How can education and awareness increase food security?

In a continuation of my little how-the-heck-is-what-I’m-studying-related-to-food-security series, through this through this blog post, I seek to answer the following question: How can non-production focused farms (i.e. agritourism-focused or educational farms) increase a city’s food security?

My short answer is the following:

Agritourism & educational farms and other local food organizations teach urban residents about environmental and social issues caused by traditional agricultural production/food systems –>

urban residents become educated on the nuanced benefits and drawbacks of local vs. non-local food  –>

they become more conscious food consumers –>

they support the development of more sustainable, production-focused, local food systems –>

those sustainable, production-focused, local food systems increase their city’s food security.

 

My long answer is the following:

In Singapore, my interviews with leaders of two prominent local farms—Bollywood Veggies and Citizen Farm—have reiterated to me the importance of local food systems in increasing people’s awareness about and education on local food systems, which, in the long run, can better ensuring a city’s food security. Manda Foo, the manager of Bollywood Veggies, explained to me the importance of Bollywood veggies educational activities in terms of the country’s food security, even if Bollywood Veggies is currently only accessible and appealing to a small portion of Singaporeans. Darren Tan, on the other hand, explained the importance of City Farm’s production-focused farming activities in making local farming in Singapore too prominent and relevant an activity to go unnoticed—by all types of Singaporeans.

Ivy Singh founded Bollywood Veggies in 2001 as an alternative retirement option. Bollywood Veggies soon gained renown as an educational farm and more broadly (internationally), as a pioneering social enterprise. Furthermore, with her newfound farmer status and heightened awareness of challenges facing Singapore farmers, Singh instigated monumental changes to Singapore agricultural policy. Since the country’s recent, rapid development, the Singapore government has prioritized industry over agriculture, and the country’s agricultural heritage has largely been lost to housing, economic, and industry developments. To help ensure present-day farmers’ livelihoods, Singh, Bollywood Veggies, and the Kranji Countryside Association (established by Singh) have helped Singapore farmers gain rights to build houses, workers quarters, educational centers, and restaurants on farms, among many other things. Manda Foo, manager of Bollywood Veggies described, “I think we’ve really pushed boundaries in terms of [Singaporeans’] perception of farmers. People often think of farmers as just farmers. Now, in the age of knowledge, farmers have a lot more to offer. They have innovative businesses, they act as service providers, educators, consultants…” Helping Singapore farmers gain access to provide alternative services and receive alternative forms of income helps secure their livelihoods in spite of other challenges and uncertainty (e.g. caused by unfavorable government policy, rising input prices, climate change, etc.) Furthermore, farmers’ initiatives to engage non-farmers in agriculture—whether that’s through offering educational programs or connecting with consumers through direct sales channels—helps sustain the farmers’ businesses and ensure reliable local food production.

Today, Bollywood Veggies’ produce sources its own restaurant and a weekly farmers’ market. Yet Bollywood Veggies’ function, as an agritourism and educational farm, is not something to be taken lightly within Singapore’s agricultural and food security context. Certainly, Bollywood Veggies caters to a select proportion of Singaporeans. Foo described how the establishment of Bollywood Veggies’ farmers’ market in 2010 provided the farm with much more “mass appeal,” but it’s still very difficult to engage with many Singaporeans.  There is no public transportation in the Kranji Countryside, and general patrons/learners at Bollywood Veggies consist of Singaporeans who are educated, interested in learning more about local food production, and have cars.

Regardless, Foo emphasized how important general awareness of agricultural activities in Singapore is to the country’s food security. Bollywood Veggies introduces many students, tourists, and locals Singaporeans to something they’ve never experienced firsthand—agriculture. And providing Singaporeans with an understanding of what a farm does and how it operates is essential to influencing their consumption behavior. Foo described how, at the end of the day, Bollywood Veggies might only sell its produce to middle- and upper-class Singaporeans. However, Singapore’s land constraints only allow it to produce enough food to support 10 to 20 percent of the population anyway. So, Manda asked, why not sell it to the people who understand and support Bollywood Veggies’ mission and who are able to pay the proper price for their food?

No matter Bollywood Veggies’ social/educational mission and serious political agenda, walking through the farm in the Kranji Countryside (as rural Singapore as you’re going to get) felt like walking through a wonderland. It makes sense why Bollywood Veggies is so insistent that Singaporeans (and foreigners) visit the farm, even if it’s inconvenient to get to: strolling around Bollywood Veggies drastically contrasted my explorations of other Singapore neighborhoods, parks, and even community gardens and rooftop farms. I imagine that for Singaporeans, a visit to Bollywood Veggies is likely to make a lasting impact in terms of how they conceive of agriculture and Singapore’s food sourcing practices.

