- Cristina Sison
Transforming the food system for better nutrition with agriculture leaders of tomorrow
A conversation with the youth during the "Pista ng Pagkain at Kabataang Pinoy (Pistang PagKaPinoy)" at SEARCA on October 23, 2021
Transforming the food system is not only a hot topic, but an important discussion to have with young people today because it will impact tomorrow’s food supply, food choices and diet, and the overall health and nutrition of the future generations to come. At present, the world is feeling the effects of calamities on the food system exacerbated by the pandemic. This has greatly affected food accessibility and availability, and diet quality, especially of vulnerable groups such as young children, and young adults. It is expected that malnutrition problem of the country will be difficult to rehabilitate, or even worsen. If we cannot nourish our youth today, their ability to become productive citizens of tomorrow may be greatly reduced, thus, affecting the overall progress of a nation that is already in dire need of economic recovery.
What is the food system?
When we think about our food, do we really think of it is part of a system? How far back do we think about its origins, how it was produced, how it was prepared, up to the time it is consumed? Perhaps we think as far back as the kitchen, or maybe the market? From farm to table, do we really think about what happens between the farm and the table? The food system is a simple concept with very complex components! Basically, it is a system of where, what, who, and how we (the people) are nourished. Experts define is as “a food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the output of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes” (HLPE, 2014a).
A simple way of thinking is that agriculture is the food system. But that is just one part of the very complex food system that having to explain each component and how they are connected to each other would be like describing the whole universe! To simplify things, below is a picture depicting the basic components and pathways of the food system. But if you would like to explore more about the food system, see what the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) have to say.
No matter how you look at the Food System, simplified or not, the youth like everyone else has a role to play in transforming it into a sustainable, resilient, equitable, and nutrition sensitive system.
What is the current status of our food system?
When we talk about transforming something, it usually implies that change is needed to make improvements. Before we talk about these changes, let’s try to understand why these transformations are necessary by looking at the current status of our food system.
Perhaps (or more like definitely) our food system is not doing so well because many are experiencing hunger, especially during this time of pandemic and even during calamities and other crises. We would not have so many malnourished children who are not reaching their full development potential, either because they were underweight, wasted, and stunted, and are most likely to be sickly. Before the pandemic, the prevalence of stunting (low height for age) among children under 5 years old in the Philippines was already at 33%, which is high compared to other ASEAN countries such as Thailand (11%), and South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka (17%). The prevalence of stunting in the Philippines is similar to low income (poorer) countries such as Lao and Bangladesh and some countries in Africa (Ulep, 2019)( (Mbuya, Demombynes, Piza, & Adona, 2021). In 2020, when the pandemic started, more families and households had difficulty accessing food because many were losing their jobs or were unable to work (FNRI, 2020). The inability of families and households to access food, even if available, has led to food insecurity. Prolonged food insecurity, which has been one of the scariest impacts of this pandemic because it could lead to more malnourished children and young adults.
If our food system was resilient enough, many of us would not have to rely on community pantries and ayudas! Our food system should not only be resilient during times of crises, it should also be equitable. EVERYONE SHOULD BE ABLE TO EAT A NUTRITIOUS DIET AT ALL TIMES! Our food system should be able to allow us to sustain a nutritious diet even during times of crises.
Before the pandemic, our food system had shifted away from our traditional foods. These traditional foods are important to us (see presentation of Amy Besa and Rodmyr Datoon). We all went went to Jollibee, Chowking, McDonalds, because it was cheaper than cooking up a dish of vegetables. And it was also tastier and convenient. Just do a drive-thru, and voila! Instant meal for cheap!
In 2000, there were 2000 national and multinational fast food chains operating in the Philippines with 60 million regular patrons. At that time, the total population of the Philippines was 75.33 million (PSA, 2000). In 2018, around 46% of Filipinos consumed fastfood one to three times a week (Statistica, 2021). While fastfood chains were affected by the Enhanced Community Quarantine when the pandemic started in 2020, they continue to thrive from online food orders and delivery.
When we were not so constrained by the pandemic, many of us preferred to eat out, more for convenience and to explore “other foods.” Did you know that in 2014, less Filipinos were buying fresh food from the supermarket compared to 2012? And one of the reasons for this was they were cooking less and eating out or preferred more convenience food . From a monthly spending of P5,400 in 2012, Filipino shoppers only spent P4,700 on average in 2014 (Gavilan, 2014). This trend may have continued if not for the pandemic.
Eating out isn’t so bad, but with the restaurants offering bigger serving and buffet type food service, we were eating more in terms of quantity, and not necessarily for better quality, that had the potential to make us bigger! But not necessarily healthier!
Back then, the food service, processing, and convenience played a big role in our food system. Restaurants and convenience stores became a major source for food purchasing. Mainly because there was a big demand for them. Our food choices were very much influenced by convenience, flavor, and of course price of food, and not so much about nutrition. And that became a common profile of our eating habits.
But then the unexpected happened!! We were all forced to stay home, restaurants closed, public transportation was halted and going to a restaurant or a convenience store was almost impossible. The places we relied on for food became inaccessible or were even forced to close because the demand for them almost diminished because everyone had to stay home.
Why do we need to transform the food system?
There were many events when the pandemic started caused a huge disruption to our food system.
Did you hear about the farmers who had to throw away tons of tomato harvest because they couldn’t reach the markets (Soriano, 2020)?
How did you feel when your orders from Lazada or Shopee could not be delivered on time or could not be delivered at all!?! Well, a bigger problem than that was food such as rice imported from our ASEAN neighbors were also stuck at the port or could not be delivered to their distributors. Even worse, some countries stopped exporting because they were anticipating food shortage so they decided to keep their stock. This was a huge problem for countries like Singapore which rely on food imports, even the Philippines relies on rice imports to be able to feed all 109 million Filipinos who rely on rice for their energy intake (Briones, 2017).
