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  • Writer's pictureAkasha Usmani

The future of food chains with Eureka prize winner Arunima Malik

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

The award-winning sustainability researcher speaks about the future of food and the cooperation between Australia and India in sustainable food supplies.

Arunima Malik work looks at the production, and distribution of food, and its impact on climate change.

Dr. Arunima Malik is a Senior Lecturer in the Integrated Sustainability Analysis group at the School of Physics and in the Discipline of Accounting, Business School, University of Sydney. She is in charge of coordinating and teaching postgraduate courses for the Masters of Sustainability program. Malik is a part of the team which has been awarded the 2022 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research. The team included experts from the university from various fields like physics, nutrition, sustainability and business who came together to create cutting-edge data modelling approaches to track billions of supply linkages between food producers and consumers. Their research highlights the factors that influence dietary decisions and helps the United Nations and other international organizations make policies.

Akasha Usmani (AU): Your team has been recognised for the Eureka prize and it consists of experts from various fields - your team has a pretty diverse background - so we would love to know how the team was formed and why it was important for this research to have people from diverse fields?

Arunima Malik (AM): Our interdisciplinary research team has experts from economics, physics, mathematics, biology, nutrition and engineering. Our research project on the environmental impacts of food systems requires perspectives from a range of disciplines; and this research is only made possible by the collaborative effort of academics across faculties – experts who understand how the global economy is structured; experts who can work with big data models and experts who can unravel the intricacies of food systems and supply chains at a global level.

AU: What does your research focus on and what was the reason that made you inclined towards this research?

AM: My research focusses on sustainability supply chain assessments. It is astonishing to realise that the supply chains of the products that we consume on a daily basis can be so complex, spanning multiple continents. I find this intriguing, which prompted my curiosity to undertake research in this space to unravel supply chains at a local, national and global level for a range of consumption patterns.

AU: What were your findings from this research?

AM: We found that emissions associated with the transportation of food are substantial; these are emissions that are embodied in the food that travels across continents to reach our plates. We found that the world’s freight task sums to 125 trillion tonne-km, that is transporting one tonne for 125 trillion kilometres. The team also investigated how nutritional composition of food is associated with greenhouse gas emissions, finding that reducing the proportion of animal foods in the diets does not decrease emissions; however it can lead to higher emissions due to the production and transport of food to compensate the reduce protein content obtained from animal foods. This is particularly true when animal foods are replaced with processed food that are lower in protein content and fiber.

AU: How is climate change affecting our food?

AM: Climate change has been shown to result in extreme weather events that directly impacts yield and food producing sectors. A study undertaken at the University of Sydney found that extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cyclones can directly reduce output of food producing sectors; thereby resulting in regional and sectoral spillover impacts that can lead to job and income losses.

AU: How does climate change disrupt food supply chains and how does it impact our diet quality?

AM: Climate change can reduce the output of certain food sectors, such as grains, fruits and vegetables. Reduced production results in flow-on effects to other sectors that are interconnected by complex supply chain networks; for example transportation, retail and services. Nutritious food are more affected by climate related events; which can reduce the availability of heathy foods in diets resulting from a climate event.

(AU) What is the link between climate change and food security?

AM: Food security refers to the access of nutritious food that can be impacted by climate change, as demonstrated by a study undertaken for regional Australia. Not only can climate change impact the availability of food in general, but it can also have varying effects on nations and localised impacts can occur for communities that rely on home-grown or imported food.

AU: What impact do you envision your research to have?

AM: I hope to see the findings from the research being used for decision-making processes at multiple levels from local, state to federal governments and for raising community awareness.

AU: How can Australia and India collaborate to tackle climate change?

AM: Australia and India are both prone to climate-related events, such as floods and extreme heatwaves. Both countries have established food production systems that are vulnerable to these events, which calls for a need for greater collaboration and cooperation across research centers and policy spheres for initiating new collaborative research projects and capacity building across the two countries.

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