The pandemic has exposed systemic flaws in the supply of nutritious food and it is high time we restructure the system to bring back such food to the table.
OUR FOOD CHAIN FLAWED?
The Covid-19 pandemic did not break the food chain system; instead it has exposed a broken one. In every industry ranging from healthcare to hospitality, individuals and organisations are suffering from the consequences of a global economic structure that is built against the interest of human and planetary health.
Consequently, global interest in the agri-food industry skyrocketed overnight.
As the global food chain comes to a sudden halt, we watch tragic news of fresh produce being left to rot in landfills by the tonnes while the poor continue to struggle with food shortages, being unable to compete with the rest of society for access to nutritious food.
While the Dairy Farmers of America estimates that farmers were dumping 14 million liters of milk every day, and the New York Times reported that one factory was destroying 750,000 unhatched eggs per week, the World Economic Forum predicts that an additional 49 million people might fall into extreme poverty.
In fact, Oxfam International has recently published a report in July 2020 predicting that 121 million more people would be “pushed to the brink of starvation this year”.
With this stark reminder of food insecurity, Asian Property Review talks to Dr Billy Tang Chee Seng, founder of PWD (People With Disabilities) Smart Farmability, an agri-food social enterprise that’s making big waves recently with innovation in the supply of nutritious food.
“Our food chain is poisoned; there is little ethics in the commercial agri food industry because their priority is speeding up the ROI.”
PARAPLEGIC FARMER WITH A VISION
Tang is an agriculturist by profession and a private researcher for over 20 years. In December 2015, he was involved in a car accident that robbed him of his ability to walk.
Today, he is known as Malaysia’s paraplegic farmer.
In November 2019, Tang spoke on urban farming at The Agricultural Transformation and Inclusive Growth, organized by the World Bank Group and Malaysia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs (now Economic Planning Unit), and was then appointed to contribute to the 12th Malaysia Plan, 2021-2025, the first phase execution for Shared Prosperity Vision 2030.
When asked about his views on the current agricultural trends, Tan replied, “Agriculture today is no longer about farming, but about feeding.”
“A country that cannot feed its own people is a country vulnerable to pandemics, economic crises and warfare,” he continues. “What is the point of having the world’s best health care system [Editor: ‘rhetorically’] when our country is the most obese in Southeast Asia, and that more than 70% of our senior citizens die from Non-Communicable Diseases, and that our urban poor children are suffering from malnutrition?”
For him, the answer is simple: Food security must come first, and everything else is secondary. “As a top priority, the government must allocate more land for sustainable agriculture as we only have 8% agricultural land allocated for food crops.”
FOOD SECURITY, WHAT?
Food security, as defined by the United Nations, means that “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life”.
According to the Global Food Security Index in 2019, Malaysia ranked 28th out of 113 participating countries, faring better than our net food-producing neighbours like Thailand and Vietnam.
However, there appears to be other global reports suggesting otherwise. For example, UNICEF reported that a devastating 99.7% of all children living in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur live in relative poverty. Shockingly, these low-cost flats are located in close proximity to a wide range of amenities in Kuala Lumpur; yet, the families are unable to gain access to the available resources.
In the words of Marianne Clark-Hattingh, UNICEF representative in Malaysia, the reality is that “poor children are among us but they often remain unseen. It’s clearly a data blind spot.”
Tang weighs on this inconsistency and responds: “If our country can produce all the food we need, but people still cannot afford to buy it, this scenario is still considered a food security issue.”
In other words, Malaysia has a food security issue.
“I want Malaysians to realise that currently, nutritious food is still inaccessible to the marginalized groups, for example, fresh organic vegetables are sold at premium prices in high-end supermarkets while the poor are left to either forage through leftovers in the wet market, or receive donations of food from questionable sources,” Tang reveals.
“If we continue to feed the poor with innutritious or unhealthy food, they will be the ones falling sick and taking up the sick beds in our hospitals. They will be the ones most vulnerable to diseases, and they are the most at risk when a second pandemic hits – especially now that the Coronavirus has mutated with a new strain that is [Editor: ‘allegedly’] 10 times more infectious.”
“Malaysia is exporting all our Grade A and Grade B crops to other countries, while our own people are purchasing Grade C produce and below.”
THE HARSH REALITY
The harsh truth is that public donations are temporary solutions that only provide short-term relief on a surface level.
Quite clearly, strong political will must exist in order to tackle the underlying problems in our food production systems before Malaysia sees any change for the better in the near future, Tang notes.
“Our food chain is poisoned,” he declares, “there is little ethics in the commercial agri-food industry because their priority is speeding up the Return on Investment (ROI), at the expense of the health of the people who consume their produce.”
“One must understand that commercial farmers care very much about their input costs. It is standard practice to source for the most cost-effective pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Moreover, commercial farmers would not add trace minerals to boost the nutrient composition of your vegetables because they are expensive.”
According to a paper in 2004 published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, mineral fertilisers like urea, ammonium sulphate, calcium ammonium nitrate, potassium chloride, and other compound fertilizers – account for over 90% of fertilisers used by all types of farming systems in Malaysia.
While some of these products are naturally-occurring minerals, the reality is that it makes more economic sense to mass produce them synthetically in a factory, considering Malaysia utilizes 1.7 tonnes of fertilizer per hectare.
Despite all that effort, only 8% of Malaysia’s agricultural land is dedicated to producing food crops, according to the Research For Social Advancement (REFSA).
