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The future of Singapore’s food security

Agri-tech might be the sexiest thing right now, but is it the solution to feeding ourselve?

When was the last time you were desperately hungry? Unless you’ve just inflicted intermittent fasting upon yourself, chances are: never. With food delivery services, 24-hour convenience stores and supermarkets stocked full with snacks, drinks and ready-to-eat meals, as well as a plethora of dining options serving piping-hot food at every price point and at all hours of the day, Singaporeans have a ridiculous abundance of food options. That we – a country currently ranked the most food secure on the Global Food Security Index because of our affordable prices relative to household incomes, high food safety standards and a diversified and reliable supply chain – might face the problem of food scarcity is almost incomprehensible.

However, as a country that imports 90 per cent of what we eat, food security is a real issue. Mercurial political situations and international relations, even more unpredictable climate conditions and unexpected outbreaks have more than once driven food prices up. In 2013, the core strategies of The Food Security Roadmap included food source diversification and increasing local production through the help of agri-tech. With the new target of producing 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030, agri- tech continues to take centre stage, despite the land resource constraints.

Yet, is agri-tech really the silver bullet it is made out to be? Our strength definitely lies in developing technology-based solutions, and it is an area that should be developed on an industry level, says Shannon Lim, founder of Onhand Agrarian, which takes an unconventionally holistic approach to aquaponics, poultry rearing and growing fruits and vegetables.“However, the industry should go beyond engineering solutions to look also at biosciences, genetics and other innovations,” says Lim.

Apart from the broadening of fields of research, its applicability to those actually growing the food is another area to be looked into. “No farmers, no food,” says Kenny Eng simply. “Technology alone won’t grow food.” The director of horticultural company Nyee Phoe Group and the immediate past president of Kranji Countryside Association has been working closely with farmers for the past 15 years, and has observed the impact agri-tech has made in the industry.

While he sees the adoption of technology as a necessary move, said technology should be developed in collaboration with growers to deliver the desired impact. An example often cited by many farmers: Sky Greens, a rotating, tiered planting tower designed by an engineer previously in the building and construction industry. While the system – heavily endorsed by the government – has gone on to win design awards, its production figures haven’t reached the 2015 projection of five tonnes of greens daily by 2017. As of 2019, the reported daily harvest remains at 500kg – unchanged from seven years ago.

As sexy as food and agri-tech might be – given its US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion ) global market value and the attention it has received in recent years from moneyed corporations and individuals – it shouldn’t be seen as the cure-all. The lesser talked about strategies in the food safety roadmap – unlocking physical spaces for farming, developing local talent and getting consumers to support local – are equally important.

And the true answer to the problem might lie in people. “In 2016, while hosting the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth Conference, which came to Singapore for the first time, I asked the attending farmers what the biggest problem they faced was,” recounts Eng. “Whether from Australia, South Africa or Papua New Guinea, their answer was the same: attracting young people to the industry. Getting new blood into the agricultural industry is the crux of the matter.”

Indeed, there are 101 ways to tackle an issue as huge as food security. The Peak speaks to players in the larger food ecosystem to find out their different ways of contributing to the food security issue – be it getting young people to see agriculture as an exciting, viable industry to build a career in, activating the general masses, or educating the public.

(Related: Eugene Wong of Sirius Venture Capital predicts the future F&B scene)

 

The Disruptor

Kenny Eng, 45 Director, Nyee Phoe Group

Nyee Phoe Group Kenny Eng

Agriculture in Singapore can be a strange kettle of fish. While some lament that the market is too small, there are those who do not want more business because they do not have the means of expanding production. And then there are those who generate more income from importing and packaging produce for supermarkets than selling what they grow. This creates a curious situation where our growers are not incentivised to produce more, but to expand on auxiliary services deemed more profitable.

For farmers to be motivated to grow, they have to see clear monetary incentives – and Eng wants to help them do that through rethinking the possibilities for the agricultural industry. The director of horticultural company Nyee Phoe Group – the oldest garden nursery in Singapore founded in 1911 – has already added new revenue streams to his family business by starting Gardenasia, which includes a farm-to-table bistro, farmers’ markets, children’s programmes and even farmstay villas designed in the style of black and white colonial houses – all curated with the purpose of connecting the masses with the agricultural community and nature.

“Our family business as an agricultural company has innovated the way we do things. Now, I want to disrupt the farming industry and let people see its full potential. Ultimately, farmers are businessmen and entrepreneurs as well,” says Eng.

The solution he is offering comes in the form of The Local Farm, a new ready-to-cook, ready-to-eat brand unveiled last April. Leveraging on his deep relationship with farmers, and his vast network outside of the agricultural industry, Eng acts as middleman, connecting farmers to chefs and food manufacturers so their produce can be transformed into convenience foods.

Think locally grown eggs prepared in sealed packages of Japanese-style omelettes, and locally reared fish made into packets of assam curry fish soup – all which proudly showcase the farmers. Not just contracted to supply the ingredients, Eng has structured the system so that they become stakeholders of the product they help to create. By doing so, Eng is giving them access to the multibillion dollar convenience food industry. The products can also be sold beyond Singapore, thus expanding the market for the growers.

