Fixing the food system through ‘responsible consumption’

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By changing their food habits, consumers can reduce the environmental impact of large-scale agriculture. The simple act of buying more mung beans instead of rice translates to a reduction in pollution, said Eufemio T. Rasco, Jr., Chair of the Agricultural Sciences Division of the National Academy of Science and Technology.


By Patricia B. Mirasol

The existing three-step linear food system—food production, marketing, and consumption—is dysfunctional. Consumers are at the core of this food system and their behavior thus influences its outcome. For the system to be fixed, a fourth step—waste management—and circularity need to be established.

This was according to Academician Eufemio T. Rasco, Jr., Chair of the Agricultural Sciences Division of the National Academy of Science and Technology, who highlighted “responsible consumption as the key to a nourishing and regenerative food system,” during the academy’s 42nd Annual Scientific Meeting.

Responsible consumption and production is one of the 12 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. It calls “reducing our ecological footprint by changing the way we produce and consume goods and resources.”


Circularity, meanwhile, as defined by Wageningen University & Research, “aims to reduce resource consumption and emissions to the environment by closing the loop of materials and substances.”

To illustrate the three-step linear food system, Mr. Rasco offered the example of food coming from a distant farm that travels all the way to the city, but whose waste does not return to the farm it came from.

“The traditional way of fixing the system is working on the production side so we always view the problem with the Department of Agriculture,” said Mr. Rasco. “Marketing is occasionally a problem; traders get greedy and start hoarding. We never look at consumers as part of the problem. We always see them as the victim.”

Consumers are at the core of the system, however. “When we choose to eat white rice, millers respond by removing most of the nutrients to make the rice white. Retailers deliver in plastic bags. As a consequence, we suffer because excess intake of such equals chronic disease. We also add to pollution because of the plastics used as part of marketing,” he said, pointing out that consumer behavior determines the outcome of food systems.

By changing their food habits, consumers can reduce the environmental impact of large-scale agriculture. Mr. Rasco said that the simple act of buying more mung beans instead of rice translates to a reduction in pollution. “The need to use chemical fertilizers is halved in mung bean production. It also produces less greenhouse gases than rice,” he explained.

Mr. Rasco acknowledged the challenge of changing the habits of consumers. To this end, his division plans to target its initial efforts at the middle class. “They are more educated, more open to food choices, and have the financial means. Consumers are not the victims. Empower them by providing the proper information.”

“If the middle class changes, this will have an effect on the farming sector. They will have to adjust in relation to the change in demand. There will be a fallout. The poor will also benefit. Prices will go down and (quality food) will become more available,” he said.

Further down the line, Mr. Rasco wants to develop apps modeled after the GenoPalate app, which analyzes users’ genes to provide them with genetic-based nutrition and food recommendations. He is hoping to work with the Department of Science and Technology and other interested parties to make this concept a reality.

Imagine, he continued, being able to ask your mobile phone: “What can I eat for P20?” and your phone answering “You should not be eating broccoli. That’s expensive. Eat kangkong. That’s also healthy.”

“The real challenge is how to put all these data together. Financial ability is very important,” he said.

Added fellow NAST Academician and faculty member of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine Antonio Dans, who cited data from The 2017 Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study: “Lifestyle is probably not a choice. We don’t exercise because there’s no place to exercise. We don’t eat healthy because healthy food is expensive. We smoke because tobacco is cheap. Lifestyle is an adaptation to the world we live in rather than a choice we make. The way we change our lifestyle is by changing the world we live in.”

SIDEBAR | Envisioning a better food system by 2050

In his presentation, Agricultural Sciences Division Chair Eufemio T. Rasco, Jr., also listed nine features of the envisioned food system 30 years hence, in keeping with the Philippine Science, Technology, and Innovation Foresight and 30-year Strategic Plan 2020–2050 of the Department of Science and Technology.

Higher food production from urban and controlled environment facilities and more market power to both farmers and consumers are among the benefits of this envisioned 2050 food system as mentioned by Mr. Rasco:

1. Individual consumption decisions will be data- and values-driven.

2. Connection between food producers and the consumer will be more direct.

3. Food production will be highly diversified, local, and seasonal.

4. Production will be closer to the kitchen as urban and peri-urban farms get a bigger share of the food market.

5. Food production from the aquatic environment will grow faster than land-based production.

6. The food system will be circular. Material and energy recovered from wastes, valued as a resource, and returned to the farms and households.

7. Steps in the food system will be digitally interconnected, allowing for a high level of transparency and efficiency.

8. Reduced post-harvest losses with adequate cold chains (temperature-controlled supply chains).

9. A revived industry based on the use of biodegradable materials for food packaging.