While there is a lot of buzz in the West about Plant-based proteins, that 1 in 3 people in the UK are willing to reduce meat consumption and eat more plant-based meals. In the US the growth for plant-based meals are also booming to double digit growth rates. Chinese entrepreneur Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Soho’s Pang Shiyi have both indicated publicly that they will channel investment to developing plant-based protein. Interest in plant based diet outside of Malaysia is due to rising concern on sustainability and health, especially when the world is still reeling from the impact of the Covid -19 pandemic, which many people believe is due to a lack of balance in our eco system.
For Malaysia, there are important, and maybe even critical reasons for to consider devoting resources to re-engineer our people’s diet. Malaysia’s high fat, high starch and sugar rich diet are the reasons for the poor health of Malaysians. Going for plant-based protein is not desirable because it is fashionable or trendy, it has merits that impact on the health of the nation, the economy and the well being of the people. Food players ought to follow the footsteps of IKEA, the Swedish furniture brand to introduce healthy options to their customers. In pre-Covid Singapore, 90% of the restaurants have option of Vegan on their menu. The change need to be led by major food players such as the Quick service restaurants ( QSR); Pizza Hut UK introduced a Jackfruit Pizza, and many of the other QSR chains are working with Beyond Meat to introduce a plant-based option on their menu. Those in leadership have to understand that it is very critical for the health of the nation to engineer this change.
Why it is so important for Malaysia to commit to plant-based diet?
First, the high calories, high sugar and high oil diet has caused over the last 2 decades a high incidence of chronic diseases, and according to the World Health Organization, Chronic disease accounted for 71% of all deaths in 2002, and that at least 80% of these premature heart disease, stroke, diabetics and cancer can be prevented through healthy diet, regular physical activity and avoidance of tobacco products. The Health Ministry has once disclosed the alarming news that close to 1 in 3 is diabetic by 2025. an alarming 7m people will be affected. Currently, 3.6 million Malaysians had the disease, the highest in Asia and one of the highest in the world.
Former Health Minister Dr Dzulkefly said a macro-economic study done in 2011 showed that diabetes cost the country approximately RM2 billion, potentially representing 13 per cent of the healthcare budget for the year 2011.“The sensitivity analysis reflects that this national cost could be as high as RM3.52 billion. In total the national cost of diabetics can be set at 2-5 billion per year.
Second: Animal protein production in Malaysia relies heavily on feed import. Just broilers alone, we need to feed some 830m of them because Malaysians need 1.8m chicken per day. To produce 6m tons of feed, valued at RM9b, we import 100% of the corn ( 3m tons) costing around RM3b-5b depending on prices. This is the part of the reason for the big import food bill, which some put at RM60billion a year. While we cannot completely eliminate the demand for animal protein, we can work to re-engineer taste and preferences ( especially among the young people) and redesign our production to meet our needs. Malaysia must re-examine its own competitive advantages and see how best we can produce the kind of food for our food security. Corn is a main ingredient for feed, and our weather is not suitable for feed-corn production as we need dry weather to turn matured corn into feed. Importing such large quantity of feed makes us very vulnerable to the vagaries of global prices, currency movement and the larger demand and supply conditions.
The government leadership has to understand that it is something very critical for the health of the nation to engineer change. Years back I was in New Zealand, and the leadership there was talking about how to re-engineer the yam rich diet of the island people to reduce the high incidence of diabetics. The same problems are also experienced in Jamaica, Barbados and the other Caribbean islands, where the diet of the people is starch-intensive. The University of East Indies conducted study to show that re-engineering the diet could provide permanent solution. All these has to link with the agriculture policy of the country. People may have the will to change, but the system and environment must enable the change; for food, attractive alternatives must be available.
The opportunity of Jackfruit as the new meat
Jackfruit grows well on Malaysian soil and weather, and the country produces some of the best quality jackfruit for the world. In spite of Malaysia being a smaller player in terms of production volume, discerning consumers can appreciate the difference between Malaysian Jackfruit and those grown in the higher latitude countries. The intensity of the equatorial sun and abundant rainfall makes the difference; robust photosynthesis year round produces the sweetest and most aromatic fruits with high nutrients. This is one reason why Malaysian jackfruits are exported to Europe via air freight, each week, some 20 tons travelled by air freight goes destination markets in the West.
But for too long, Malaysian jackfruits are only use as table fruits, and lack of proper distribution logistics and development of market stunted the growth of this wonderful fruit. The fruit has for too long been undervalued, and under-appreciated. Malaysian farmers only pay attention on the planting side, they can only depend on the middle men to come around and buy their produce. There is no effective farmers cooperative to organise the demand and supply and a professional body to work on creating value for the produce. Importantly the related industries need to be build to support the full development of the sector. The modern food production is an integrated value chain of 12 industries; from farm input ( seeds and planting materials,, soil, fertilisers, pest control, farm infrastructure development, irrigation) to farm management ( weed control, planting, crop management, harvest) to post harvest processing ( primary processing ( as commodity), secondary processing (as ingredient) and final processing ( as final products ready to cook, ready to eat); there is also the design and packing, cold storage, logistics that include transport and forwarding. On top of all these, are overall farm design and management skills that take agriculture into 4.0 where additional revenue are created from agro-tourism and the sales of farm products. All these areas require different skill sets and only scale can drive the engagement of talented professionals to the sector.
Jackfruit to make the New Meat
The Malaysian Jackfruit sector has a good foundation now. Mardi and other government department has come up with good planting stocks, such as the J33. Effort must now go further to help farmers upgrade quality, reduce incidence of pest and diseases and increase yield of the edible part of the fruit. For example in utilising young jackfruit as plant-based meat, we can use up to 75% of the fruit; which is much more efficient than using the Jackfruit as table fruit ( which is only 30% without seed, and 40% with seeds). Malaysian planters have yet to learn how to produce good quality young jackfruit for the manufacture of plant based meat. This require further research and guidance from experts. It is my wish that the authorities understand the potential and find the critical point of intervention to move the industry forward. There is only one way; and that is going forward, otherwise all the effort and investment of the past years will be wasted in vain as producers left the playing field because it is not sustainable.
For the health of the nation, for productivity and well being, the Malaysian diet need to be re-engineered, and Jackfruit provides a good source ingredient for this. The Agriculture department must work to research to produce the highest quality young jackfruit for this purpose. Jackfruit itself is high in fibre and minerals, science can do more to enhance its protein content.