By Sahlie P. Lacson

In a recent gathering of members of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), all of them echoed the need to transform the existing Philippine food system. Why? (1) It is dysfunctional, that is, the farmers/fishers, consumers, and the environment suffer; (2) It is unfair – the farmers do not get a fair share of profits; (3) there arises social problems – poverty drives people away from the rural areas and away from farming or fishing; and (4) there is constant danger of food insecurity due to reliance on a few species.

When we speak of food system, this refers to the processes and products that are involved in bringing food from the farm to the dining table; it includes providing inputs to the farm and covers how we cook our food and how we store it. Of all the components of agriculture, the food sector has the greatest impact on the economy, consumer health, environment, and society. Simply put, transforming the food system should start with the preparation of food.

Fact 1: Increase in the obesity rate among children. The 2018 Expanded National Nutrition Survey data reveals that from 8.6% in 2015, overweight and obese children aged five to 10 years old increased to 11.7%. Increase in percentage can also be associated with the top or leading cause of mortality in the Philippines, which is diseases of the heart; and anybody can become a victim – whether rich or poor, young or old. This fact is basically one of the reasons why a need to transform the food system should be eloquated. How could we then resolve it?

One recommendation is through the use of Planetary Health Diet (PHD). A PHD plate of food comprises the following: half is fruits and vegetables; the rest is plant protein sources, whole grain, unsaturated oils, and little meat, eggs, and dairy. Based on the 2013 PSA (Philippine Statistics Authority) survey, if we compare Filipino food with PHD in terms of daily energy intake, there is an excess of 36% on the consumption of grains (rice, corn, and wheat). This could be attributed to the Filipinos’ regard to such grains as a staple food. Almost always, a Filipino every day meal is never complete without rice (corn or wheat being secondary).

In order to attain the daily food intake requirements, a 36% reduction is needed for grains, while there are considerable percentages needed in the intake of tubers, vegetables, and fruits. In protein sources, reduction is needed in the intake of beef, lamb and pork, as well as in chicken and other poultry sources; while an increase in consumption in fish, legumes and nuts should be encouraged. Added sugars should also be decreased by 45%.

Fact 2: Marketing matters. Analysis on the correlation between supermarket shopping and nutritional outcomes of the food consumed shows that shopping in supermarkets significantly increases body mass index (BMI). Shopping in supermarkets contributes to higher consumption of processed and highly processed foods and lower consumption of unprocessed foods. What should be done here?

Importance given to traditional cuisine should be given emphasis. These include consumption of meat on the bone (bulalo, paksiw na pata, or tinola); organ meat (isaw, dinuguan, or papaitan); fresh unadulterated, minimally processed plant and animal products; and sprouted and fermented plant products (kimchi or buro (pickled)).

Focus should also be given to what is called “grand slammer foods Hit 5 defenses”: fruits (lychee, mangoes, peaches, plums, cherries, kiwi, etc.); veggies (bamboo shoots, carrots, eggplant, kale, etc.); beverages (black tea, chamomile tea, coffee, green tea); nuts/seeds (flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts); seafood (squid ink); oil (olive oil); and sweets (dark chocolate).

Fact 3: Wisdom of local and seasonal food. Benefits include freshness or minimal processing; diversity guarantees that the multiple functions of food are achieved; there is minimal production problems due to lack of adaptation; it is easier to recycle waste and byproducts to farms; it energizes local or rural economy; there is food security; and it is appropriate for archipelago that runs north to south, with diverse environments and cultures.

Fact 4: Rice: a case for food system transformation. PHD suggests overall reduction of rice consumption and corresponding reduction of production, particularly white rice. Shift should also be done to healthy form of rice such as those with low glycemic index (GI) varieties (lower than 65 GI, not sticky), consumption of brown rice, stored palay, “bahaw” (leftover rice), and half rice. Bringing healthy rice to the consumer table involves choices made during farming, milling, storing, cooking, and finally, consumption – the entire food system.

Fact 5: Support services are needed to transform the food system. Who belongs here? Chefs, teachers, celebrities, mass media, and doctors, among other members of society should start a campaign to switch to a science-based food system; hobby farms and agritourism sites should encourage diversification and involvement of young entrepreneurs; innovative private sector-led support systems and seed companies; and government support for alternative crops and livestock.

In summary, Philippine food system needs radical transformation because it is dysfunctional, unfair, and causes social problems and food insecurity. One way to transform it is through the application of PHD, which provides science-based guide of food intake and advocates for a diverse and locally-adapted food. (Although this is not to mean compulsory adoption, this is just to consider the prospect of exceedingly difficult situation of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 because of the current eating habits and agricultural practices.) It also shows that production practices affect food quality, as well as the marketing practices which influence consumption habit. In all of these, food preparation maximizes benefit of food where consumer is the ultimate key to transformation.

(Above information are excerpts from a lecture given by Academician Eufemio T. Rasco Jr., chair of Agricultural Sciences Division of NAST Philippines during NAST Philippine Symposium: Transforming the Philippine Food System.)