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Food as a Wicked Problem

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Food is an existential need equal to air and water for humans. The United Nations, governments and households struggle to ensure there is enough to avoid social tensions and impacts on health. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations considers food security to be a situation that “exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” What this means is that food insecurity can come about if: there is an inadequate supply of available food, there is inability to get food from the producer to the consumer, food becomes unaffordable due to price spikes or people’s loss of income, or food loses its nutritive value or becomes unsafe. All these have become more evident and have affected more people in recent times.

 

In the past, experts have considered food security to be a complex phenomenon, and have sought solutions by addressing it at different time and space scales. But in reality it is more than a complex phenomenon; it is a wicked problem that is growing in intensity as the world moves towards 2050.

 

A CONUNDRUM EMBEDDED WITH DILEMMAS

A wicked problem is one commonly difficult to solve because of its complex nature with many inter-connections. Wicked problems lack clarity in both their aims and solutions, and are subject to real-world constraints which hinder risk-free attempts to find a solution. There is also general agreement that a wicked problem does not have a definitive formulation, and does not have a clear indication as to when it is really solved.

But it is not food security we should be concerned with; rather it is food insecurity... In Southeast Asia, the FAO estimates about one in ten people going to bed hungry every night.

Governments face dilemmas of rewarding farmers with higher farm prices for their produce while concurrently keeping consumers (especially urbanites) happy with low food prices. Globally, a handful of countries, because of technology, geography and natural resource endowment, produce most of the surplus food that is traded or given as aid to the majority of countries which are food-deficit. Asia and the Middle East, for example, are food-deficit regions which depend on large imports of food and feed. Then there is the nutrition-health dilemma of balancing the exponential demand for animal protein and processed food with the increased incidence of non-communicable diseases like hypertension and diabetes. Resolving some of these dilemmas is central to tackling some of the ‘wickedness’ in the wicked problem.

Milk going down the drain

Tens of millions of pounds of fresh food is being destroyed on US farms after the demand from buyers like restaurants, hotels and schools collapsed as a result of closure during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 2.7 million and 3.7 million gallons of US milk could be dumped per day as a result of the crisis, the Dairy Farmers of America, a major dairy co-operative, estimated. Meanwhile, millions of newly jobless Americans struggle to feed their families and food banks scramble to meet a massive surge in demand. Photo: Andrew Lloyd / Alamy Stock

THE EXISTENT REALITY

The recent effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed how interlinked are the issues around assuring food security, whether at the national level or household level. Food security exists at the nexus of water, energy, labour, nutrition and health, and political stability. One or more of these is in turn influenced through cause or effect relationships with macro-level problems facing the world, such as climate change, human migration and military conflicts. Addressing one part of the nexus is unlikely to solve the problem.

 

But it is not food security we should be concerned with; rather it is food insecurity. And food insecurity is a nested mix of complex problems, the solution to which requires a simultaneous mix of relevant action. It is wicked because the complexity and nexus phenomenon makes solutions difficult.

 

The FAO, in its latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report showed, quite glaringly, the reversal in the progress made in the past decades to reduce the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Shockingly, in 2019 there was a marked increase, and 2020 is anticipated to be the same due to the pandemic. In Southeast Asia, the FAO estimates about one in ten people going to bed hungry every night.

 

Even scoping out the level of food insecurity which exists in a country is difficult. For example, Singapore as a nation has been considered for many years by the Economist Intelligence Unit as among the most food secure countries in the world, by virtue of its ability to source food from over 170 countries, and the relatively high GDP per capita of its households. The average Singapore household spends less than 10% of its income on food; this is about a quarter to a third of what the situation is in many other ASEAN countries. Yet even in the best year, there are an estimated one hundred thousand households which are food insecure because they cannot afford the desirable diet recommended by its own health authorities, and who are helped by many voluntary welfare 0rganisations and food banks. Ensuring supermarkets are fully stocked does not mean that all households have enough food or get a balanced diet which provides all the nutrition for health.

The largest foodgrain stock in the world

India was home to the largest number of undernourished people in the world even before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, the prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity in India rose by about 6.8% in 2018-20. The irony is that the country has the largest stock of grain in the world – 120 million tonnes as of 1 July 2021 – and yet accounts for a quarter of the world’s food-insecure population. Photo: Altaf Qadri / AP Photo

INCREASED FOOD SECURITY RISKS IN ASIA AND THE PACIFIC AMID THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

Source: https://aric.adb.org/infographics/covid-19-pandemic-has-increased-food-security-risks-in-asia-and-the-pacific

 

The so-called “economic access” to food is a key part of addressing food insecurity and is seriously threatened when price spikes occur as a result of production and supply disruptions. Globally, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have both estimated that a 1% increase in food prices leads to a 0.2% increase in infant and child mortality, and a 0.4% increase in under-nourishment. Generally, a 1% increase in food prices leads to potentially another 10 million people worldwide going hungry! During the 2007-08 food crisis, the poor, who could barely make ends meet even under normal prices, were the worst affected. The World Bank estimated that the increase in the price of rice then made it less affordable, with 100-200 million people falling below the poverty line, and 63 million more people becoming undernourished.

