Future Fit Crops: An Inclusive Economy of Nutrient-rich and Sustainable Crops in the West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia
Leveraging on crop diversification with integrated technologies to catalyze a systemic change in the agri-food industry, diets and policy.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
NamZ Pte Ltd
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
The Bridge Institute (a not-for-profit consultancy that focuses on bringing senior government, business and civil leaders together to solve the most pressing societal issues), Common Thread (behavioral strategy experts), Scott Poynton Sàrl (expert on agricultural sustainability policies and programs), PT CHC (impact-driven consultancy focusing on research, implementation and capacity-building) and Biogena (a micronutrient product company that is passionate about using science and the sharing of knowledge for better health and well-being).
Website of Legally Registered Entity
www.namz.com.sg (entity website), www.nutritionalparadox.com (not-for-profit project website)
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia, comprising the states of Kedah, Perak, Selangor, Melaka, Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Penang, Perlis and KL
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
We selected the West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia because it is a microcosm of the global food system in the following areas:
Agriculture and Environment: It has a significant agricultural industry which is reliant on a monocrop (palm oil) that has contributed to land degradation. It has also experienced the impact of climate change – in the last 5 years, it has seen both unprecedented floods and droughts. These have resulted in lower yields and income for Malaysia farmers, resulting in forests fires to clear land in order to plant additional oil palms.
Urbanization and Diets: Outside rural areas, the West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia is home to several developing urban centers, representing the “nutritional paradox”. Poor communities cannot afford protective foods as these are mostly imported, contributing to malnutrition. Yet those with more income are opting for unhealthy convenience and fast-foods which account for the high rate of obesity and diabetes. The widening income gap and high rural-urban migration will exacerbate these problems.
Peninsula Malaysia is important because of its rich food heritage: it comprises many diverse cuisines that represent the multi-cultural fabric of Malaysian society. Many cultural foods incorporate the use of diverse crops and ingredients which are becoming unaffordable to poor communities.
Peninsula Malaysia is also important because it is home to several tropical rainforests which support a vast diversity of plant and animal life. This biodiversity is under threat from climate change and a dominant palm oil industry.
NamZ, as a food company, is connected to Peninsula Malaysia in the following: we have a food factory located in the southern tip of the peninsula, and about half of our employees within the group are Malaysian. Malaysia will be an important target market for our products, and we are also exploring potential collaborations with the government to introduce more nutritious foods to Malaysians.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Peninsula Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia, just above the Equator. The West Coast is highlighted in orange.
Landscape: The West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia is mostly covered with tropical rainforest (left). There are also several cultivations such as tea plantations (middle). However, the most dominant crop is the oil palm (right), which occupies about a fifth of Malaysia's overall landscape.
Wildlife: Peninsula Malaysia is home to diverse wildlife, estimated to contain about 20% of the world's animal species. Some of them are protected in nature reserves located along the states of Kedah, Selangor and Penang.
Agriculture: Malaysia's economy is heavily reliant on the export of palm oil (left) and related products. Some fruits and vegetables are grown locally (middle and right) but these are not readily affordable to lower income households.
Food: Malaysians are extremely proud of their food heritage, which includes a diverse range of traditional dishes (left) and street food (middle) which can be found in Penang, Malacca and Ipoh along the West Coast. Growing affluence in urban areas has also led to the prevalence of fast foods (right).
Culture: Malaysia is a multi-cultural nation, with diverse races, religions and traditions. From left: Thean Hou Temple, Sri Mahamariamman Temple and Blue Mosque Selangor.
Urban cities: Several major urban centers are located along the West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia. From left: Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru.
In 2019, we held our SDG17 event in Kuala Lumpur (Breakthrough Experience Event, or BEevent) that brought together various stakeholders (e.g. farmers, government ministries, food manufacturers, investors, academics) to brainstorm various solutions to tackle the quadruple burden of hunger, obesity, micronutrient deficiencies and environmental degradation - this is our not-for-profit project called the Nutritional Paradox.
Geography and agriculture
The West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia has an equatorial, hot and humid climate with two monsoon seasons. The average temperature is 80°F and average rainfall is 98 inches a year. There are tropical rainforests and peatlands mostly in the states of Perak, Selangor and Johor. Climate change is projected to increase flooding risks, large droughts and increasing sea levels.
