Food security Singapore style

The 2007-2008 global food crisis took place amidst an unprecedented inflation and supply crunch in various key food items such as grains. The situation was amplified when high grain prices spread to other food produce, especially meat, as grain feed constitutes a large part of meat production cost. There was anxiety, and even panic in some food importing countries, as several countries began imposing export bans or quotas. As a country that imports over 90% of its food supply, Singapore is especially vulnerable to such a drastic change in food supply and prices. Its small size notwithstanding, Singapore also has to grapple with the likelihood that Singapore’s population could reach 6.9 million in 2030 – up from the current 5.3 million – straining its resources like land (and its food provisioning capability). While it would be controversial to accept a Malthusian perspective of a world in which food insecurity is the inevitable consequence of overpopulation and outstripping the world’s finite resources, it would also be foolish for policymakers to not conceptualize a food resilience strategy, especially in the aftermath of this most recent global food crisis. This article argues that the fundamental logics of trade and inter-country comparative advantage remain the cornerstone of Singapore’s food resilience program, despite official efforts to encourage domestic production of farm produce.

With the above as a backdrop, Singapore has devoted considerable resources to its food resilience efforts. Chief amongst its effort is the boosting of local farm production. To this end, policymakers have invested S$20 million in a Food Fund (initiated in 2009, with funds released in stages) to incentivise farms to explore new farming technologies that would ensure Singapore’s food supply resilience in the local production of three key food items: eggs, leafy vegetables, and fish. The plan is geared towards increasing Singapore’s self-sufficiency from 23% to 30% for eggs, from 7% to 10% for leafy vegetables, and from 4% to 15% for fish. The government hopes that with funding support, Singaporean companies and farms will be incentivised to increase their productivity levels. Some of the Food Fund budget would also be allocated to research and development, and food diversification (explored in greater detail below).

While it might be perplexing for a country with limited space to encourage domestic food production, such a move is justified in a strategic context. To this end, the lack of food has historically led to political upheavals, and it is unsurprising to find that one of the sparks that caused the late 2010 Arab Spring was a lack of affordable food for the masses. One only has to look at the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to see the destabilizing effects of a hungry and desperate populace. Singapore’s own experience of a food shortage took place under different circumstances – during the Japanese occupation, and the peak periods of the Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation in which its conventional food importing channels were curtailed – and is less dramatic compared to the Aran Spring. Nevertheless, this experience underlines the importance of domestic food producing capability in maintaining social stability. Viewed from this perspective, it would be unrealistic to dismiss local food production totally.

To complement domestic food production efforts, Singapore draws upon its pro-business stance and its strengths in the trading of goods and services (it enjoys the world’s highest trade to GDP ratio with Hong Kong almost on an annual basis). In securing food resilience, the city state is wise to capitalize on its comparative advantage in international trade and its strategic location. To this end, Singapore has actively diversified its food supply source, reducing its dependence on more traditional food importing sources like neighbouring Malaysia, which supplies a huge proportion of the city state’s food. Take fruits for instance, Malaysia’s share of fruit imports into Singapore has declined steadily from 60% to just under 50% from 1999 to 2006. To reduce the dependence on any single source, fruits are sourced from regional countries like China and Australia, and non-traditional ones like the USA. This food source diversification protects Singapore against potential food shortages and to a smaller extent, price volatility. Such a move is also pragmatic for a land and natural resource scarce country as it is able to, invisibly and implicitly, import millions of tons of the water that is used to grow the food elsewhere around the globe. The commerce in ‘virtual’ water allows water to be ‘traded’, in the form of food produce, from countries with an abundant supply of water (and other related inputs like land and labour) to countries with poorer endowment factors. To illustrate the logics of ‘virtual’ water, it generally takes about 1,000 m3 of water to grow a ton of vegetables, 1,450 m3 for a ton of wheat, and 42,500 m3 for a ton of beef (through the feedstock used to raise cattle). Add this to the fact that a typical Singaporean household spends about 35% of its budget on meat products, and it becomes apparent that a trade-centric food diversification represents a coherent strategy as it allows for food to be sourced competitively, without overtaxing its limited resources.

While the grim prediction of Malthus is hard to accept or prove, Singapore is nonetheless wise to prepare itself against any future disruptions to its food supply. Moreover, the international consensus is that food prices is likely to remain high in the near to medium term as global food production comes under pressure, with climate change affecting harvests, and a rising population and rapid urbanization increasing food demand. As the overall food supply becomes more volatile, Singapore is taking a well balanced approach in its food resilience programs. It understands the geo-strategic concern of having some (however miniscule) form of domestic food production, yet pragmatically balances this with a proactive food import diversification policy, harnessing the logic of comparative advantage and its existing strengths in international trade.

Guanie Lim is a PhD student and Teaching Assistant at the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. His research interests include commodity chain analysis, centred upon the global agro-food system. Currently his research is focused on the aquaculture industry of Singapore and the broader Southeast Asian region. Guanie has an MSc in International Political Economy from the Nanyang Technological University and a BEng (Hons) in Chemical Engineering from the University of Bath.