Three things I learned about the Future of Food in South East Asia
This article has been written by Dr Jerad Ford who is the manager of strategic advice at CSIRO. Jerad has PhD in business and management. He is a professional innovation manager with applied international experience in a variety of sectors including renewable energy, defence, oil and gas and education.
Food, nutrition and agricultural technologies are hot areas right now, and you don’t have to look far to find out why… there is increasing prevalence of lifestyle diseases like type-II diabetes, and of course, there are the 10 billion mouths to feed in the not-so-distant future.
Over the last two days I’ve been looking at these problems through a South East Asian lens, first attending the Food and Hotel Asia conference, and then an industry workshop on Food for Health in SE Asia hosted by CSIRO Singapore.
Here are three observations that I’d like to share:
1 – Rich and poor, different pathways to nutrition and health
We always point to the march of the digital world and how it’s going to upend how we take care of ourselves in the future. Certainly the falling costs of genomic sequencing and increasing computational power will help unlock the potential of precision health: understanding our own genetics/ epigenetics and what nutritional aspects we need (and when) to optimise health outcomes.
And while precision health may soon be in reach of the wealthy, educated populace, in the near to mid-term such precise understanding of our health will not be either affordable or actionable to the majority of the world’s poor.
What good is knowing that you should eat more broccoli to avoid a heart attack when access to it is cost prohibitive or it is simply unavailable?
The point is that different approaches are needed to achieve better health outcomes for the masses in SE Asia.
One approach is ‘health by stealth’ – upgrading or altering the nutritional content of staple foods such as rice and oils — is an approach that CSIRO can enable through its elite grain research that is delivering cholesterol-busting wheat, and exemplified by our omega-3-containing canola oil.
Such approaches will enable increased nutrition while working within the cultural norms (and budgets) tied to food in the region.
2 – Tension between increased productivity and increasing variety/personalisation
Increased food demand puts pressure on manufacturers to achieve economies of scale through uniformity. Yet, the rising middle class in SE Asia will expect, and be willing to pay for, increased variety and personalisation.
How do we reconcile these competing demands?
One answer is that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will fill in the gaps. While major manufacturers strive to feed the masses they may look for opportunities to constrain choice (and contain costs) by finding common denominator products, SMEs will fill the void by offering increasingly specialised products and services.
One good example of this discussed in the workshop I attended, was a small food importer that is focusing narrowly on alternative protein products in the market – offering a variety and selection unparalleled in the current marketplace and making huge margins in the process.
The lesson is, you don’t even have to make a product to capitalise on this trend of increased specialisation and convenience, and the opportunities will only increase as the population and buying power increases.
3 – Taste, taste, taste
Just like the real estate mantra, location, location, location, the future of food in SE Asia could well be summed up as taste, taste, taste. A culture of good, tasty cheap food and street eating in parts of SE Asia are culturally ingrained. Heck, it was at least part of the reason I made the trip.
A good taste-related example from our workshop centred on the debate about alternative protein. While it is easy to immediately jump to the conclusion that plant-based protein needs to taste like meat (like Impossible Foods has done with hamburgers), the more fundamental opportunity might be just making it taste better.
Instead of trying to make a plant-based protein that looks, acts, tastes, smells like hamburger, perhaps the more straightforward opportunity is to simply create tasty, new and exciting products from plant-based protein that are good on their own merits.
Indeed, many trends show that the next generation may be more likely to move away from meat for ethical or environmental reasons. Making it taste better may help to enhance this trend. Completely new products in this plant-based protein category are likely to find markets across SE Asia including large and increasing marketplace for Halal foods in the SE Asian regions.
The opportunities for health and nutrition are vast, but they are regionally distinct. SE Asia is a huge opportunity because of its demographics and increasing buying power of the middle class.
1 Not wealthy, still healthy. But, at the same time, we have to consider a scenario where income inequality persists or get worse, yet governments (and increasingly companies) must make investments in improving the health outcomes of the population. Delivering nutrition to the rich and the poor are vastly different challenges, and require different approaches, including ‘health by stealth’.
2 Nutritional Niches. There is an opportunity for SMEs to fill in the gaps and meet the increasingly specialised needs of consumers when big manufacturers will be looking to reach economies of scale. There is a great opportunity for new business models and products.
3 Tasty Treats. Increased demand for protein can and should be met with plant-based alternatives. It’s all about making these options more appealing to the masses, and perhaps this can be done without trying to mimic real meat – huge swathes of consumers in the coming generations might not want that at all.
“How do we get people to eat more ants and crickets? That my friend is the question.”