About a fifth of Peninsula Malaysia’s land is occupied by palm oil plantations. It is therefore heavily dependent on the export of palm oil and derivative products and it is a net importer of agricultural food produce such as rice, fruits and vegetables.
Malaysia is a multi-racial nation (the main ethnic groups are Malay, Indian, Chinese and indigenous peoples) with diverse traditions and languages (generally Malay, Chinese dialects, Tamil and indigenous languages).
Malaysia has an extremely high level of income inequality and a widening urban-rural gap. Many poor households situated in rural farming communities are extremely susceptible to falling palm oil prices and the effects of climate change.
Over 40% of Peninsula Malaysia’s population is involved in agriculture, and its farmers play a crucial role in supplying food to the population. However, the emergence and industrialization of palm oil has led to a rapid rate of urbanization, with over 75% of the population living in urban areas concentrated in the states of Selangor and Johor.
Food and Culture
The rich and diverse culture of Malaysia has led to the creation of many traditional cuisines ranging from Malay Nasi Padang, to Indian curries and Chinese Tze Char. The varied use of traditional spices from China, India and Java naturally gave rise to fusion foods – a literal and metaphorical melting pot. There is plethora of flavors such as herbal (ginseng, goji), spicy (chilli, pepper, tamarind), sour (calamansi) and sweet (gula melaka). In the city centers, however, there is also a prevalence of many fast-food restaurants serving western-style dishes.
Consequently, food is regarded as Malaysia's national pastime - conversations are often centered around the next food craze and there are constant debates about which eatery serves the "best" dish of its kind.
Low income households can generally only afford calorie-rich and nutrient-poor diets, resulting in stunting and wasting among children. For higher income households, the trendiness of eating at fast food restaurants has contributed to obesity. Moreover, the dominant use of refined rice and sugar has resulted in Malaysia having the second highest rate of diabetes in Asia.
Malaysians hope to see city centers like Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Johor Bahru develop into vibrant, cosmopolitan cities. They also hope that Malaysia’s tropical rainforests are protected for a thriving eco-tourism sector, and that Malaysia advances as a harmonious, multi-cultural nation into 2050.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Malaysia possesses the second largest area of palm oil plantations in the world, half of which are located in Peninsula Malaysia (approx. 2.7m hectares). Over the last 30 years, past farming practices in some of these plantations have contributed to the presence of unproductive lands. The degradation of these lands, coupled with aging oil palms, have led to lower yields and lower incomes for many monoculture smallholder farmers. To supplement lost income, smallholder farmers are compelled to encroach into forests to plant more oil palms, resulting in forest fires, the loss of biodiversity and the consequent haze pollution.
Farmers are therefore compelled to seek alternative incomes but do not have the know-how to cultivate other commodity crops. Further, they cannot afford or access proper farming practices, including the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Accordingly, smallholder farmers are unable to sustain a resilient livelihood and are vulnerable to climate effects and global price fluctuations. Climate change leading to severe droughts are further projected to reduce palm oil output in Malaysia.
Economics and Policy
As Malaysia’s agricultural sector is heavily dependent on the export of palm oil and derivative products, its economy is susceptible to falling palm oil prices caused by various factors, such as the phasing out of palm oil biofuels by the EU. Due to the dominance of the palm oil industry, Malaysia has had to import many agricultural commodities (e.g. cane, cocoa and rice) as well as fruits and vegetables, even though these crops can be grown locally. Agricultural subsidies generally benefit rice and sugar production, rather than the production of protective foods like vegetables and fruits.
Consequently, protective foods are not widely available or affordable, particularly to poor households. Malaysia faces a significant double burden of malnutrition: 20.7% of children under 5 suffer from stunting, 11.5% from wasting and 12.7% of children (5-19 year olds) are obese. Furthermore, popular Malaysian convenience foods (such as instant noodles, many of which are manufactured locally) are generally calorie-rich and nutrient-poor, comprising high amounts of sugar, salt and fat to provide flavor. These factors contribute to Malaysia having one of the highest rates of diabetes in Asia, and the government has projected that a third of all Malaysian adults will be affected by the disease by 2025.
