We all face challenges in ensuring food security and these challenges will continue to intensify over the decades ahead. There are several global trends, which tell us that we are going to face challenges in making food sufficiency an issue of national security. First, the world’s population is projected to increase at a tremendous pace from 7 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050. We will need to ramp up food production to accommodate more people that can have a positive impact on our food sufficiency. Second, climate change will impact food production. More extreme weather will impact yields. The availability of water resources which is insufficient in many parts of the world, will pose a challenge with regard to the amount of arable land that we have. Third, we are seeing migration to urban areas. Today, about half of the world’s population lives in urbanised environments. By 2050, this figure could rise to 70%.
So what can we do to address these challenges? Challenges which may seem insurmountable? How do we ensure sufficient production and availability to feed the population? How do we create more global food security? The WAF has already identified two crucial areas to look at - trade and technology.
It is a truism, but it is worth repeating that no country can achieve self-sufficiency in all types of food. In today’s globalized world, such an attempt does not make real economic sense, because the theory of comparative advantage suggest that you should specialize in areas that you can do better and let someone else do the jobs that you are unable to do so. Open trade in food encourages specialization which in turn encourages economies of scale. This means that there will be more markets for producers, and more availability and affordability for consumers. More open trade in food also helps us to achieve greater food security.
So it is worrying that we seem to be witnessing more protectionism in different parts of the world. Tariff and non-tariff barriers are manifestations of this. These moves may have short-term appeal, but they are counter-productive for consumer and producer alike in the longer-term. It is better for us to resist the urge to go into protectionism. Instead, we can reach out to one another, in forums like this, where we forge friendships, partnerships and create open markets in a sensible and calibrated way, taking into account domestic sensibilities. Governments, businesses, and individuals can strengthen trade links to benefit everybody concerned.
If freer trade is one way to enhance global food security, technology is another important way in which we can do so. Technology is an enabler, a multiplier, that helps mitigate constraints like limited arable land, water and weather changes for example. Technology allows us to grow much more with lesser resources. For example, there are irrigation systems, such as drip-irrigation systems, that drastically reduce water consumption. It is then possible in areas that are water-stressed, to develop farming as a viable industry sector. Greenhouses also increase yields by shielding plants from unpredictable or harsh weather conditions. There are also controlled indoor systems using LEDs, climate control systems within the building, that help us ramp up production in otherwise non-arable areas. For example, people are starting to do vegetable farming under viaducts, below bridges, in areas that would previously be shielded away from sunlight. But today, with LED lighting, these are all possible now; what used to be ‘dead space’, can now support agriculture and life.
Technology can mitigate the impact of urbanisation. We are seeing more automation in farms. This can reduce reliance on manpower. In this day, it is difficult to encourage people to do the back-breaking work of cultivation in the hot sun for very little returns. But with technology, we can reduce reliance on cheap manpower, and move the manpower on to higher value jobs. I recently came across an article about how farms in California are using robots to harvest their crops! Conversely, technology also allows us to urbanise farming. New vegetable farming methods that use soil-less substrates and hydroponics do not require vast tracts of arable land, allow farming to be done indoors, or in urbanised environments. The fact that they save water is an added benefit. Meanwhile, indoor farming can also allow farming to go vertical, so you are not concerned by the spread of the land, you can use the space above the land to grow more. Therefore, the yield per metre square of land can be multiplied several times because of that.
Singapore feels these global challenges even more acutely. At just 719 sq km, we are a tiny City-state in terms of geographical size. Even if we were to farm on every inch of our land, we would not be self-sufficient. In fact, we import more than 90% of our food. Trade is not just important to us, not just in terms of economic importance, it is an existential issue for us.
To facilitate this trade, we have built up our infrastructure and logistics capabilities. Particularly for perishable food, we have developed cold chains, cold storage, and even a Coolport to handle perishable items coming by air freight. Today, about 20% of the global agri-commodities trade comes through our sea and air ports in some shape or form. We are also home to 70% of the top agri-commodities trading companies here in Singapore.
We are constantly seeking ways to diversify our food sources and enhance our food trade. As of April this year, meat shipments from New Zealand destined for EU markets now transit through Singapore at the Coolport. We are the first country to receive EU approval to provide such services for meat originating from New Zealand. The way we see it, this is a win-win. New Zealand can export more lamb to the EU. The EU gets an additional source of good quality lamb from New Zealand. Singapore benefits from new trade flows and we also take in delicious New Zealand lamb!
Another way we try to enhance our food security is through local production. Our local farms provide a critical buffer for key food items like vegetables, eggs, and food fish. While it will never be able to meet 100% of our needs, we want to keep our farms here as a significant buffer against supply shocks, should any international sources that we have suffer from the consequences of a weather disruption or political change for example. This will provide a buffer for our local needs and therefore local farmers play a very important role.
But given our land constraints, we need to adopt new technology whenever we can. So we are always on the look-out for ways that will increase yields, especially if it means a smaller land footprint to give us a better yield. Technological solutions span the gamut from simple things like better irrigation systems and semi-enclosed greenhouses, to cutting edge solutions like multi-tiered vertical farming, LED technology, automation, and ICT. We help our farmers through incentives that encourage the adoption of productive technology.
Several of our local farms have embraced this trend. For example, Sustenir Agriculture grows hydroponic crops in an industrial building. They use LED lights, automated systems, and centralised controls that help them set environmental parameters for optimal growth. The result - crops that grow in half the time. Local fish farm Apollo Aquaculture has adopted technology and ICT sensors as well. They have also internationalized to a nearby country in Brunei.
We have found that one big benefit of adopting technology is that it attracts younger people to join the farm sector which previously would have been unattractive for them. Just 2 weeks ago, I was at the opening of a place called Citizen Farm. The farm is a ground-up initiative by a group of young people. It comprises a diverse mix of urban farming techniques and systems. It is also a community space that galvanizes people around the area to come together and they also have a social mission to help the less privileged, adults with learning disabilities, to use farming as a way to actualise their aspirations. The founder of Citizen Farm was only 31 when he started the company. His team is equally youthful.
I recognize that Singapore’s conditions are very different from most other countries. But I know that we are all experiencing rapid urbanization and we all face a common challenge. So I hope that some of Singapore’s experiences can be shared with all of you and we hope that from this conference, we can learn many useful lessons.
Ultimately, our common future depends on our ability to facilitate change and work together to overcome challenges. So sharing of experiences, knowledge, and best practices will help us as we try to enhance our national and global food security.
By Dr. Koh Poh Koon
Senior Minister of State, Ministry Of Trade and Industry, Singapore.