The pandemic is not the only event that has brought about disruptions to our food system. Extreme weather, such as super typhoons, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and even armed conflicts like what happened in Marawi a few years back can bring about different levels of disruptions to the food system, making many households become less food secure. But the extended version of the pandemic has exacerbated disruptions from all other events put together!
Because there has also been much destruction to our environment, and we do not know until when we will be confined to our homes by this pandemic, we need to transform our food system into a more sustainable, resilient, equitable, and nutrition sensitive system than ever before (United Nations, 2021). This means caring for our environment to make it more productive with healthy soil, cleaner air, and valuing it as if our life depends on it, BECAUSE IT DOES! Alongside caring for the environment, we need to more mindful of the what, the how, the where, the who of our food production, distribution, and consumption. All these comprise our food system. Make good food choices that’s good for the environment and good for your health. These healthy food choices can help transform our food system because you demand for nutritious and healthy options.
That is the challenge of the youth today, because they will be the experts, the professionals, and the caretakers of the our future food system. Even more important, they will have to deal with the impacts of today’s disruptions, and destruction tomorrow!
Where does the youth fit in in the food system?
You, the youth, may think you do not have a role to play, but if you really think about it, you may be the most important actors in the food system. For one, you comprise the majority of the population. In 2020, age group from 24 yrs and below comprised half of the population of 109 million, and that is a big chunk of the population that can have influence on our food system (PSA, 2021).
Your parents, grandparents, and myself, have already made our choices, and those choices probably formed the food system we have today, which did not do well during this crises. And that has impacted you as well. Our population is relatively young, and they have the chance AND THE RESPONSIBILITY to make themselves better nourished and healthy by demanding for more fruits and vegetables that are readily available, affordable, and safe to eat. Transform the food system by demanding for a healthy and nutritious food!
Ideally, our plate should look like this:
But many of us may not be able to eat all that’s in Pinggang Pinoy.
You can demand to have such a diet but there are many challenges that come with it, like affordability. Did you know that a nutritious diet can cost as much as Php 206 (WFP, FNRI-DOST, 2019)? That’s just for one person. Imagine how much a nutritious diet would cost for a family of five, with a daily wage of only Php 400 per day ? We can mitigate the problem of affordability and even accessibility, if we become our own food producers by getting involved in community vegetable garden, school gardens even if we are on remote learning. We SHOULD revive the school gardens with our parents and teachers, because in the midst of this pandemic, we now know it is safe being outdoors. If outdoor dining is allowed, then planting vegetables in school gardens should be allowed too! Or, be farmers in our own backyard. These are not “new” innovations but have been done, although not always successfully, even before we started talking about transforming the food system, and the pandemic. But we need to make use of them more than ever! If done successfully, not only are we making healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables more available and accessible, perhaps it can be an opportunity for agripreneurship such as the case of Banana Chief of Villa Soccoro Farms (see presentation of Banana Chief).
Remember all the plastic containers you acquired from your food take out and food delivery? USE THEM for your container gardening, that would be your way of saving the environment from another plastic dump (See presentation of Ms. Melody Rijk of WWF)!
As you become vegetable or fruit plantitos and planitas, you become good caretakers of the environment and the food system. And when we have good caretakers of the environment, everything else falls into place, food security, good nutrition, and good health.
What does the future food system look like?
I do not know what the future holds but one thing for sure, the you(th) can aspire to have better nutrition with better food system. You, as future generation will have the responsibility of being caretakers of the environment and the food system.
Good nutrition is not just about being able to consume a “Pinggang Pinoy” diet, but it is about having a healthy environment to produce what goes on THAT plate. The food system belongs to that environment, along with the many actors like you who not only benefit most from the system, but would have the most influence in shaping the system into a more sustainable, resilient, equitable, and nutrition focused food system.
Look forward with a vision of:
· Greener environment
· Productive farmers
· Cheaper and more available fruits and vegetables
· Healthy consumers
· Food secure population
Be aware and be involved today, because the future is in your hands!
Barba, C. V. (2018, October). Overview of the nutrition in the Philippines. (C. Sison, Interviewer)
Briones, R. (2017). Food (In)security and the Price of Rice Self Sufficiency. (A. C. Vicente P.
Paqueo, Ed.) Quezon City: Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
FNRI. (2020). Rapid Nutrition Assessment Survey on Food Security, Coping Mechanisms, and Nutriton Services Availed During Covid19 Pandemic in Selected Areas in the Philippines. Taguig, Metro Manila: Food Nutrition Research Institute, Department of Science and Technology.
Mbuya, N. V., Demombynes, G., Piza, S. A., & Adona, A. V. (2021). Undernutrition in the Philippines: Scale, Scope, and Opportunities for Policy and Programming. Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development /The World Bank.
PSA. (2000). Retrieved from https://psa.gov.ph/content/2000-census-population-and-housing-highlights-preliminary-result
Soriano, M. (2020, March 25). Cordillera farmers throw away veggies due to lack of buyers amid COVID-19 quarantine. ABS CBN News. Retrieved from https://news.abs-cbn.com/business/03/25/20/cordillera-farmers-throw-away-veggies-due-to-lack-of-buyers-amid-covid-19-quarantine
Statistica. (2021). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/921367/philippines-average-fast-food-consumption-per-week/
Ulep, V. G. (2019, October). Little Children: The stunting crisis in the Philippines (Benchmarking exercise). Presented at the Multisectoral Action to Prevent Stunting (MAPS) Forum. Manila, Philippines.
United Nations. (2021). Food Systmes Summit 2021: Synthesis of Independent Dialogues. United Nations.
WFP, FNRI-DOST. (2019). Fill the Nutrient Gap. WFP.