The World Food Programme (WFP), for example, has used surrogates to plan action for addressing the symptoms of food insecurity, such as severe malnutrition and stunting among young children. The ADB has estimated that over 40% of children in several Asian and Pacific countries are stunted from under-nutrition. The WFP has published detailed maps of the prevalence of child stunting in countries like Indonesia, and used these as guidance to prioritise interventions like feeding programmes. The pandemic has disrupted food supply chains in toto, from the delivery of the inputs required to grow food, to the activities to grow and harvest food, the transport links between farmers, processors and consumers, and to food purchase by those who can afford it. Much of these have been linked to the movement control measures put in place by governments to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Inevitably, people have lost employment and become poorer, and in the process lack the capability to purchase the food mix they require to ensure proper nutrition. The two ends of the demographic picture have suffered most – the young and the old – and with different effects. But adequate nutrition is only a proxy for health, and prolonged malnutrition is known to seriously impair bodily functions that affect cognition and can even predispose diseases.

Biofortified maize to improve nutrition

Guatemala has the sixth highest level of chronic malnutrition in the world, with 46% of children suffering from stunting. The main reason is that traditional maize, a staple of the Guatemalan diet, does not provide enough nutrients. Introduced to the farmers by Semilla Nueva, a Guatemalan social enterprise, the new biofortified maize seed provides more zinc, iron and quality protein than traditional maize varieties while increasing yields – both of which can help reduce the country’s high rates of malnutrition. Source: Facebook @Semillanueva

HEALTH AS THE ULTIMATE RAISON D’ÉTAT FOR HAVING ENOUGH FOOD

Human diets have been changing fast in the recent past due to both positive and negative drivers. Positive drivers include rising urban incomes, and food trade which offers greater diversity of food from all over the world. Negative drivers are poverty leading to unbalanced nutrition like a disproportionate amount of carbohydrates and insufficient vegetables and fruits, and availability of low-cost convenient, processed food. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a Washington DC think tank, has warned about the ‘Triple Burden” of malnutrition hitting society with a mix of over-nutrition, under-nutrition and deficit of minerals. While food was a tool after the Second World War to reduce famine, today it is viewed as a tool for health.

 

The effect of human diets on health in societies was highlighted in a seminal report, the Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission, published in 2019. This high level Commission in its report warned of the need to modify food consumption for the sake of a sustainable Earth, in which natural resources were properly managed to ensure enough healthy food without damaging the environment. The report strongly urged a move towards a more vegetable-based diet, especially in the developed economies of the world, which would not only contribute to improved health but also reduce the negative environmental impact of food production, such as its contribution to climate change and land degradation. The report recommended that foods such as red meat and sugar need to be reduced by 50%, while the consumption of vegetables, fruits and legumes needs to be doubled by 2050 if we are to have environmental and human health. It concluded that food is the single strongest level to optimise human health and environmental sustainability. Yet the question remains as to how societies and governments can work towards a stronger plant-based diet.

 

Additionally, changing demographics worldwide, in which many countries are starting to show overall declines in population growth accompanied by increased ageing, have become matters of concern to the problems of “Who is going to grow food?” and “What mix of food is needed?”.

Unless there are equal benefits from farming to small farmers versus large corporate farms, and unless technology transfer is equitable regardless of farm size, it is difficult to imagine how food production systems in Asia-Africa can be sustained.

THE CLIMATE CHANGE VERSUS SUSTAINABILITY CONUNDRUM

Climate change is known to affect food production, and food production itself contributes to at least a third of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Efforts to keep temperature increase to 1.5°C are expected at best to give mixed results from climate mitigation action. With the world population anticipated to reach about 10 billion by 2050 accompanied by increased demand for food and water, reduced capacity to grow food because of declining land and freshwater resources, and with declining (ageing) farmers, discourse on sustainability imperatives needs to be ramped up. Yet today we see little evidence that countries, whether regionally or globally, have the will to come together to formulate concrete and meaningful action. In fact, as a lead up to the global climate change summit called COP26 in Glasgow, climate activist Greta Thunberg was quoted as saying that much of the discourse amounts to “hypocrisy” where action does not match intentions. I have also warned about the ‘greenwashing’ phenomenon to establish corporate credentials in sustainability, especially under the umbrella of abeyance with the “ESG” (Environment, Social, Governance) rubrics. Ultimately, corporations need to show that sustainability is fully embedded in company culture and not just in its operations.