Malaysia is one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries in the world, resulting in a growing prevalence of competitively-priced fast foods and convenience foods. Younger generations are finding it trendy to eat fast foods rather than traditional cuisines.
As Malaysian diets are comprised mostly of refined rice and wheat, many food manufacturers rely on conventional technologies that process such commodity crops at low-cost (e.g. deep-frying wheat dough to make instant noodles) without taking nutrition into account.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Future Fit Crops: Regenerating the environment, revitalizing farming communities
The vision projects that by 2050, Malaysian smallholder farmers (particularly on degraded palm oil plantation land) will carry out crop diversification with nutrient-rich, sustainable crops (“Future Fit Crops”). These crops have one or more of the following characteristics:
2. Requires relatively low agricultural input (e.g. water, fertilizers and pesticides); and
3. Resilient to changes in climate.
Some examples of Future Fit Crops include certain vegetables (moringa, broccoli rabe), tubers (purple yam, sweet potatoes) and legumes (bambara groundnut, lupin). Legumes are particularly relevant because they are nitrogen-fixers that have the potential to remediate unproductive lands.
By diversifying their farms with Future Fit Crops, smallholder farmers can (a) earn additional income on otherwise marginalized land, (b) become more resilient against commodity crop price fluctuations and climate change (for example, by using drought-tolerant crops) and (c) optimize their use of scarce resources (e.g. land, water and fertilizers).
By strengthening farmer resilience, Future Fit Crops will not only prevent further deforestation (the cause for forest fires in Malaysia); it will regenerate marginalized lands and restore lost wildlife habitats.
Culture and Diets
Consequently, the increased availability and affordability of locally-produced Future Fit Crops will provide better nutrition to consumers and strengthen Malaysia’s culinary traditions of incorporating a large variety of flavors and colors into dishes. The prevalence of Future Fit Crops in home kitchens and restaurants will therefore mitigate Malaysia’s double burden of malnutrition.
Convenience without Compromise
To leverage on the prevalence of Future Fit Crops, food manufacturers will develop or invest in new processing technologies which preserves the natural flavors, colors and nutritional content of these crops to make convenience foods. This will create comfort foods which are nutritious, tasty and affordable without the need for flavor additives.
Creating an Inclusive Economy with Technology
As Future Fit Crops are not commoditized products, they present an opportunity for farmers to use new transaction technologies to interact directly with manufacturers. Technologies will provide them with know-how to grow Future Fit Crops efficiently, assist them to sell their harvest directly to food manufacturers (therefore getting a greater share of the revenue) and forecast demand in real-time (therefore reducing waste).
When farmers shift from monoculture farming to crop diversification, the government will provide support (financial or otherwise) towards the cultivation of Future Fit Crops as a means of economic diversification. Together with private investments, the government could invest in infrastructure and breeding programs for Future Fit Crops, vitalizing rural communities.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
By 2050, smallholder farmers in Malaysia have the know-how and capacity to diversify their crops. They grow a range of grains, legumes, tubers, fruits and vegetables which they can consume for themselves, selling to excess for additional income. If there is an unusual drought or heavy rainfall, they can rely on a plethora of other crops on their land for sustenance. Now, over 300 crops account for over 80% of all calories consumed in Malaysia.
As a result, Malaysia’s vast landscape of monoculture oil palms have transitioned to a forest of lush, colorful and diverse plants. Crop diversification has remediated degraded lands and wildlife are returning to their restored habitats.
A variety of fresh, locally-produced plants are now more affordable and available in markets. Households and restaurants now include more nutritious, protective crops in their foods – Malaysia’s cultural cuisines are now reinvigorated with vibrant colors, complex flavors and diverse textures.
Food manufacturers have succeeded in developing technologies that process nutrient-dense crops into convenience foods without compromising taste and affordability. Convenience foods that offer proper nutrition without additives become a reality. Products like meat and dairy alternatives become more compelling by leveraging on the unique properties of diverse crops. By 2050, Malaysia successfully alleviates malnutrition and diabetes through better diets.
Malaysia’s agri-food economy has become more equitable and inclusive – farmers can sell their harvest of diverse crops directly to markets through new transaction technologies. They can use apps to cultivate crops more efficiently and forecast customer demand more accurately to prevent waste.
