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How to keep our food supply safe in an overcrowded world

How to keep our food supply safe in an overcrowded world


By Sean Toohey, Executive Vice President and President of Asia Pacific, Ecolab

Experts predict that by the mid-century there will be close to 10 billion people on the planet. That means that there will be a need for additional food to accommodate this growing population. Additionally, global megatrends such as climate change, economic and population growth and urbanisation are all changing the way we eat and think about food.

According to the United Nations, 80 to 90 per cent of the population will live in big cities by the end of the century. Most of that evolution will happen in Africa and Asia, where dozens of new megacities with populations above 20 million will join the ranks of present-day Shanghai, Lagos and Mumbai. That means hundreds of millions of people will start living as urbanites.

In a country like Singapore where the urban population is at 100 per cent, new food trends have emerged over the last couple of years. Consumers are increasingly eating out, have food delivered more frequency, as the population demands quick on-the-go meals that conform to their lifestyle choices. With an increase in disposable incomes, demand for protein-rich foods and interest in the ethical, health and environmental aspects of food will continue to grow. At the same time, convenience is a factor that is shaping consumer choices when it comes to dining. These changing consumer demands and expectations will continue to increase and impact our food supply.

To address these challenges, we’ll have to redesign our food system.

How then can we do this in a safe manner?

One of the trends already visible in the new food system is longer supply chains. In a country like Singapore where food is mostly imported, the food we consume tends to travel over longer distances. A longer supply chain means food spends more time in transit, requiring more cold storage and better monitoring. It also means more hand-off points, so we’ll need to make sure that more people follow proper food safety protocols. At the same time, demand for locally grown food is also expected to increase. In terms of food safety, shorter supply chains may be simpler, but they’re not necessarily fundamentally different. Local food isn’t automatically safer, so the same best practices must apply.

The key words in all these cases are control and traceability. Where has the food been? Do we know the chain of custody? Was it stored in the right manner and at the right temperatures throughout its journey? Was it processed and prepared in clean facilities? Did all the people who handled it use clean equipment, follow safe protocols and pay attention to their own personal hygiene?

As the food system’s size and complexity grow, we need technology to keep track of all steps of the supply chain. Luckily, the building blocks are available today and can be taken to scale relatively easily. This can be as cutting edge as monitoring the supply chain with blockchain and the internet of things (IoT), where we’ve barely scratched the surface of possibilities, or as common-sense as providing food manufacturing facilities and restaurants with apps that automate food safety check lists. This improves compliance to specific sanitation and food handling practices, helping to reduce the risk of food borne illnesses.

Population and economic growth, as well as climate change also are putting pressures on our finite water resources. In Asia, water demand is expected to increase by 55 per cent by 2050, and in Singapore, water demand is expected to almost double by 2060 with non-domestic sector accounting for about 70 per cent. Worldwide, agriculture is our biggest consumer of water (70 per cent). Industry is next at more than 20 per cent.

If we stay on the current track, the world will face a freshwater shortfall by 2030, with demand surpassing supply by more than 40 per cent. To ward off a crisis, we must change the way we use water. We’ll need to explore innovative solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle water and focus on smart local solutions for places that are already water scarce, and set to experience significant population growth in the coming decades.

About the Author

Sean Toohey is executive vice president and president of Asia Pacific for Ecolab Inc. In his current role, Sean is responsible for driving execution, compliance and functional support for all Ecolab divisions within the Asia Pacific region. Previously, Sean was senior vice president and general manager of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, where he successfully led local alignment and execution for all Ecolab divisions and functions. He also has served as vice president and general manager, Food & Beverage for Australia and New Zealand. Sean joined Ecolab in 1996 after eight years in management roles within the Henkel-Ecolab joint venture in Europe.