Finally, here’s a post that directly responds to a fundamental research question of mine: how do local farms contribute to a city’s food security?
(In my last two blog posts, I’ve answered a similar question: why are local food organizations and non-production focused farms important to ensure Singapore’s food security? Local food organizations promote consumer agricultural education and awareness, which makes those consumers more inclined to grow their own food and purchase locally grown food. Those activities both further propel the cycle of agricultural education and awareness and help sustain production-focused local farms.)
Pt. 1 – But first–hi, from Penang, Malaysia
I’m writing this blog as I sit for my fifth meal of the day at a street food center in Penang, Malaysia. (It’s noon.) Hopefully I can write for long enough to distract myself until I regain the appetite to try the next item on my list of about fifty foods I’m determined to try in Penang during my one more day here. I first thought it would be fun to share the list of foods I’ve eaten here in the past day, but it’s honestly so long that it’s embarrassing. Here are some pictures of my favorites, though:
[WHEN I HAVE BETTER WIFI, SORRY!]
So yes, I like food a lot. It’s one of the main reasons why I became interested in sustainable production and consumption networks. And while my trip to Malaysia this weekend is just for fun (AKA to eat), Malaysian agriculture is very important to my research in Singapore.
Per the easy-to-Google statistic, Singapore imports over 90% of its food supply. A top priority in Singapore’s food security roadmap is to diversify its imports, and Singapore currently imports food from 170 countries. Yet a disproportional amount of Singapore’s food imports come from Malaysia: Singapore’s Agricultural and Veterinary Authority (AVA) reported in 2017 that 35 percent of Singapore’s chicken, 17 percent of fish, 93 percent of duck, and 76 percent of eggs.* Therefore, the availability and affordability of imported food Malaysia is critical to Singapore’s food security. Furthermore, how food in Malaysia is produced—i.e. often with pesticides and without any dependable system of organic certification—also directly effects Singapore consumers.
Pt. 2 – So, why are production-focused local** farms so important to ensure Singapore’s food security? Why aren’t the other two key strategies of Singapore’s Food Security Roadmap, diversified imports and emergency food stockpiles, enough?
Local food production in Singapore increases the resilience of the country’s food supply in case of sociopolitical, environment, or economic shocks, which could disturb its current trade networks or the quality of its imported food.
Yes, Singapore currently has secure trade relations with almost 200 countries. The Singapore government’s dedication to maintain its diversified imports has recently elevated Singapore to become the second most food secure nation in the world—a particular feat given the country’s low rates of agricultural production. Yet there is always political uncertainty, and increasingly drastic, volatile economic and environmental conditions threaten the dependability of country’s established trade partnerships. Furthermore, geo- and socio-political tensions within the countries that Singapore imports from could also threaten the reliability of food those countries export to Singapore.
High food prices Singaporeans faced during the 2007/2008 global food crisis exemplify how environmental uncertainty, depleted natural resources, and climate change cause market instability, which makes Singapore less food secure. The 2007/2008 crisis was caused by a variety of factors, ranging from droughts to high oil prices. During the crisis, Singapore’s imported food prices increase more than 12 percent.
Indeed, to prepare for environmental, economic, and political disturbances, Singapore’s Food Security Roadmap ensures that there are plentiful rice stockpiles on hand. Singapore currently stockpiles a three-month supply of rice by requiring importers to import a minimum of 50 tons each year and keep a two-month stockpile in government warehouses. Yet rice alone is not enough to ensure Singaporeans health and safety in case Singapore’s food imports are made fewer or more expensive due to whatever exogenous factors.
Singapore’s local production—and potential for increased local production under extreme circumstances—is critical to provide the country with a greater buffer in case of decreased or decreased safety of imported food supplies. Popular (and government) estimates are that Singapore could produce 20% of its food locally, which is a very significant number of available, safe, nutritious calories in case Singapore’s current food security status is threatened.
(I personally imagine that Singapore’s self-sufficiency could be significantly greater than 20% given the government’s current minimal land allocations towards agriculture. One local food leader whom I spoke to emphasized the overplay of Singapore’s land constraints: “The government says Singapore has no land, and that’s bullshit,” my interviewee said. Singapore agriculture currently takes up 3% of the country’s land area, golf courses take up 2%, and the military takes up 20%.)
