Singapore’s Agro-Industry: Seize Opportunity, Take Action on Food Security– Part 1 of 2

In January of this year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported an all-time high in its Food Price Index.  In early February, the index rose even higher, causing food related riots and global uneasiness that more dramatic surges were coming.  It was an ironic backdrop when Lunar New Year celebrations in many Asian countries focused on family gatherings, platefuls of food, and themes like abundance and prosperity.  Could the Year of the Rabbit bring an increase in hunger and insecurity?

According to Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown, our world is now heading into uncharted territory.  As countries like Algeria have experienced recently, political instability has a close link with prices of basic commodities that people use on a daily basis.

Singapore’s approach

While the poorest countries will bear the brunt of rising food prices, no country is immune.  At Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies based at NTU, numerous studies are underway to better understand food security in the ASEAN context, and how they can be better managed in countries, especially high-risk ones like Singapore.  As a small island nation-state, the country imports some 97% of its food.  With minimal hinterlands, farming currently takes place at roughly 275 sites around the island, taking up a total land area of about .75m hectares.

According to Dr. Wong Hon Mun, Director of Agri Establishment Regulation at Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), Singapore’s key strategy to food resilience is diversification of the sources of supply.  “Diversification enables us to hedge our risks and to import quality and safe food from as many sources as possible, at competitive prices,” he says.  “Farmers can also apply to the Food Fund to enable R&D in agro-technology and for upgrading of their farms.”  The government created this $10 million Food Fund to improving productivity on existing farms administered by AVA.  Several local farms have successfully participated in this programme.

The Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), which represents some 20 larger farm businesses in the northwest of Singapore, supports the government’s actions to date but would like to see attention focused beyond the productivity issue.  They feel planning hurdles and policy issues need urgent action, cultural shifts in motion, and also promising technology on the horizon. 

Farmers urge more, broader support

KCA member Chelsea Wan’s family owns business Jurong Frog Farm in Kranji.  She summarizes many of the obstacles facing local farmers currently operating around the country, and anyone who would want to follow into agriculture.

“Our biggest problems and also its solution is working with the government,” she says.  “All our farmland is given out in 20 year leases, which makes it difficult for investment in expensive technology, improvements and training. Some regional farms now have their leases extended with three year options, so there’s the mentality to just wait it out and see if there’s another extension, rather than improve farm productivity.”

Not surprisingly in this context, many of these businesses specialize in high value ornamental flowers and fish for export when they could be serving a valuable role as a long term hedge against food price spikes.  It’s a classic trader mentality: get in under tight conditions, make big bucks, and move on.

Ms. Wan doesn’t believe the pace of development in suburban Singapore has been echoed in the infrastructure in place for the countryside.  “There needs to be more representation for agriculture in the government, and better understanding of the issues.”

The marketplace also offers challenges. “It’s not an Asian characteristic to go for quality over cost.  We can’t compete with the prices from China and Malaysia, and presently it is cheaper for us to import livestock from overseas than raise ourselves,” Ms. Wan says.  “The ideas popular in western counties like ‘Food Miles’, eating organic, and eating local haven’t taken off here yet.  We need to be able to produce more livestock and pass on savings to consumers.  Consumers need awareness on how the food gets to their supermarkets and benefits of buying local.  Then the issue of food security will start to be addressed.”

Local quail farmer William Ho agrees.  “Locals need to be educated on the importance of food security and also to appreciate the role local farmers can play,” he says.  “Singaporeans are very lucky as we can enjoy every type of food the world can offer, but it’s very sad many children don’t even know the difference between a cow and a goat, or where their eggs come from.”

Feedback reflects the existence of a robust agriculture industry in Singapore would depend on tackling underlying issues like these.  But beyond policy and market conditions, is the culture starting to shift?  Could a new era of urban agriculture be sprouting, and could it mean new business opportunities?

Find out more when part 2 of this series goes live on 1 March.


Chris Tobias

Managing Director/Lead Strategist, Forward –
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