Singapore imports 90% of its food. A large, but probably unsurprising number for anyone with some knowledge about its size and economy.
It is also the 3rd most food secure country among 113 nations — at least according to the Global Food Security Index (GFSI), compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The ‘paradox of Singaporean food security’—a vulnerable prosperity of having consistent abundance while being highly exposed to external shocks because of its dependence on trade – is perhaps in a familiar class of Singaporean paradoxes, part-and-parcel of its resource-less economic ‘miracle’. It is certainly related. Food security, as currently defined, is simply the ability to easily access sufficient, affordable, and quality food. Singapore’s strong performance in the food security rankings is thus not all that unexpected. Its wealth boosts its ranking on ‘Affordability’ (2nd) and allows it to purchase and invest enough to do reasonably on ‘Availability’ (14th) and ‘Quality-and-Safety’ (24th).
Skilful management of Singapore’s three ‘food taps’ has been crucial for long-term maintenance of food security on the island-nation. Being import-dependent, a core strategy is food diversification: food comes from over 160 countries (it helps that 20% of global agri-commodities pass through Singapore’s busy ports), which mitigates disruptions from any one location. This is evident, for instance, in Singapore’s successful manoeuvring of its rice supply in the aftermath of the 2011 Thai floods. Complemented by three-month rice stockpiles, investment in local production (now 24% of Singapore’s eggs, 10% of fish and 12% of vegetables), overseas contract-farms and a host of ‘supporting’ and ‘enabling’ strategies (left), there has been no major food disruption so far.
Also read: ASEAN from a Malaysian Perspective
Yet, another (rather more worrying) ‘paradox’ in the region is that many of Singapore’s neighbours lack food security, despite ranking among the world’s top agri-commodity exporters or being agricultural economies. The next best performer in ASEAN, Malaysia, ranked 35th on the GFSI. The worst performer, Laos, ranks 103th. Smallholder farmers, about 100 million of them, dominate ASEAN agriculture. Being highly sensitive to price shocks as poor consumers and less able to improve land utilisation with limited access to technology and knowledge, price fluctuations and environmental issues hit them harder and make them a large proportion of the food-insecure.
ASEAN nations face diverse threats to food security. However, this also means that there may be potential for complementary solutions.
While food security has been improved directly via programmes such as food safety nets, improving the sustainability and productivity of small-holder production (for example, through ‘precision farming’) would improve livelihoods and increase food availability, which is good news for food security across the region. Singapore could play the role of technology diffuser and continue increasing investment in Southeast Asia. Current regional frameworks like the AIFS include initiatives to share technology and ‘Good Agricultural Practices’ and information-sharing conferences like the ASEAN Food Conference in Vietnam are good starts. Having more intensive and direct engagement with farmers would provide further improvements in the industry. Agricultural investment studies and consultation are already ongoing, and is cause for optimism.
Standard-setting would also help. For example, helping to implement robust standards of cold-chain processes (such as SS585, developed by AVA and SPRING Singapore) regionally would alleviate problems in food loss, which Malaysia sees as one of its main food issues. When standards and processes like this – and perhaps others concerning food quality – are adopted across the region, goals targeted under AIFS such as improving food security arrangements (perhaps having ASEAN stockpiles of food beyond rice) and promoting sustainable food trade may become more feasible.
Creating a robust regional food network would be a worthwhile cause for Singapore—not just because it would help uplift its neighbours. Singaporean food diversification occurs— but in practice food items are rarely diversified over hundreds of countries as different items are imported from different places. No two countries provide more than half of Singapore’s pork, fish or fruit; but for items like mutton, beef, chicken, eggs and vegetables, single countries can make up more than half the supply. For instance, almost all imported hen eggs and 70% of imported vegetables are sourced from Malaysia. Climate change also poses a globalised threat to agricultural productivity (which cannot be mitigated by importing from a greater range of affected countries). Experts like Paul Teng argue that the GFSI does not sufficiently capture ‘food security robustness’, and that Singapore still has some way to go on that front.
Also read: The Biggest Challenges for ASEAN in 2018
Food is an important thing in ASEAN—something to live for, not just survive on. We do however need to ensure more of us, as well as future generations, have enough to survive. The diverse ASEAN food ‘paradoxes’ (which probably arise because factors that affect food security are multiple and layered) are problems.
But like ASEAN itself, that diversity presents opportunity.
Yi Ying is an Economics undergraduate at the LSE and hopes you found this article as informative as she found the process of writing it. Yi Ying can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.