forecasting prices and high-tech assisted "precision farming". Later next month, Malaysian scientists will hold a dialogue with world experts in food security, including those from the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, on how to secure the supply of rice.

The country will also work with New York's Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science to tackle the source of the killer diseases -- the eating of food high in calories and fats and low in nutritional value. Though obesity is certainly a problem of the abundance of food, not its scarcity, nevertheless, the issues of food security and nutrition are not mutually exclusive but interconnected. As the Academy of Sciences Malaysia stated, "food security is not just about producing enough rice; it covers the need for adequate sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, and dietary fibre to ensure a healthy and balanced diet". What is clear is that the working collaboration between local experts and international researchers through the GSIAC will help us to meld together the right mix of policies and practices.


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