Growing our own
The role we play in ensuring Singapore’s food resilienceby Gwyneth Cheng
When it comes to food, Singaporeans know their stuff. From must-trys to cheapest finds, we know exactly where to get our favourite dishes around the island. But ask an average person on the street if they know where the ingredients in their laksa came from and they’d hesitate to answer. After all, when food appears on our tables as long as we pay for it, why would that be a consideration?
On this little red dot, we live with the assurance that food is always available. Unfortunately, this is a privilege most of Asia doesn’t enjoy—food security is one of the biggest challenges the region faces today.
Asia’s huge, growing populations have been skyrocketing demand for the past decade, and traditional food production has not been able to keep up. In Asia and across the world, it is getting tougher for people to fill their bellies. The world is poised to face a 56 percent shortage in food nutrition by 2050.
It may be tough to relate to this in Singapore, crowned the most food-secure nation in the world in 2019. Even as COVID-19 descended and extreme lockdown measures were implemented, our food supply survived relatively unscathed, thanks to our diversified food sources from more than 170 countries.
Yet, our international network of food suppliers is a double-edged sword. Diversifying our food sources assures us some level of security, but this has led to an overreliance on imports. More than 90 percent of the stuff we eat comes from overseas, with local farmers producing only 8 percent of our vegetables and fish. This subjects our food supply to unpredictable situations overseas—such as natural disasters, local outbreaks, and interruptions in the supply chain—as well as higher demand from local populations.
COVID-19 has shown us exactly this. When the movement control order between Singapore and Malaysia—one of our biggest supplier countries—was announced, worried Singaporeans prompted the government to make public statements and have local media outlets assure us that food would still be imported from Malaysia despite the border controls. Even though our food supply has remained relatively unaffected till this day, Singaporeans realised for a moment what having it threatened felt like.
While the value of local food production has increased over time, local agriculture and fishing industries are still a speck in our country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—it falls under the “Other Goods Industries” section, which took up only 0.02 percent of our GDP in 2018.
The Singapore government realises this issue and has sought to boost our local production capabilities. By 2030, Singapore aims to produce 30 percent of its population’s food demand under the “30 by 30” strategy. To achieve this, the government has been encouraging traditional farmers to adopt agri-tech and pushing hard for the development of urban agriculture.
Last year, the former Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) awarded land at Sungei Tengah to farmers based on their overall production capabilities and the types of technology they planned to integrate into their operations. The newly formed Singapore Food Agency (SFA) recently awarded almost $40 million to nine urban farms, encouraging agri-tech innovations such as using artificial intelligence to boost operational efficiency. This year, SFA and Enterprise Singapore also spearheaded an extensive guide to help local farmers improve their food production efficiency.
The government has also been trying out more human-centric solutions to food security in recent years. The Community in Bloom (CIB) programme, managed by the National Parks Board (NParks), is among its more popular citizen participation programmes. CIB encourages communities to get involved in gardening, spurring the creation of more greenery around the city and fostering bonds between participants. There are more than 1,500 CIB community gardens across Singapore today, involving the efforts of almost 40,000 citizens. NParks aims to reach 3,000 community gardens and 3,000 allotment gardens by 2030—almost two to three times our current garden count—as the programme gets more and more popular over the years.
On top of community gardening, Singaporeans have also been encouraged to practice home gardening. From 18 June this year, under the “Gardening with Edibles” programme, NParks began distributing seed packets to households in an effort to encourage citizens to grow their own food at home.
The government’s recent turn towards citizen-driven solutions to food security may seem new to some, but community growing is far from a fresh phenomenon here. Our increased awareness of the fickle nature of climate change and the need for waste reduction, as well as the desire to eat more nutritious foods, has propelled the rise of local food growing.
