Enlightening participants on food security and sustainability at the Kuala Lumpur Engineering Science Fair (KLESF) webinar were Faculty of Science (FSc) Department of Agricultural and Food Science Head Dr Ong Mei Kying and FSc academic Dr Tan Ji. The webinar was organised by the Centre for Corporate and Community Development on 21 October 2021 via Zoom.
First to speak was Dr Tan who firstly defined food security as the ability of all people to have social, physical, and economic access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate foods at all times. To meet the increasing demand for food, Dr Tan shared the technologies used to achieve this goal, which included plant tissue culture, composting, fertigation, electroculture, animal nutrition, assisted reproduction, and embryo culture and transfer. As he further explained on molecular and selective breeding, participants learnt that molecular breeding offers reduced selection duration, increased genetic gains per unit of time, increased selection of accuracy, intensity and efficiency, and environmentally insensitive selection.
He also emphasised, “There are still challenges to molecular breeding. The inheritance of traits can vary from simple to complex. We can expect a vast improvement in the selection accuracy and efficiency of complex traits as the genetic information of a species is unravelled. The identification and elucidation of DNA markers take time and resources. However, the progress has sped up with new technologies like Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). This can eventually lead to a substantial improvement in cultivated crops, animals, and other organisms, propelling us towards food security and sustainability.”
Further into the talk, Dr Ong enlightened participants on the roles of food processing and demand; the conventional and current trend of food processing; factors affecting food production and processing; climate-smart food system; and the future food.
“Food processing is important as it reduces agricultural food waste and improves food security; boosts or prolongs food shelf-life; improves food preservation, de-activating spoilage and pathogenic micro-organisms, and increases availability and convenience. Other roles of food processing also include adding or mixing various ingredients, allowing for better taste; personalised nutrition and health; fortification and enrichment; and easing marketing and distribution tasks,” explained Dr Ong.
The oldest methods in food processing made known to the participants were drying, salting, smoking, and fermentation. Meanwhile, the newer methods involved freezing, canning, refrigeration, chemical preservatives, and pH control. At a more modernised level, Dr Ong mentioned that the newest methods used in food processing involved non-thermal processing, pulsed electric field or pulsed light, high-pressure processing, cold plasma technology, membrane technology, and nanotechnology. These methods are energy-efficient, sustainable and more environmentally friendly.
“However, food production and food processing continue to be impacted by the depletion of food resources, climate change, rapid urbanisation, changing demographics, and growing population. Climate change remains a significant factor in food security globally. Climate change has caused shifting seasonal patterns, increasing mean temperature, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing sea level, shifting in pest range and distribution, droughts and flooding, and sunlight variability. The changes impact the food product quality, in aspects of micronutrient content, macronutrient content, as well as food product quantity in aspects of production, accessibility, and cost. Eventually, all these impacts will bring effect on human nutrition, such as causing anaemia, iodine deficiency, protein deficiency, Vitamin A deficiency, reduced child growth, and other nutritional health impacts,” emphasised Dr Ong.
She added, “To address these problems, we need to understand our food system. It was discovered that one-third of the world’s food is thrown away, nearly 1.3 billion tonnes of food wastage or loss yearly, 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses recorded yearly, and one out of seven go to bed hungry. So we need to think of solutions to overcome these problems which lead us to a sustainable circular economy. The circular economy looks into the practice of reusing the resources as many times possible, there extracting its value as much as possible during usage. These methods will also lead to waste recovery.” She later explained that more people should adopt the climate-smart food system, which looks into the application of innovation and smart technology, advocating environmental sustainability and dietary sustainability. She mentioned that consumers are now also looking into supporting food manufacturers who are making green changes, such as edible or biodegradable cutleries, and food-grade polymers.
Speaking of future food, Dr Ong said, “Future food shall be able to meet the increasing global demand for protein sustainability, which leads to the growing interest of consumers towards alternative proteins. Many companies are focusing on alternative protein production, which is cultured meat or also known as lab-grown meat which is produced in the lab through in-vitro/tissue culture technology. This method of producing meat is said to have a lesser impact on the environment. Another alternative protein is plant-based meat. Another novel source of protein is the aquatic photosynthetic organisms that are known to not directly compete with food crops for land and water, and have the advantages of year-round harvesting capability, and have high biomass yields. Another source is the microorganism which can increase the protein content of organic substrates, offering the opportunity to valorise biomass currently treated as waste. Insects are also included as another source of protein. They are found to perform better in food conversion efficiency, have a rapid reproduction rate, and can mitigate the risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases to humans. Another alternative method to produce food is 3D food printing that can create unique novel textured food, healthy foods, and easy-to-swallow foods for the elderly.”
As an ending note, Dr Ong emphasised, “It is important to implement the climate-smart food system. If We need to embrace all these novel technologies in the coming years to ensure better food security and sustainability. However, the challenges are still there and the mission requires concerted effort and multidisciplinary approaches from all parties from food producers, traders, governments, policymakers, and even consumers towards achieving this goal.”