Through my past two blogs, I’ve emphasized the importance of Singapore consumer demand to support local farms and ensure Singapore’s current 10 percent—and growing—level of self-sufficiency. But why are consumers so crucial to securing the existence of farms in Singapore? Why do consumers have such a great responsibility to buy local and support local farms when “optimizing local food production” is a core component of Singapore’s Food Security Roadmap?
Because of the word “optimize.” Singapore’s current strategies to “optimize” its local food supply does not necessarily mean provide Singaporeans with the most safe, healthy, satisfying food that consumers demand. Per Singapore’s current prevailing agricultural policies, to “optimize” means maximize agricultural productivity of key food items like eggs, fish, and leafy vegetables. Mr. Kawh Boon Wan, Minister for National Development, stated how local farms “must invest in technology and adopt efficient farming methods so that they can grow more with less land and fewer workers” (source: AVA website). The AVA’s main avenue through which it supports local farms is through its Agricultural Productivity Fund. The two current active funding schemes, the Basic Capability Upgrading Scheme and the Productivity Enhancement Scheme, cofund the purchase of equipment that would help increase a farm’s productivity (“such as increase in production, manpower savings, and resource savings”) and “the purchase of automated, advanced and integrated farming systems,” respectively (AVA website). However, the majority of these two programs’ funding support is restricted to help farms grow a small list of crops (with eggs, fish, and leafy vegetables at the top of that list).
Beyond the Agricultural Productivity Fund, other outstanding government policies further threaten the sustainability of existing local farms and inhibit the development of future farms. Singapore’s agricultural land allocation practices and minimum crop yield requirements are particularly unsympathetic to small farms and organic farms (and those that don’t grow eggs, fish, or leafy vegetables.) Singapore’s short term agricultural leases prevent farmers from gaining secure access to farmland for more than twenty years. The short-term leases impede farmers’ ability to make capital-intensive technological advancements that could boost their productivity-even with the help of the Agricultural Productivity Scheme.
To provide context, in 2019, the leases of 62 farms in Lim Chu Kang Agrotechnology Park will expire, Lim Chu Kang Agrotechnology Park will be converted into a military ground, and those 62 farms wilh have to be relocated. While the exact details of the new land each farm will be allocated is still unknown, those 62 farms will be competing for a smaller total agricultural land area. When they bid for the new land, the farms will have to compete with each other in a way they haven’t before, and the government will “prioritize agricultural land for strategic food farms that produce fish, eggs, and leafy greens” (Ong, 2016).
I spoke to Fabian Liao, Sales and Marketing Manager of Quan Fa Organic Farm, which is currently located in Lim Chi Kan Agrotechnology Park. Liao explained how it would be nearly impossibility for Quan Fa to move to a new, smaller piece of land in 2019, maintain current organic production standards, and meet Singapore’s minimum productivity requirement. Quan Fa currently struggles to meet the minimum production requirements (Quan Fa currently produces 6-to-8 tons a month). Since the end of its lease is approaching, it would not be financially beneficial to make any technological investments, like those the Singapore government promotes, to increase its crop yields. In 2019, Quan Fa will likely not move to a new piece of land in Singapore. Instead, Liao is currently investigating the possibilities of moving the farm across international borders—to Malaysia, Indonesia, or Thailand.
Why does it matter that Quan Fa Organic Farm may be forced to move out of Singapore? The Singapore government has clearly targeted eggs, fish, and leafy greens as three strategic, nutritional food items to provide for Singaporean’s food security in case of crisis. The government has allocated significant financial resources towards the development of high-productivity, high-tech farms in order to best provide for its people’s food security.
Yet Singapore’s agricultural policies, which aim to maximize immediate agricultural productivity, may overlook the long-term environmental sustainability and/or cultural value of Singaporean agriculture. It’s difficult to objectively explain the potential connection between local agriculture providing Singaporeans access to culturally significant types of food and Singaporean’s food security; any country’s agricultural history and local cuisine is inherently intertwined to its people’s cultural connections, wellbeing, and emotions. Despite how important growing indigenous vegetables may be to sustain Singaporean’s livelihood, I have not included “cultural appropriateness” in my five basic food security indicators—amount, accessibility, nutrition, safety, and resilience of a city’s food supply.*** So, I’ll omit that for now.
