Decoding Singapore’s food security

Ensuring food security and preventing shortages despite importing most of its food has been one of Singapore’s successes in its handling of the pandemic
Student at the National University of Singapore
Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Half a year since the fervour of panic buying first swept through Singapore, food remains available and accessible in bold defiance of the initial nationwide fear of food shortages.

Instigated by high levels of uncertainty about what Singapore’s DORSCON Orange status entailed and worries about Malaysia’s Movement Control Order affecting trade, waves of panic buying overwhelmed grocery store supply chains and swept shelves clean.

International news of supply gluts from breaks in supply chains that led to unthinkable amounts of food waste, shutdowns of meat processing plants, and the sharp fall in air cargo capacity compounded existing fears and exacerbated impulse behaviours.

When countries began to institute lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections, there were concerns that the closure or tightening of borders could adversely affect food supply chains.

Navigating unchartered waters

Despite importing more than 90% of the food it consumes locally, disruptions to food supply chains brought about by the pandemic have not created food shortages in Singapore. This is not by chance. The government has had to proactively manage food supply both in terms of trade and local supply.

Through foresight and strategic planning, Singapore has developed an extensive network of pre-emptive measures, such as import diversification and stockpiling, to rely on as a hedge against international food supply chain disruptions.

The government was also agile in its reactions at the peak of uncertainty during the pandemic, reaffirming trade ties amidst growing protectionist sentiments, and rolling out a series of measures to bolster local food production. These measures maintained the functionality of food supply chains as much as possible.

Consequently, the negative impact of international supply chain disruptions has been minimised after initial adjustment difficulties. Food remains largely available across grocery stores and food establishments, although the Consumer Price Index for May 2020 reflected that food inflation, or an increase in food prices, was 2.2% year-on-year. This was mostly driven by higher import prices, which were on average 3%-4% higher as compared to the same period last year.

Higher food prices are especially important considering that half the respondents in a recent OCBC survey reported receiving lower incomes, presumably because of the pandemic, as of May 2020. Higher costs of living expenses may be very difficult to handle for many.

To protect the most vulnerable, there has been direct government support with living expenses via schemes like Comcare, COVID-19 Support Grant and the Temporary Relief Fund. Other schemes, such as the distribution of S$50 worth of vouchers to 400,000 low-income households, will also support vulnerable households’ ability to afford food despite higher prices.

Despite importing more than 90% of the food it consumes locally, disruptions to food supply chains brought about by the pandemic have not created food shortages in Singapore. This is not by chance. The government has had to proactively manage food supply both in terms of trade and local supply.

Beyond the direct support, there are measures to support food charities that provide food supplies to households requiring additional help. For example, the shortfall in funds faced by non-profit organisations will be addressed by the government matching the amount of donations raised by said organisations dollar-for-dollar. This financial support aims at protecting the continuity of food charities, safeguarding an essential layer of the local food security safety net.

A key factor that has led to the implementation of so many support initiatives is good governance. Singapore has consistently planned and prepared for possible threats to ensure the resilience of food supply chains and food security over the years. This has allowed the city- state to benefit from the ability to fall back on long-term strategies, such as diverse sources of imports and stockpiling, and the adaptive and flexible execution of short-term strategies to counterbalance shocks to the food supply chain.

An ongoing endeavour

Despite the significance of current efforts to protect food security, the fight to ensure food security will never end. On the supply side, it is probable that food supply and prices will remain volatile in the near future. This stems from increased uncertainty arising from the pandemic, hampering the ability to forecast demand and produce accordingly.

Furthermore, food charities not only in Singapore, but in countries such as the US and Germany, have reported facing sustained manpower and logistics problems.

Globally, costly government measures largely targeted at supporting the most affected segments of the population through this pandemic are laudable, but are also largely regarded as untenable in the long run. More sustainable measures will be necessary to provide long-term food-related support for all sections of the population.

Looking beyond, the COVID-19 pandemic has entrenched in Singapore the importance of ensuring food security by pre-emptively establishing further strategic safeguards that engage all levels of society.

A key factor that has led to the implementation of so many support initiatives is good governance. Singapore has consistently planned and prepared for possible threats to ensure the resilience of food supply chains and food security over the years.

This includes the Achilles tendon that remains unsolved locally: increasing food waste. Estimated at approximately 607,000 tonnes in 2019 by the National Environment Agency, food waste represents approximately 10% of the total waste generated in Singapore and has increased by 20% over the past decade.

Despite engaging in an ongoing campaign to raise awareness about food waste and collaborative efforts to develop in-house food waste treatment systems, the government has seen limited success thus far. The multi-faceted and multi-stakeholder nature of endemic food wastage in Singapore, as with other aspects of food security, requires a cohesive societal effort to effectively address this serious problem.

Current top-down efforts to invest in food security, such as source diversification, increasing domestic production, providing support to vulnerable groups and reducing food waste, are extensive. Nevertheless, they can be undermined if the society at large is not cohesively incentivised to play their part.

COVID-19 has taught the world that all sectors must be engaged in order to achieve long-term goals like food security. It is time for us to turn this insight into action.

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Student at the National University of Singapore

Nicole Lim is a Psychology and Business Management undergraduate from National University of Singapore. She is passionate about food security, sustainability and the social good sector.

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Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Cecilia is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. The main focus of her work is natural resources, including water- and environment-related policies, management and governance. She is an author and editor of more than 40 books. She was the past president (only woman) and honorary member of the International Water Resources Association, editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Water Resources Development, associate editor of Water International, member of the editorial boards and editor of a book series on Water Resources Development of Oxford University Press, and Water Resources Development and Management of Springer.

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