 

With respect to farming, sustainable agriculture took off in the 1980s using a set of rubrics based on “EES” (Environment, Economics and Social Equity) with non-government entities such as the International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. The distinction between “ESG” and “EES” is particularly relevant to the Asian-African regions, where most of the world’s smallholder farmers are located, who produce, by FAO estimates, 60% of the world’s food. Social equity is an important part of the sustainability conundrum when applied to food production, because unless there are equal benefits from farming to small farmers versus large corporate farms, and unless technology transfer is equitable regardless of farm size, it is difficult to imagine how food production systems in Asia-Africa can be sustained. If they are not, then there is potential for a cascading effect onto food availability, nutrition and health. So the climate change concern, linked to food security, ultimately affects all of us with respect to living healthy lives.

Primary school programme on food waste

OzHarvest, a food-rescue organisation in Australia, has designed the Food Education and Sustainability Training (FEAST) programme and has been training teachers to implement programmes to educate primary school children about sustainability, food waste and nutrition, using hands-on cooking activities and inquiry-based learning. Source: OzHarvest

By unpacking a big wicked problem into its components, and targeting cooperative efforts to solve these component issues, the solution of multiple component problems will precipitate a recognisable solution of the whole problem.

HOW CAN FOOD BE MADE A LESS WICKED PROBLEM?

Many of the problems embedded within the larger food-nutrition-health problematique require inter-disciplinary, inter-country, regional or even global cooperation. Climate change, for example, recognises no national boundaries. Human migration, a huge 21st-century problem, has no simple nationally-bound solutions. Greenhouse gases from large emitters affect more than the source countries.

 

Can a wicked problem be unpacked into parts which can be addressed, and consequently contribute to some part of the overall solution? Pragmatically, this may be the only approach. Although the whole is more than the sum of its parts, food systems need to be considered in their entirety, comprising “the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food products that originate from agriculture, forestry or fisheries, and parts of the broader economic, societal and natural environments in which they are embedded”.1 So, applying the old adage that “charity starts at home”, the hope for humankind may be that, by unpacking a big wicked problem into its components, and targeting cooperative efforts to solve these component issues, the solution of multiple component problems will precipitate a recognisable solution of the whole problem.

 

Some suggestions of targeted action aimed at components of the wicked food problem are:

Urban farming

Singapore is aiming to produce 30% of its own food by 2030, a number that is currently closer to 10%. To achieve this, emphasis has been put on citizens to help grow what they can. Growing food in urban farms on carpark rooftops, reused outdoor spaces and retrofitted building interiors is also key to the ‘30 by 30’ goal. Source: City Sprouts

There is a general agreement that more must be done to meet global food demand, estimated by the FAO to increase by at least 50% by 2050. This must be achieved in the face of massive global challenges, especially climate change, shrinking arable land and fresh water sources, outbreaks of crop pests and diseases, ageing farmers, limited access to technologies in the developing world, consumers’ concerns over emerging technologies in food production, and novel food. Concurrently, the call for sustainable farming has become louder, especially as we approach the 2030 deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Increased sustainability, however, can only be achieved by intensifying research, adopting new farming approaches and technologies that contribute to a circular economy, and game-changing policies.

 

Agriculture is the second biggest contributor to global greenhouse gases, but it is an industry that we cannot live without. The question is, how do we transform agriculture not only with policies and practices, but with culture and aspirations that inspire change and enhancement? How do we move from food security to achieving nutritional wellbeing and balance? And how do we gauge the movement, and make changes – some revolutionary while most would be evolutionary – in the span of our lifetimes?

 

Ultimately, there can be no peace and sustainable development without food security.

PROF PAUL TENG

Prof Paul Teng is Dean and Managing Director of the National Institute of Education International (NIEI), the education consultancy and outreach arm of the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore. Prior to this, Prof Teng served as NIE’s Principal Officer and Dean of the Office of Graduate Studies & Professional Learning.

Prof Teng has held leadership positions at renowned international organisations, including the World Fish Centre and the International Rice Research Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at the South-East Asian Centre for Graduate Studies and Senior Adviser to several startup enterprises in agtech and urban farming.

His pioneering work on using system analysis and computer modelling techniques is still having impact in the USA and rice-growing countries in Asia today

MARCH 2022 | COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE

Healthcare and Education for Asian Development

  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Sustainable Food Systems: Concept and Framework, 2018. http://www.fao.org/3/ca2079en/CA2079EN.pdf

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

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About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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