Singapore’s imports of Thai rice 'easily met' by alternative sources but climate change could affect food security

Singapore’s imports of Thai rice 'easily met' by alternative sources but climate change could affect food security

Thailand drought - rice field
A Thai farmer stands in a paddy field that was hit by drought. (File photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s imports of Thai rice can be easily met by alternative sources, said the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) in response to CNA queries about recent reports of severe droughts in Thailand that had affected rice production there. 

“Singapore’s demand for rice is very small compared to total global rice production. For example, we account for only 1.2 per cent, 1.2 per cent and 0.6 per cent of Thailand, Vietnam and India’s total rice exports in 2018 respectively,” an MTI spokesman told CNA. 

“Over the years, we have been deliberate in our diversification strategy. Besides Thailand, Vietnam and India, we also import rice from Myanmar, Cambodia, Japan and the US. Some of these source countries, such as the US, are less affected by domestic shortages and will alleviate any shortages from other source countries.”

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According to MTI, the Rice Stockpile Scheme (RSS) ensures an adequate supply of rice in the market during supply disruption, and all white rice, basmati rice, ponni rice and parboiled rice are classified as stockpile-grade rice. 

“Importers are required to store two months’ worth of imports in government-designated warehouses,” said the spokesman. 

An NTUC FairPrice spokesman told CNA that socio-economic factors and unfavourable weather conditions have affected supply and prices of rice from Thailand over the past year. 

The spokesman said FairPrice has limited the price increase over the past year to about 5 per cent on average, across its range of housebrand rice from Thailand. 

“This is due to various strategies such as stockpiling and forward buying to protect consumers from supply and price fluctuations.” 

NTUC FairPrice also imports rice from Vietnam, India, Australia, USA, Pakistan, Japan and Cambodia, said the spokesman. 

The supermarket chain has seen “growing acceptance” from its customers for rice from countries other than Thailand. 

“For example, the sales mix for Thai rice had decreased from about 90 per cent 10 years ago compared to about 75 per cent today. Concurrently, we have seen increased popularity of rice from Vietnam, which makes up about 15 per cent of our rice sales today,” the spokesman added. 

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For now, consumers in Singapore can still cope with some price increases because of the country's relatively higher household incomes compared to most other countries, said Professor Paul Teng, adjunct senior fellow of food security in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. 

But the big threat to Singapore’s food security comes when large importing countries like China and Indonesia also suffer shortages in their food (rice) production, he added. 

“They will be in the market then to import huge volumes of rice and take up almost all that is available in the marketplace.” 

Only a small amount of rice, or 7 to 10 per cent of total global production, is traded, so any natural or man-made phenomenon that reduces rice production in main rice exporting countries like India, Vietnam and Thailand has implications, said Prof Teng. 

“Importing countries like Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia will all be competing for the reduced amount of rice. The problem is exacerbated if rice crops in the big importing countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are also affected by climate change and production in those countries are also reduced,” he added.

FOOD SECURITY VULNERABLE TO CLIMATE CHANGE 

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) noted that the country's food security is vulnerable to global driving forces and trends, such as population growth, rising urbanisation and incomes, disease outbreaks, resource scarcity and increasingly, climate change. 

“Singapore imports over 90 per cent of our food. We are exposed to global price and supply fluctuations as well as threats of food supply disruption and food contamination internationally,” said an SFA spokesman. 

“These vulnerabilities will become more acute overtime; as global crop and fishery yields are estimated to decline with the changing climate.” 

Citing January 2018 when Malaysia’s leafy vegetable production was affected by a monsoon, the spokesman said Singapore’s supply of vegetables from Malaysia decreased by about 20 per cent as compared to the same period the year before. According to the SFA, Malaysia supplied about 70 per cent of Singapore’s total leafy vegetable import in 2017. 

“Nevertheless, there was no significant impact to Singapore as importers have alternative sources like Thailand and China that were not affected by the monsoon to meet local demand and stabilise supply,” said the SFA spokesman. 

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Aside from diversification, the spokesman said SFA also focuses on growing local produce as well as overseas. 

“Local production will help mitigate our reliance on imports and serve as a buffer during supply disruptions to import sources. Our agri-food industry needs to transform into one that is highly productive and employs climate-resilient and sustainable technologies,” said the spokesman. 

“We envisage farming to become more like manufacturing – where production takes place within a controlled environment with a defined input. The result is an assured and consistent output, and a predictable way to address the effects of climate change and extreme weather.”

Venturing overseas also opens up new markets and helps local farms overcome land constraints, said the SFA spokesman. 

“Produce from local farms, which are established overseas could also be exported back to Singapore, contributing to our food security.”

Prof Teng said “time-tested actions” like building stockpiles, diversification, farming overseas and technology-enabled indoor farming of selected food types in Singapore could boost food security. 

He noted that the government could put early warning systems for food insecurity based on monitoring and computer modeling, to give Singapore a head start on sourcing for supplies. 

“It is also imaginable that indoor farms to enable more community-based farming be supported by the government so that more citizens take ownership of their food security for some food items,” he added. 

Prof Teng noted that in the longer term, climate change will affect the types of crops and animals that Singapore’s traditional food sources can grow, as well as the nutritive value of the exported food. 

As for rice, he believes the real problem will surface when total global rice production has decreased due to climate change, but rice consumption continues to increase due to population growth and more people switching to eating rice, away from their traditional foods like taro, maize and plantain.

For alternatives, Prof Teng said wheat and potato are better for the environment as they require less water to produce the same amount, compared to rice. 

“In the longer term, while rice remains the preferred staple food for most Singaporeans, it may behoove us to consider reducing our per capita consumption of rice and replace it with more wheat and potato.”

Source: CNA/hw

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