More importantly, The Local Brand is showing farmers the untapped potential of their produce. “Farmers often have no idea what their ingredients can be transformed into. Their mindset needs to be disrupted. Agriculture is not a business that exists in isolation. It is supported by a whole ecosystem that includes restaurants, food manufacturers, and the like.”

Putting their faces on the packaging isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Eng wants them to feel ownership of the end product. “Only when farmers are proud of what they do can you attract passionate young people to join the industry,” he opines. “I am confident that this is a project that will have huge potential in the regional market.”

“Singapore sacrificed our agricultural industry for economic development, and this is a journey just about every country, regardless of size, will go on. If Singapore can find a solution to our food security issue, we could be a model for other countries, as we have been with our economic development,” says Eng. “The Singapore food story could very well be the nation’s success story for the next 50 years.”

 

The Social Activator

Shannon Lim, 33 Director, OnHand Agrarian

OnHand Agrarian Shannon Lim

He certainly isn’t the biggest grower out there, with his produce going out exclusively to the hundred-odd households who subscribe to his seafood and vegetable boxes. But Shannon Lim’s reach goes way beyond his base of produce buyers. On weekends, he invites children and adults alike to wade in the ponds beside Huber’s Butchery at Dempsey – for $20, they get a bucket of fish, prawns, fruit and pellets to feed the fish, and an opportunity for an up-close encounter with giant seabass, catfish and the like. He also used to operate a 1,615 sq ft farm on the 11th floor carpark space of Shaw Towers, which attracted not just volunteers but also the partnership of local bar operator-party organiser The Great Escape – after all, it doesn’t get any more hippie than grooving to funk and soul alongside chickens!

Now, Lim has come up with a scheme that allows everybody and anybody to easily have a stake in farming. For $600 a year, he will help you grow your pick of fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in 2.4 x 1.2 x 0.6m plots in Paya Lebar.

You are welcome to tend to your plot, too, and he is even putting out hammocks and lawn chairs “for those who want to tan and nap in between.” The entrepreneur who quit the finance industry to start OnHand Agrarian in 2011 is also offering the service of rearing crabs and groupers.

This “remote farming” programme doesn’t just allow him to grow on demand – it is also Lim’s way of achieving social normalisation in farming.

“We have a lot of very talented people, who do not get into the industry for various reasons – because their parents didn’t send them to school to become a farmer, because it is not seen as a money- making industry, and so on.”

By bringing farming to the people, and getting them to talk about it and participate in even very small ways, Lim wants to remove the stigma surrounding farming.

Lim sees this movement as an important step towards our country’s food security. Apart from attracting new talent to the industry, it is also a step towards helping people grow food for themselves. “The average landed property has the capacity to produce enough vegetables and eggs for three households. This distribution of agricultural responsibility would certainly help to make us more self-reliant in terms of food production.”

(Related: Singapore urban farmers proving that farm-to-table works in Singapore)

 

The Tastemaker

Han Liguang, 33 Chef-owner, Labyrinth

Labyrinth Han Liguang

He has taken pains to find ways to feature local produce, from quails to goat’s milk. Now, Han Liguang wants to take the “eat local” concept even further: by going “native”. Think a plethora of local greens – bayam, gotu kola, gadut – eaten by earlier generations, but with names alien to most today. Still found in the wild, these plants are being cultivated by Green Circle Eco Farm, which Han supports. It’s a small initiative as his one Michelin-starred restaurant does all of 25 covers a night. But behind it lies his belief that, rather than blindly adopt agri-tech with the aim of increasing production and driving down prices, local farming businesses should grow unique, indigenous varieties.

“There will always be imported substitutes. If the price between an import and a local produce is about the same, consumers will simply buy whichever tastes nicer,” observes Han. “Exporters, by nature of their business, have economies of scale and the ability to keep things cheap, relative to small growers in Singapore. It is difficult for our local farmers to compete in a sustainable manner.”

The chef-restaurateur proposes that a sustainable food security plan should look at not just numbers, but also taste. “Going back to growing indigenous produce might be the solution. Trying to compete with the world by cultivating what didn’t use to grow here is a war that cannot be won. Instead, we should explore what has always thrived in our climate,” he enthuses.

“What grows here naturally, tastes better when grown here, too. And that is key. Growing a tonne of kale or breeding sashimi-grade prawns using new technology might sound like a great idea on paper, but the supply is not going to have a corresponding demand if the ingredients do not actually taste good – and currently, there seems to be that disconnect between the policy makers, the people developing the technology, and those on the ground, who are actually using and eating the products.”

Han admits that this is going to be a difficult sell, for even he, who grew up eating McDonald’s and shepherd’s pies before graduating to sashimi and artisanal breads, admits that he never knew of the plethora of edible native plants until recent years.

“The current and younger generations of Singaporeans are brought up in a Westernised society, and our palate is more pro-Western culture. It will be a slow process of educating and reacquainting the public with what the people of the island used to eat,” he says.

“The native ingredients are like diamonds in the rough. They aren’t like, say, premium Japanese produce, which require very little to taste very good. Ultimately, it is up to the chef to understand the ingredients and find ways to showcase them. Through our food, we can change perceptions – even if it is just one per cent of the people who pass through our doors, the ripple effect can be huge.”

(Related: Are plant-based meats just a fad or paving the way for the future?)