COVID-19 pandemic highlights importance of strengthening Singapore's food security, say experts
SINGAPORE: From growing rice at sea to turning to microalgae as an alternative protein source - these are some of the ways Singapore could boost its homegrown food production in the future as it looks to improve its food security.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a wake-up call for Singapore on the issue of food security, say experts.
“The crisis could be a timely reminder of how fragile food security can be,” said Professor William Chen, director of the Nanyang Technological University’s Food Science and Technology programme.
While there are other factors such as climate change which pose a threat to food security, these are relatively far off, he noted.
The coronavirus outbreak, as well as resulting lockdowns to stop its spread, has helped put a spotlight on the issue, said Prof Chen, who is also Michael Fam chair professor at NTU.
In March, Malaysia announced its movement control order, with measures including barring citizens from leaving and foreigners from entering the country. This sparked a round of panic buying in Singapore, with long queues of people at supermarkets stocking up on items such as eggs and meat.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong later announced that his Malaysian counterpart Muhyiddin Yassin had assured him that the flow of goods and cargo - including food supplies - between the two countries would continue despite the travel restrictions.
At the time, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing noted that Singapore had contingency plans for a disruption of supplies from Malaysia, which included national stockpiles, building up its own capabilities and diversification of its sources. However, speaking in Parliament earlier this month, Mr Chan said the country would have to be ready for more disruptions to its supply of food and other essentials as lockdowns in various countries “severely diminished global production capacities and disrupted global supply chains”.
About 90 per cent of Singapore’s food currently comes from overseas.
Last month Singapore and six other countries - namely Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Myanmar and New Zealand - issued a joint ministerial statement highlighting a commitment to maintaining open supply chains amid the ongoing pandemic.
“One of the ways to go forward is to have more of these supply chain connectivity agreements,” said food security expert Paul Teng. However, Prof Teng - an adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies under the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies - said it was unclear how binding such agreements were.
During times of crisis, countries may understandably seek to protect their own interests, said Prof Chen.
“It would be very difficult to impose (on other countries) that you promised this and that,” he noted.
Prof Teng pointed to Vietnam’s move last month to suspend exports of rice to ensure its own national food security amid the COVID-19 outbreak - which it has since reversed - as well as other factors beyond the control of governments, such as the droughts in Thailand that had affected rice production there. Prof Chen also highlighted how governments may choose to keep supply chains open, as exports of food and other essential items are a significant source of revenue for these countries.
READ: Singapore must be ready for supply disruptions due to global COVID-19 lockdowns: Chan Chun Sing
URBAN FARMING IN SINGAPORE
While only 10 per cent of Singapore’s food is produced locally, it aims to become less dependent on other countries over the course of the next decade.
Last year, the Singapore Food Agency announced plans to have 30 per cent of the country’s food produced locally by 2030. It aimsto achieve this in land-scarce Singapore by four means - harnessing technology, increasing the amount of space dedicated to farming, as well as supporting local agriculture and encouraging consumers to buy local produce.
In April, a S$30 million grant was announced to help boost local food production.
And with the opening of an 18ha Agri-Food Innovation Park in Sungei Kadut next year - dedicated to high-tech farming as well as research and development in the sector - Singapore aims to stake its own claim in the S$5 trillion agri-tech industry.
Even so, the price sensitivity of Singapore consumers means they tend to shy away from local produce, which is generally more expensive than imports from elsewhere in the region, Prof Teng noted.
“There are also some who believe that imported is better, particularly from countries like Japan, Australia or USA,” said Bjorn Low, co-founder and executive director of urban farming social enterprise Edible Garden City.
Prof Chen said his research in microalgae - an alternative protein food source - showed it could be done inexpensively and without sunlight.
Still, Mr Low noted there are other hurdles in urban farming in Singapore.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is a talent crunch. Not only is it difficult to hire Singaporeans to become farmers, it is also difficult to train our staff locally, as there are little to no accredited farming programmes,” he added, noting that there is also a lack of space and resources, with the resulting lack of economies of scale leading to higher costs.
“Thankfully, all of these issues are changing for the better, as the Government is extending more help to local farmers, and as people are becoming more aware of the quality of local produce, as well as the national and nutritional benefits of buying local.”
Technology could also expand the scope of what can be grown locally, said Prof Teng.
He pointed to British startup Agrisea, which claims to have developed a variety of rice that can be grown in the ocean, noting it is in early discussions to test it in Southeast Asia. "This could be a real game-changer," he said. "We might see big circular platforms growing rice (in the sea) around Singapore."
READ: The Big Read: Singapore has been buttressing its food security for decades. Now, people realise why
BACK TO BASICS FARMING
Even as Singapore moves to adopt tech to boost its local produce, Prof Teng - who himself ran a fish farm until two years ago - believes there is still a place for smaller, more conventional farming methods.
“It’s not proven to us yet - or to me anyway - that a few large farms can feed everybody,” he said.
Community gardens could serve this purpose of growing vegetables for residents, he noted, adding that the authorities could allow for excess vegetables from such gardens to be sold off.
While noting Edible Garden City uses agritech to overcome limitations such as space or climate - allowing it to grow kale and specialty Japanese vegetables like komatsuna in indoor climate controlled environments - there must be a balance with “natural farming methods”, Mr Low said.
“At Edible Garden City, we grow what we can outdoors using natural farming permaculture methods. This has the least impact on the environment and is the most sustainable way of farming, keeping our soil healthy and productive for future generations,” he said.
“Additionally, there's also a wide variety of veggies that grow well in our climate, many of which are not only tasty but that are incredibly nutritious.”
Prof Chen also noted that as part of food security, Singaporeans should reduce their level of consumption as well as the amount of food waste produced here. Any waste produced should be composted, he said.
He pointed to figures released by the National Environment Agency on Wednesday that showed that food waste made up 20 per cent - or 600,000 tonnes - of the three million tonnes of waste generated here last year.
Beyond that, he said there could be greater decentralisation of food production here, noting this would lighten the burden of ensuring food security on the Government.
While fish farming may be too difficult to do at a community level, there are other options, said Prof Chen.
“If we talk about community gardens, why not community chicken farms?” he asked, noting this could provide both poultry and eggs to residents.