Regardless, Mando Foo of Bollywood Veggies also described straightforward, food security-related benefits of producing indigenous crops. Since indigenous crops are acclimated specifically to Singapore’s environment, they don’t attract pests or weeds, which means they are easier for Bollywood Veggies to produce (although Bollywood Veggies never uses pesticides). Foo also cited the greater nutritional benefits of indigenous vegetables than the crops the Singapore government promotes, like leafy greens. Leafy greens often have lower caloric contents and fewer nutrients than the wide variety of indigenous vegetables Bollywood Veggies grows.
Despite its rich agricultural history, Singapore recently lost the majority of its agricultural land and knowledge. The Singapore government currently runs perverse incentive schemes where they offer to co-fund big technological investments but don’t provide farmers with secure, long-term leases so farmers can profit from those investments. Is it possible that the Singapore government is over prioritizing immediate productivity without taking into account how recently developed technologies and intensive farming methods may not provide the country with long-term security? Has the government ensured that their minimum farming quotas aren’t depleting its rich soil and thus inhibiting future agricultural productivity? Has the government ensured that its high productivity farms are providing the most healthy, safe food for its citizens?
Maybe the answers to these questions are ‘no, yes, and yes.’ I’ve dedicated most of my research time in Singapore to interviewing key proponents of its local food movement, so I have certainly heard a lot of one side of the story. Given my longstanding personal bias, my marvelous stroll through Bollywood Vegetables’ gorgeous farm grounds, and my moving interviews with small farmers threatened by Singapore’s skewed agricultural policies, I’ve had to take a step back and consider why Singapore’s preference towards high-tech, high productivity farms that grow a few food items is such a problem. Is it?
I will continue to investigate whether Singapore’s agricultural policies may incentivize intensive farming methods that may threaten the future viability of its farmland. However, given the Singapore’s government emphasis—and the global media hype—on urban/rooftop farms in Singapore, I also am uncertain of the trajectory of Singapore’ peri-urban versus urban agricultural developments. Maybe in a few years, urban farms will contribute more food to Singapore than traditional, peri-urban farms.
Yet despite international media attention that Singapore’s advanced urban farms have recently gained—with their innovative rooftop/vertical/aquaponic/hydroponic farming methods—urban farming is still a fledgling industry in Singapore. (I admit, the international media deceived me, too.) Both Darren Ho of Citizen Farm and Darren Tan of Comcrop, two predominant urban farms in Singapore, emphasized the experimental nature of their production methods and early stages of development of their own urban farming enterprises. Furthermore, Singapore currently lacks the appropriate policy, resource pools, and knowledge base to rapidly expand its urban farming industry.
For example, Comcrop currently restricts itself to growing high revenue crops, like basil, mint, and ghost peppers, to maintain its financial profitability. Furthermore, given what Singaporean consumers use these herbs in their cooking Comcrop’s local food currently reaches only a small, exclusive group of Singaporean eaters—mostly high-end, Western-style restaurants. (Yes, Comcrop manages a few social programs, which benefit at-risk youth, people with disabilities, and Singaporean’s who are food insecure, but those aren’t what parts of its business that make it financially viable!)
Additionally, Comcrop’s pioneer rooftop farm status in Singapore has privileged it to work closely with government agencies to ensure it adheres to government legislation. For example, to keep up with building codes, all Comcrop’s farming structure must be removable (so the roof counts as roof and not more building space, in essence.) This unnecessarily complex detail depicts the current lack of infrastructure that the Singapore government provides for the development and expansion rooftop farms in Singapore. Nonetheless, Tan emphasized how Comcrop has worked together with government agencies to help determine what city policies might need adjusting in order to best foster the development of urban farming.
Most people I spoke to in Singapore acknowledged a bit of a conflict between traditional farming and high-tech farming in Singapore. Yet all my interviewees who mentioned this also acknowledged that the best thing to ensure Singapore’s food security would be for Singapore to maintain a combination of traditional and high-tech, urban and peri-urban, soil- and water-based, indigenous and non-indigenous (etc.) crop production.
My own research is limited. I will never be able to decisively determine whether leafy greens or indigenous vegetables, soil-based or hydroponic farms, or investments into diversifying food imports or making local farms more productive is more important to ensure Singapore’s food security. Yet my research on other prominent, international strategies to ensure cities’ food security has provided me with an understanding of the short- and long-term environmental, economic, health-related, and food security benefits of having diversified food sources both locally and internationally.