 

 

During my first week here, I’ve conducted interviews with organizers of community gardens, educational farms, and urban farm supply and consulting businesses. All members of these local food systems I’ve encountered have emphasized to me how little the average Singaporean knows about gardening or farming. Here are some things I’ve heard from my interviewees during the past week:

“In Singapore, an understanding of where food comes from is just not there.”

“We don’t have knowledge of where our food comes from.”

“My biggest worry is that people don’t know how to grow anything over here.”

“There’s nothing farming-related in our education system.”

“Surprisingly, not a lot of people know how to garden here. It’s just not even a thing.”

“Everybody has black thumbs in Singapore.”

“The lack of common knowledge here is crazy sometimes—in gardening.”

“At the end of the day, when the supermarket goes dry, we’re screwed.”

Singapore’s general lack of farming and gardening knowledge is why Darren Ho, Head Farmer at Citizen Farm, is insistent on “shoving farming in people’s faces.” Citizen Farm is one Edible Garden City’s main initiatives. (Edible Garden City is a front runner of Singapore’s local food movement, which runs a variety of agriculture/educational/social enterprises.) Citizen Farm was founded to become a sustainable model of urban farming, with an emphasis on agricultural production. Tan described how its founders “wanted to take a critical look into urban farming and the impacts it can generate.” Today, Citizen farms’ impacts include its role almost as a startup incubator for various urban farming products, an employer of people with disabilities and elderly people, and a producer of 20-100 kilograms of crops per day.

 

Ho’s strategy for increasing Singaporean’s awareness about agricultural production and the benefits of local food differs from Bollywood Veggies due to the farm’s location and production methods. Unlike Bollywood Veggies, Citizen Farm uses a variety of high-tech growing methods, such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and vertical gardens, to maximize its agricultural productivity within a small farm area. Yet Citizen Farm’s experimental production techniques by no means inhibit the farm’s ability to provide consumers with a direct relationship with their farmer, knowledge of how their food is grown (e.g. without pesticides), and an understanding of easy it is for anybody to grow their own food—what Ho believes are three key benefits of local food production.

Furthermore, like Foo, Ho sees education and awareness as a key step towards increasing Singapore’s food security. He believes that direct consumer support is critical to the sustainability, continued innovation, and significant agricultural productivity of Citizen Farm. Furthermore, production and agritourism/education-focused Singapore farms are both critical to educating Singaporeans about the importance of local food.

Foo pinpointed Bollywood Veggies’ key contribution to Singapore’s food security as its providing “awareness, education, and brand-building” to Singaporean consumers and other farms. Singapore’s local food movement is in its early stages, and Foo has found that many people want to support local food organizations but don’t know how to. Foo deemed Bollywood Veggies “the motherhood of all farms,” given its leadership role in making Singapore consumers and the government more receptive of and appreciative towards traditional forms of local agriculture. Bollywood Veggies stands apart from many other new, local farms/social enterprises in Singapore because it circulates the benefits of more traditional agricultural methods rather than high-tech urban farms. Beyond its organic production methods, Bollywood Veggies also is dedicated to growing and educating consumers on the significance of growing indigenous crops: they are more nutritious, better climate-adapted, and require less pesticides than other popular leafy vegetables.

Bollywood Veggies’ positive messages about locally grown food benefits farms and farmers throughout Singapore. After people visit Bollywood Veggies, they begin to look out for local produce in supermarkets. They now know it exists. Foo believes Bollywood Veggies’ greatest contributions to Singapore’s food security is how it drives demand.

Despite Citizen Farm and Bollywood Veggies’ differences, Ho and Foo both agree upon the importance of consumer awareness and education to support Singapore farms and therefore increase Singapore’s food security.

I just hit ‘command + f’ on my keyboard, and I found that ‘awareness’ and ‘education’ appear over thirty times on this page. I’m a bit concerned about that because at this point on my research trip, those words don’t mean much to me—they are universal buzzwords. ‘Awareness and education’ is a nice, general three words that will allow me to glaze over important topics at hand, if I’m not careful.

Two months ago, my skeptical self may have thought differently, but since then, I have observed how and now, I truly believe that people’s knowledge about where their food comes from is very important in ensuring a city’s food security.

Despite my inclination to write in Econ-speak, consumers are not just consumers, they are people. They are community members, family members, friends, activists, politicians, business owners, and so much more. This summer has made me so much for optimistic about the ideals and potential successes of conscious consumerism. And to have more conscious consumers in cities around the world, consumers in those cities need to be educated about what they are purchasing, where it comes from, and what the greater implications of their purchases are. Only then can they make decisions with the information to choose what is best for themselves, the farmers, and the natural environment.