The island city-state of Singapore is known as one of the most rapidly developing countries in the world. With 5.3 million people living on 275 square miles of land, Singapore is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world. With so many people living on such a small island, there is little room for agricultural production.
Singapore imports more than 90 percent of its food and relies heavily on the food production capabilities of neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, explained Jackson Ewing during a webinar on the unique challenges of food security in Singapore offered by the Global Innoversity. Ewing is a research fellow and coordinator of the Food Security Programme at the Center for Non-Traditional Security Studies in Singapore.
“This means that as regional food security goes, so goes the food security of Singapore,” he said. Southeast Asia is a major exporter of fruits, vegetables, and fish and is home to two of the largest rice exporters in the world, Thailand and Vietnam. With a lengthy growing season and ample rain, the region is quite fertile. However, increased land-use competition, shifting socio-economic trends, and a rapidly changing climate all contribute to a degree of food instability in the region.
In recent decades, Southeast Asian countries have seen a major surge in growth of urban environments. Many rural residents have left their farming roots to strike out a new path in rapidly expanding urban areas. Thirty years ago, urban areas covered just over 20 percent of the region’s land. Today, about half of the land in Southeast Asia has become urbanized, Ewing said. While cities have grown, a dwindling number of farmers have been left behind to try to feed more people on less land.
At the same time, large multinational corporations have moved into the region and have introduced modern agricultural techniques including large-scale monoculture. In some areas, land previously used for agricultural production has been converted to commodity crops such as rubber and oil palm.
While oil palm is used around the region as cooking oil, much of the area’s oil palm is exported for use as a biofuel and as an additive in cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, and processed food products. “These plantations are coming into direct competition with agriculture… and are creating a situation of greater land scarcity overall,” Ewing said.
In addition to changing the regional food production landscape, modern farming technologies have affected food distribution as well. Large farming operations with modern processing and refrigeration infrastructure have paved the way for a rapid explosion of supermarkets and as a result a general reduction in food prices.
“In the urban zones of course, food price declines are lauded while in rural ones, they are lamented,” said Ewing. Most traditional farmers are not equipped to participate in that kind of marketplace. Many small farmers that once sold their produce at local wet markets now have difficulty keeping their wares fresh long enough to get to the supermarket; if they are able to get there they struggle to compete with the low prices offered by modern farms.
As food prices have declined and availability has increased with the arrival of supermarkets, urban residents has been able to greatly diversify their diets. “This is a real positive in some regards for nutrition and quality of life, but it also leads to greater demands on the physical spaces for producing things like butter, energy, and other high energy inputs that are necessary for producing meat,” Ewing said.
Environmental stresses and the changing climate further complicate the region’s ability to produce enough food to go around. In many areas, dwindling availability of arable land has driven farmers to plant crops on sloped grounds that are particularly susceptible to topsoil erosion. Deforestation has resulted in changes the microclimates and expanded pockets of water scarcity.
Global climate change has affected not only the intensity of storm systems, but also the direction and pathways of devastating typhoons. “We are getting storms in areas of the Philippines and now southeast areas of Vietnam where traditional typhoons have never been an issue.
These are large agriculture production zones on which Singapore and other food importers depend,” Ewing said. Gradual sea level rise combined with groundwater extraction, and river damming has increased soil salinity in major agricultural areas along the Mekong River and Red River deltas.
Investing in Regional Food Security
Singapore is not the only country relies on food exports from Southeast Asia. China and several countries in the Middle East have bought large tracts of land in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar to produce food for export back to the domestic markets in their home countries.
Singapore has consciously avoided these tactics, instead opting to forge partnerships with regional nations, Ewing said. In these partnerships, a portion of the crops is exported to Singapore. In exchange, the Singaporean government helps to facilitate domestic distribution within the producing nations.
In Singapore, the government and local universities have recently begun to invest in food security research and new food production technologies. The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore has initiated aquaculture research and development on several of the nation’s smaller uninhabited islands off the coast of the main island. Private entrepreneurs have begun to invest in urban vertical farming as a means of increasing domestic vegetable production.
“I think it is possible for this area to become something of a thought leader and an area which could participate in producing technologies in the food science space and the urban agriculture space that could be exported in the future,” Ewing said.
While some hope to preserve traditional farming techniques, Ewing cautions against the assumption that small scale farming populations want a perpetuation of traditional lifestyles and subsistence farming. “The problem with that narrative is that if we discuss with farmers what they actually want, they would like higher incomes they would like higher production levels. They would like to see some of their children be able to go to universities or cities and leave the agrarian lifestyle,” he said. In the face of finite land resources, increasing demand, and changing climate, farmers will likely have to think creatively to see higher yields.
Ewing expects genetically modified (GM) food will likely play a role in the future regional agricultural landscape. While European and North American nations fiercely debate the pros and cons of GM foods such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® corn and soybeans, to many Singaporeans and Southeast Asians GM crops hold the potential to meet regional food demand in the face of increasing temperature and changing precipitation patterns.
While Singaporeans place a high value on the quality of their food, so far there has been no significant push for organically produced food or traditional cultivars that have been seen in much of the Western world, Ewing said. “I think that the Singaporean consumer would be prepared to purchase GM foods on a large scale provided that they saw the quality as being high and the price low,” he added.
While in past decades Singapore has remained a passive player in the regional food system, it is clear that it will play an ever increasing role in the future evolution of the region’s agriculture.