Land-, resource-, and labor-efficient, and farming methods are critical to maximizing a country’s agricultural production. Yet Singapore’s current incentive schemes to help farmers maximize their agricultural productivity often compromise those farms’ potential to be environmentally sustainable and meet consumers’ quality demands. Furthermore, the current cofounding incentive schemes don’t make sense with Singapore’s farmland allocation procedures and lack of established infrastructure for the development of urban and rooftop farms. Currently, Singaporean consumers’ purchasing activities are critical to securing their access to locally, holistically (/naturally/organically/what you wish) grown varieties of certain crops because the government’s agricultural agenda poses particular challenges for small, local, peri-urban farms.
My preliminary research conclusions dictate that it’s too soon for the Singapore government to put all its eggs in one basket (pun intended). Just as Singapore seeks to diversify its imported food, it should also help diversify its local food production.
Pt. 3 – Organic? & Malaysia again
Finally… remember that time I was in Malaysia and writing about the lack of reliability of Malaysian organic certifications? (I’m in Australia now, whoops.) Malaysian imports comprise a significant portion of Singapore’s food supply. And the country of Malaysia (like the country of Singapore) does not have a government-sponsored, reliable organic certification. When I visited some organic shops in Malaysia, I found that all of the food in the stores was imported from farther away in Asia, from Australia, Europe, or America. This confirmed the lack of reliability of Malaysian “organic” food that many of my Singaporean interviewees described to me. My interviewees explained that the only way they can assure the food they purchase in Singapore is grown without harmful chemicals is if it has internationally-recognized organic certifications (e.g. is certified organic in and imported from the U.S. or Australia) or if is grown by Singaporean farmers they know and trust (e.g. from Quan Fa or Bollywood Veggies). While the existing body of literature on organic versus non-organic food and people’s health is limited, many Singaporean’s I spoke to felt imminently threatened by the pesticides used to grow the food they could access and afford at Singaporean supermarkets.
Therefore, in addition to ensure the resilience of Singapore’s food supply in face of economic, environmental, political or shocks, certain forms of agricultural in Singapore, which currently are holding on by the edge of a thread (conscious consumerism), are key to ensuring the safety of Singapore’s food supply, given the unreliability of prevailing food production practices and ‘organic’ certifications.
*I have not yet been able to find updated statistic yet on the amount of imported cereals and produce, but I am still getting to know Singapore’s trade statistics website!
** For my Singapore case study, I’ve defined ‘local’ as within the country’s boundaries.
***I have considered transitioning my research focus from food security to food sovereignty, of which cultural appropriateness is a very key component, but I ultimately chose not to. Nonetheless, food sovereignty is a really important topic to me, and if you have time, I recommend checking out Wikipedia and/or this great article:
Pt. 4 – So, um… does this count as my research paper yet? As jumbled as these blog posts are, they are honestly very important in helping me get my thoughts out of my pig-scratch notebook and into some sort of coherent form.
As I clued you in on before, I’m currently in Brisbane. I’m also taking a break from my interviews next week to collect my thoughts/flyers/recordings/chicken scratch notes and do some more coherent writing. And while I’ve written this a few times before, maybe soon, I’ll write some more ~fun travel story~-centered blogposts. However, I think one of the main reasons why I haven’t so far is because I am so enamored with my research topic and research activities.
My discussions about food systems with people I meet everywhere I go are so often the highlights of my travels, not just my research. Having this research grant is such an incredible excuse (basically) to get passionate people in incredible places doing inspiring things to engage with me on their local food interests/work/discoveries that I’ve just labeled with such positive adjectives. I understand, I’m doing research, and I promise that I’ve spent a lot of long bus rides on my way to farms in “rural” Singapore and to community gardens in the Brisbane suburbs reading up on government publications and academic literature to ensure I understand the less glamorous aspects of local food systems development, too. Yet, at the end of the day, I’m a food systems nerd, and I could talk and write about Singapore’s food security for a few more hours this evening. But I’ll go to sleep to prepare for an early garden visit tomorrow instead.
Pt. 5 – Wi-Fi stinks and pictures soon!
Yes, nine weeks ago I was staying with a host family in Uganda and didn’t have any Wi-Fi, but https://www.kotaku.com.au/2017/01/australias-internet-still-sucks/