Due to the growing economic importance of a diversified agricultural sector, the government decides to focus subsidies and infrastructure on impoverished farming communities to grow diverse crops, creating new job opportunities and revitalizing these communities.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Future Fit Crops are nutrient-rich and sustainable. In particular, legumes like the bambara groundnut have the ability to rehabilitate degraded land. Some examples of Future Fit Crops are pictured.
Imagine. In the next 30 years, something magical happens in Malaysia. Barren lands are regenerated. Tasty, affordable and nutritious convenience foods become reality. Cultural foods reignite a national passion for color, flavor and texture. Farms become more diverse, and farming communities are revitalized.
The Emergence of “Future Fit Crops”
It begins with smallholder farming communities, or the “Peladang”, who form the backbone of Malaysia’s agricultural industry. Many of them work in ubiquitous fields of oil palms that dominate the country’s landscape. Having witnessed how climate change, land degradation and falling palm oil prices have undermined their livelihoods, the Peladang decide to take matters into their own hands. They begin to tend to their lands as their forefathers once did – by cultivating a large variety of plants through crop rotation. They start by growing nutrient-rich, sustainable crops (or “Future Fit Crops”) on otherwise unproductive soil, such as the bambara groundnut, lupin and winged beans. Not only do these nitrogen-fixing legumes rehabilitate degraded land with little water – they also produce viable yields without pesticides and fertilizers. After several harvesting cycles, the soil becomes rich enough for the Peladang to rotate Future Fit Crops with a variety of grains, fruits and vegetables. In time, the uniform fields of Malaysia’s oil palms transition towards lush, colorful diverse plantations – comprising crops such as moringa, papayas, garlic and onions – that the Peladang can rely on for sustenance and additional income. By 2050, the diversification of crop cultivation with Future Fit Crops will strengthen farmer resilience, end the need for deforestation and catalyze the ecological regeneration of previously marginalized lands in Malaysia.
Strengthening Culinary Traditions with Future Fit Crops
Malaysia is home to a few of the world's renowned food capitals: Penang, Malacca and Ipoh. It comes as no surprise that Malaysians are known to be amongst the most discerning of consumers who take pride in the diversity of their cuisines, reflecting the multi-cultural heritage of their nation. Yet, the consolidation of the agri-food industry and proliferation of fast-food chains have not only threatened the dynamism of Malaysia’s food culture – they are also responsible for the prevalence of calorie-rich and nutrient-poor diets. In the next 30 years, however, the use of Future Fit Crops in farms and factories will revitalize Malaysia’s cultural foods and propel a culinary movement towards the use of locally-produced ingredients. Crops like okra, pumpkin and sweet potato grown on Malaysian farms will make their way into home kitchens and restaurants alike, reinvigorating a tradition of using a large variety of flavors, colors and textures to create wonderfully delectable meals, often from recipes that have been forgotten from previous generations. Nyonya cuisine, for example, embraces the varied use of Chinese and Malay ingredients to reinterpret indigenous dishes in Malaysia. The introduction of Future Fit Crops into these cuisines will offer chefs a new culinary palette to reimagine cultural foods whilst preserving the traditional techniques of Malaysian cooking. By 2050, chefs and diners will celebrate the use of Future Fit Crops in home-cooking and fine dining, generating a new source of income for the Peladang.
Future Fit Crops in Guilt-free Convenience Foods
Consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of the agri-food industry on their health and environment. As these social norms shift, food manufacturers will leverage on Future Fit Crops to meet these changing values. Crops like the bambara groundnut – naturally rich in plant protein, fiber and micronutrients – become an ideal ingredient to augment the nutritional content of convenience foods. Manufacturers start to use Future Fit Crops in popular Malaysian snacks such as instant soups, shakes and noodles. In time, manufacturers will leverage on developments in food science and innovative processing technologies to preserve the natural flavors and nutritional content of these crops throughout the manufacturing process. As a consequence, nutrient-dense Future Fit Crops will gradually replace the empty calories of refined wheat and rice, resulting in nutritious “guilt-free” convenience foods. These new processing technologies will further enable manufacturers to incorporate Future Fit Crops in food products at large scale, reducing the costs of production and becoming price-competitive against unhealthier options. In time, the notion of a tasty, affordable and nutritious convenience food becomes reality and by 2050, the use of Future Fit Crops in comfort foods will alleviate malnutrition and diet-related illnesses in Malaysia.
