Some Thoughts on Going Green and the Challenges of Global Food Sustainability

The 29th Shun Hing College High Table Dinner last 20 October 2018 may be considered as ground-breaking as far as high table dinners in the Jockey Club Student Village III were concerned. It was the first time for the college to organize a ‘green dinner’, where the food served is entirely without animal-based products. It implied more vegetables and meat-like products on our plates. Even the dessert, a panna cotta with fruits which is traditionally created with skim milk and cream, was made out of almond milk.

David Yeung at Shun Hing College’s High Table dinner (Courtesy of SHC Media Team)

Mr. David Yeung, an environmental advocate, social entrepreneur and recently awarded as the 2018 Social Entrepreneur of the Year, was the dinner’s guest speaker. He began his speech by discussing the rationale behind the green dinner. As a consequence to the threat of climate change, he claimed that the livestock industry contributed an increase in carbon emissions. As a concrete response, his company, Green Monday, raises the awareness on these issues related to sustainable food provision through one-green-day-a-week meal plans. By partnering with food tech start-ups such as Beyond Meat, JUST, and Impossible Foods, the company advances meat-like food with plants as source of protein. Through the promotion of plant-based eating into their weekly diet, he hopes to contribute in alleviating the pressure placed on the environment towards a more sustainable food security.

His response is very timely. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO-UN), the livestock industry comprised 40% of the global value of agricultural output, and is responsible for providing food security to almost 1.3 billion people worldwide. In addition, livestock grazing and production uses the largest amount of land resources. Livestock feed crops are grown to an equivalent of one-third of total cropland. The total land area occupied by pastures is equivalent to 26% of the ice-free terrestrial surface, which may have been used for growing more crops directly for human consumption.

Furthermore, in a 2009 study by the World Bank, total meat production in the developing countries between 1980 and 2002 tripled, from 45 to 134 million tons. This is in conjunction with the expansion and rapid economic growth, particularly in East Asian countries. On the other hand, livestock production in developed countries have experienced a general slowdown, although the levels of meat production remained to be high.

Population growth and continued urbanization of cities contribute to the increasing demand for meat. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), human population in 2050 is estimated at 9.15 billion, with populations concentrated in developing countries. This in itself puts a lot of stress on how to address food provision. Moreover, urbanization impacts food consumption in a manner that stimulates infrastructures towards efficient food provision, including slaughterhouses and cold storage facilities. These improvements allow for a more efficient production that reduce production costs, and in turn, become more affordable to consumers. Ultimately, these allow for perishable goods like meat to be traded over long distances and supply large populations (e.g., a quick glance in our supermarkets would reveal how many of the meat products are imported from cattle-rich countries like Australia, United States, China, Brazil and Argentina).

Courtesy of SHC Media Team

Placed within historical context, the concern for food security and population growth is not entirely new. Since the eighteenth-century, economic thinkers like David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus had problematized food provision as a function of increasing population. The (in)famous Malthusian growth model stipulated that the growth of food supply will not be able to catch up with the growth of population as both factors have different rates of growth. Based on her experience working in developing countries, the Danish economist Esther Boserup challenged this thought by arguing that it is exactly the pressure for population growth that motivates people to come up with new methods and invent technologies to either produce more food or improve the food itself. Hence, Mr. Yeung’s company and other food tech start ups are much welcome and needed at this point.

While these solutions are very promising and indeed may alleviate (not entirely address) the issue of food security, it is not without challenges. In the interest of space, I perceive two practical and cultural considerations that directly impact students.

Changes in food supply entail costs, both on the side of the supplier and consumer. Food produced in an organic way is generally more expensive than the ones produced through industrialized means. Production costs are typically higher because of the greater labour input per unit of output (i.e., more labour is required to produce organic food, compared to one that has gone through a machine). Demand is relatively smaller and contributes to the high cost of these products that even students (especially graduate students on scholarship like me) may find prohibitive. Although one counterargument here is that if demand for organic food and new superfoods such as the meat-like meat we had for the high table dinner would increase, technological innovation and economies of scale should be able to reduce the costs of production, processing, and distribution. In other words, while awareness on the issue is increasing, it may take some time before the lowering of costs may take into effect. What role do governments have in encouraging consumers towards this direction? What incentives should be offered for both supplier and consumer to allow sustainability of food choices, and not end up as fad foods?

Moreover, food is always subject to cultural and historical landscapes. While originally not a meat-eating culture, majority of Asian countries possess rich meat-based cuisines that many consider as intangible heritage. These recipes have been handed down from generation to generation, cater to distinct tastes, and allow particular locales to stand out. The Korean samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup), Philippine adobo (marinated pork in vinegar and soy sauce), Malaysian and Indonesian rendang (dry curry beef in coconut milk), and the Chinese lap cheung (sausages) are among Asia’s best because of the preparation, technique, and tastes that come with it. A change in one ingredient or aspect of the food may distort the original taste behind the dish. How will technological advances in food be able to adapt to cultures with distinctive culinary traditions such as that of Asia? Will such changes alter cultural identities attached with food?

As scientists and social entrepreneurs like Mr. Yeung introduce innovative solutions to a global and pressing issue, measures on food provision and security remind us how the local contexts of which these problems operate should not be disregarded. What works for one country may not necessarily work for the other. In a sense, the personal is as important as the global. Needless to say, Mahatma Gandhi’s maxim, which Mr. Yeung derives inspiration from, is worth repeating here: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It certainly does not commence with grand changes, but with small, personal ones, in the hopes that it will grow for others to share in that vision of change.

Written by Nicolo Ludovice

Nicolo at SHC High Table dinner (courtesy of SHC Media Team)

Nicolo is a second-year PhD student from the Department of History, The University of Hong Kong. His research interests broadly cover the history of science, technology, and medicine in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, including biomedicine, public health, zoonoses, and history of animals. His current research project investigates the history of animals in medicine and health in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Philippines. He is also the current co-captain of the Shun Hing Dragon Boat Team.