A rooftop farm in Singapore on May 27, 2020. The small island nation lacks natural resources and imports more than 90 percent of its food from more than 170 countries and regions.
Lauryn Ishack | Mayor Bloomberg | fake images
Singapore is known for its variety of street food and local cuisine, but many may not know that it faces a persistent challenge: food safety.
The increasingly pressing problem came into the national spotlight after recent food export bans, in particular the chicken export ban by neighboring Malaysia, from which Singapore imports 34% of its chickens.
As a small island nation, Singapore lacks natural resources: imports more than 90% of its food from more than 170 countries and regions.
With the country vulnerable to many external obstacles, the government launched a “30 by 30” initiative to produce 30% of your nutritional needs by 2030.
But the country is already feeling the effects of rising food inflation.
Food prices rose 4.1% in April from a year earlier, up from 3.3% in March, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Ministry of Trade and Industry said.
Street vendor stall owners, in particular, are beginning to feel the pinch as they are under pressure to keep prices low for the masses.
Remus Seow, owner of Fukudon, a street vendor stall selling Japanese rice bowls, is one example.
In the last six months, the prices of the products he buys, such as cooking oil, eggs and meat, have risen between 30% and 45%, he said.
Seow recently raised prices for the first time since he opened his stall two years ago. If prices continue to rise, 20% to 35% of customers may not return to his booth, he said.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore said high global food prices are expected to continue to contribute to local food inflation beyond 2022.
World food prices had already started to rise during the pandemic, but the Ukraine war has worsened those inflationary pressures.
Food shortages will continue in the short term, and possibly even for the next year or two, said Dil Rahut, a senior fellow at the Asian Development Bank Institute.
Other countries cannot jump quickly to fill the gap left by Ukraine and Russia because it takes at least a year to grow fresh produce, Rahut said.
Similarly, Paul Teng, associate senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, warned that even if the war ends, food prices will not immediately return to pre-war prices.
That’s because factors such as rising fuel costs, labor shortages and a disrupted supply chain will exacerbate existing food shortages, keeping prices high, Teng said.
The World Bank has reported that Food prices are expected to rise about 20% this year before winding down in 2023.
While Singapore is still doing relatively well in maintaining food security, its future is unknown, Teng said.
“Singapore has been downplaying agriculture and food imports,” he said. “Now we have made a U-turn and started to accelerate, but this needs time to bear fruit,” she added.
The “30 by 30” plan aims to give Singapore a sufficient level of self-production to see it through tough times, but that will not be enough to completely replace imports, Teng said.
That is because the government has decided to invest more in increasing the country’s gross domestic product and average family income instead of investing in agricultural activities, he added.
“As long as you have money and as long as there is no disruption in the supply chain, you can always buy food somewhere because the volume we need is not (relatively) very high,” Teng said.
But while it would be “technically and technologically” possible for Singapore to achieve its goal, two problems remain: prices and consumer attitudes towards “new foods”, he added.
Teng said consumers are particular about buying “natural foods” and may not accept “new foods” such as lab-grown chicken and alternative sources of protein, which is a big part of the “30 by 30” goal. .
But Rahut warned that achieving the goal would be “very difficult” because the deadline is approaching and Singapore still produces only 10% of its own nutritional needs.
People will continue to buy imported food products if they are cheaper than local products, unless the government can subsidize the products, he added.
Seow also said he would not buy local produce unless prices can match those of imports.
“But the only way (to move forward) is for the government to go ahead and do everything it can to maintain prices, quality and demand for what we need,” he said. “And then people will slowly accept (local products).”
Rahut also suggested that marketing local products such as high quality and nutritious Food may incentivize consumers to buy it at a higher price, just as some are willing to pay more for products marketed as organic.
Both Teng and Rahut said the government can, in the short term, provide safety nets for the disadvantaged, for example through cash payments or vouchers.
But Teng added that one of Singapore’s weaknesses is that while it tries to diversify its imports from a basket of countries, it still relies heavily on one or two countries.
For example, Singapore imported 48% of their chickens from Brazil and 34% from Malaysia in 2021, the Singapore Food Agency said.
Teng also pointed out that most of the chickens imported from Malaysia are live chickens, while the rest of the chickens imported from Brazil and other countries are frozen.
At the policy level, therefore, it will be important to diversify imports for different types of products, Teng said, such as finding more sources of live chickens to import.
The government may also encourage more Singaporean companies to grow food abroad and form agreements with other governments to ensure products are not subject to export bans, it added.
“The general solution is to make sure that the producing countries, the exporting countries, have a surplus (of food), and there are many ways that we can help other countries to do that,” Teng said.
Similarly, Rahut added that since Singapore is such a technologically advanced country, it could help other countries improve their food production systems.
“That will not only help Singapore stabilize food prices and food security, but also global food security and food prices,” Rahut said.