An Inclusive Economy of Future Fit Crops
But how will Future Fit Crops be sold by the Peladang to manufacturers? As crops like the bambara groundnut have yet to be commoditized, there is now an opportunity for manufacturers to partner closely with farmers to create a new, mutually-beneficial agri-food economy. New transaction technologies, such as an e-commerce platform for agricultural produce, will facilitate the supply of Future Fit Crops directly from farmer to manufacturer. This removes the need for numerous layers of middlemen, thereby ensuring that the Peladang receives a more equitable distribution of income. These technologies will also enable manufacturers to relay their demand forecasts more accurately in real-time, helping farmers to better plan their next harvesting cycle, which reduces food waste. Moreover, this direct relationship will improve food manufacturers’ produce traceability efforts as they will now be able to identify their suppliers with greater precision, ensuring that their Future Fit Crop supply chain complies with their respective food safety and sustainability initiatives. By 2050, the existing consolidated agri-food industry of Malaysia will shift towards a new, inclusive economy comprising millions of farmers transacting directly with food companies and retailers on a plethora of agricultural goods. No longer will the Peladang be forced to grow a small handful of monoculture crops for short-term survival; rather, they will now be able to cultivate a large variety of Future Fit Crops from a range of cropping systems that are beneficial to their land and their long-term livelihoods.
Reviving Lost Communities with Future Fit Crops
Consequently, the burgeoning market for Future Fit Crops will attract public and private capital towards the development of new infrastructure on marginalized land that have endangered farming communities. Food companies will invest in agri-systems and a package of good farming practices to secure their supply of Future Fit Crops. Malaysian landowners, such as palm oil companies that have witnessed declining productivity in their fields, will support their farmers’ use of Future Fit Crops as an intercrop by investing in plant breeding programs to improve yields and efficiency on lands that have become increasingly uneconomic for oil palm. When farmers start to earn income from Future Fit Crops, the government will enact policies and direct subsidies to support the use of these crops on degraded land. In time, desolate farming communities left behind by past monoculture practices will be given a new lease of life: they can start planting drought-tolerant crops like winged beans and lupin on previously barren land, resulting in more employment opportunities in these rural communities. By 2050, public and private investment into Future Fit Crops on degraded land will revitalize rural communities and their surrounding environments in Malaysia.
Future Fit Crops as the Foundation for Food Innovation
Future Fit Crops will also play a pivotal role in furthering food science in Malaysia. The development of food technologies is currently hindered by the reliance on a small handful of crops: for example, many new meat and dairy alternative products primarily rely on soy and pea protein as an ingredient. Yet, Future Fit Crops such as winged beans and lupin not only have high protein content – they also have different chemical components that give rise to unique flavor and texture properties. Therefore, the prevalence of these Future Fit Crops will equip food scientists in Malaysia with a wider range of agricultural raw materials to develop more compelling meat and dairy alternative products. Furthermore, the genetic diversity of many Future Fit Crops has remained untouched by agricultural commoditization. Thousands of different bambara groundnut landraces have survived decades of crop consolidation due to their role as a subsistence crop for smallholder farmers. This makes the bambara groundnut an ideal candidate for a plant breeding program to improve nutritional quality and maximize yields on degraded land without the need for genetic modification. By 2050, food technologies will leverage on the genetic diversity and unique properties of Future Fit Crops to advance food science and develop innovative new products in Malaysia.
Feeding Our Consciousness
In the future, we will develop a better understanding of how dietary diversity contributes to a more diverse gut microbiome, which may be linked to our physical and mental well-being. The emergence of machine learning and automation will require humans to become more creative and agile to remain relevant. Reintroducing a wide variety of Future Fit Crops and their unique nutritional constituents to our gut microbiome could therefore be crucial in feeding our consciousness: our ability to perform, learn and adapt could be linked to the diversity of our diets and gut flora. By 2050, a greater understanding of our gut microbiome will enable us to leverage on the varied nutritional components of Future Fit Crops to improve our overall well-being.
Let's work together to realize this vision one meal at a time!
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