“Even so,” Tang adds, “Malaysia is exporting all our Grade A and Grade B crops to other countries, while our own people are purchasing Grade C produce and below. As our ringgit shrinks, we are no longer able to purchase good quality food for our own people. And we have not even touched on the topic of antibiotics used in animal farming.”
“If our farmers don’t even eat their own produce, what then, are we actually putting inside our bodies?”
“Soil health is the one and only answer to restoring our biodiversity and planetary health.”
The modern man’s conventional way of commercial farming is unsustainable – and this has become a widely known fact verified by scholars and institutions around the world.
With such issues – food and nutrition insecurity, poverty, food wastage, and unsustainable practices in agriculture, what are the possible long-term solutions?
“Soil health is the one and only answer to restoring our biodiversity and planetary health,” explains Tang as he unveils his innovation – the world’s first Organic Vegetable Terrarium.
Inside this enclosed self-watering terrarium, the vegetables regenerate after each harvest for at least 3 months without the need for any more input – a mind-blowing concept for all of us who grew up with the belief that fertilisers are essential in farming and gardening.
“The forest needs no fertilisers, and yet the trees grow to enormous sizes,” he adds, speaking from his extensive biotech experience in oil palm agriculture. “When people talk about biodiversity, they fail to consider one of the most important players in the ecosystem; the microbes of the soil. When industrial players dump synthetic fertilisers into agriculture soil, this upsets the micro-ecosystem and the balance of the soil.”
SOIL VS SOIL-LESS FARMING
Are hydroponics and aquaponics sustainable solutions to addressing food insecurity and climate change?
“When you deal with hydroponics and aquaponics, you are dealing with biological warfare,” Tang says, pointing towards his greenhouse outside the house. “Having dealt with both soil and soil-less farming techniques, I must say that the policy on soilless agriculture in Malaysia is still very loose.”
“Moreover, there are certain microbial activities in the soil that cannot be mimicked in the water,” he adds. “Industry players and policy makers must also understand that the soil has a unique property to store carbon from our atmosphere. In fact, restoring soil carbon is one of the most effective methods of combating climate change.”
“Everything we know about the linear supply-and-demand economics no longer applies in a post-Covid 19 era,” notes Tang. “Moving forward, nations are pivoting towards a circular model of economics that is inclusive of a social and environmental element, fulfilling the UNSDG17.”
UNSDG17 stands for United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 17 – which covers global challenges related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.
“Food literacy, environmental awareness, and empathy begin at home,” Tang points out. “We are collaborating with several prominent agriculture organisations from the Philippines – AGREA founded by Cherrie Atilano, United Nations’ ambassador in the Philippines for the Scaling Up Nutrition movement; Kids Who Farm founded by 9-year-old Raina and her father; Muneer Hinay who is a project manager in WWF; and a 100-year-old academic institution – Central Luzon State University; to bring their successful models of sustainable farming education over to Malaysia.”
“As agriculture is not a plug-and-play subject that can be learned overnight, we must inculcate the interest in growing food at a very young age. This gives Malaysia a brighter hope that we can give birth to more agricultural engineers that care about environmental health as much as human health.”
In regards to switching from a linear to circular economy, nations are witnessing a paradigm shift as more and more global corporations are beginning to see the value in giving back to society and the environment. Last year in 2019, KPMG India reported an “increase in the number of companies going beyond the 2 per cent mandate” to spend on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
“CSR must go way beyond pure monetary donations, and instead focus on Creating Shared Value (CSV),” Tang explains. “By shifting the focus away from pure profit-making, we can see an inclusive society that gives the marginalized groups a chance to integrate back into society. For example, in urban farming, there is a largely untapped potential of hiring people with disabilities via a social entrepreneurship model.”
Today, Tang runs an adoption program with his world’s first Organic Vegetable Terrarium that empowers the marginalised and indigent groups with nutritious food and meaningful jobs.
“For every 100 terrariums adopted, we are able to employ one person with disabilities,” Tang declares.
ORGANIC VEGETABLE TERRARIUM
Imagine being able to enjoy organic vegetables, planted in an enclosed terrarium that is designed to self-sustain with minimal watering in nutrient-dense soil, protected from pests and diseases. All one needs to do is to place the box by the window, or any area of the house that receives sunlight.
The terrarium is essentially a mini greenhouse that allows people of all economic backgrounds to access fresh, nutritious, organic, live, and unrefrigerated vegetables in the comfort of one’s home without any farming or gardening knowledge.
Dr. Billy Tang’s innovation has won the Rotary Club International’s Best Vocational Service Project, was shortlisted as a national finalist for the Climate Launchpad 2020 organised by the European Union, endorsed by Dato’ Dr. Nazlee Kamal – former CEO of Biotech Corp, and commended by Dato’ Yatimah Sarjiman, Director of Agriculture Sector from the Economic Planning Unit.
Currently, the available varieties in the terrarium are Brazilian Spinach, Red Watercress, and Sayur Manis. Tang aims to scale up to as many as six varieties by the end of August. To date, more than 600 terrariums have been adopted for the purpose of empowering the poor communities with regenerative, nutritious food.
Tang’s PWD Smart Farmability has also initiated another program called “Adopt A Fish” whereby the public can adopt a giant organic red tilapia weighing up to 2kg, at only RM35 per head, which can feed a poor family of eight.