Local food growing companies such as Edible Garden City (EGC) have been around for a while. Behind the brand, a “ragtag group” of people from all walks of life found themselves brought together by their love for gardening and passion for finding a sustainable way to better food security in Singapore. Through their continuous efforts and embracing of hard work, they have successfully maintained gardens all over our urban landscape—in restaurants, hotels, schools, and residences—as well as conducted many educational tours and workshops for anyone interested.
Edible Garden City’s food goes to the general population—more than 40 local restaurants and bars use their produce. Interestingly, the herbs they grow are also used in skincare products at spas and salons. EGC also delivers produce to households—by signing up for a “Citizen Box”, residents get a box of hand-grown fresh produce delivered on a weekly basis.
EGC has seen a considerable increase in interest, and they have had to increase the number of tours and workshops from around 170 to more than 200 between 2018 and 2019. Many more schools have also asked to have their students join these educational programmes. Encouragingly, more people have been interested and—especially locals—willing to join the fun.
“Our customers are primarily Singaporean, with a minority being expats based in Singapore. This represents a big shift from a few years ago. When we started Citizen Box in Jan 2018, our customers were primarily expats. Now, we see the reverse, with 70 percent local subscribership.”
“Generally, our customers are passionate about the environment and are ardent supporters of local enterprises. They understand the benefits of home gardening and the wider, societal benefits of gardening and farming as a community, and want to play their part in promoting gardening, and supporting local farming. Many have young children whom they want to teach to be more environmentally and socially conscious.”
– Sarah Rodriguez, Edible Garden City
More people are willing to get their hands dirty these days, if the rising number of home gardens—as observed by Foodscape Collective—are any indication. Like EGC, Foodscape Collective was formed by individuals passionate about local food growing. It currently has 20 members who actively participate in dialogue sessions, tours, and workshops to encourage people to participate in community growing and to support local food producers.
From 2015, Foodscape Collective has been crowdsourcing data from home gardeners—regular citizens who grow food at home. From window planter boxes to plants in corridors to full gardens in backyards, these residents use any available space to grow their own produce.
The variety of produce grown in these gardens is astonishing. Herbs—plants often used to add flavour to food, such as spring onions, mint, basil, rosemary, and coriander—are by far the most popular. Vegetables—plants often consumed whole for macronutrients (e.g., lady’s fingers, potatoes, beans, chives, brinjal, kai lan, kangkong) are the second most common, with fruits a close third. A third of gardeners who grow vegetables also grow microgreens, a subset of vegetables harvested and eaten at the seedling stage.
Most of these home gardens aren’t created with big ambitions. Often, residents begin with the simplest reasons: simple interest as well as wanting to eat more nutritious food and control the amount of chemicals that goes into their produce. Some residents garden so they can interact and share experiences with friends and neighbours who do the same.
These efforts don’t stop with the greens. Often, the most important part about food growing is healthy soil. For instance, Foodscape Collective started the Soil Regeneration Project in 2019 to provide a platform for learning and sharing knowledge about how to improve soil health. More experienced gardeners at Foodscape Collective join and mentor participants in analysing soil health using a mix of citizen science and laboratory tests. Having such knowledge enables citizens to maintain healthy soil for more efficient food growing.
“I want to improve soil because I see it. It’s about sequestering carbon from the air to the soil; [it] is the most direct way of helping the environment. Climate change. And anyone can do it—you can do it on a big scale or a small scale. But we can help. This is what I call the handprint against the footprint. [Currently,] we are doing less bad only. And that is not enough. We have to do good. You have to put carbon into the soil. This is handprint activity.”
– Mr. Tang, Soil Companion at Foodscape Collective
The local sustainability movement has been gaining momentum for years now. As threats to our food supply loom above our heads, citizens have taken matters into their own hands. The teams at EGC and Foodscape Collective are leading the charge, showing that community involvement in food production can work in tandem with governmental solutions as Singapore strives to reach the “30 by 30” goal.
Participating in food growing creates communities that are much more aware of what it takes to grow the food they eat and able to gauge what “healthy” produce looks like. Food becomes more than just dishes people pay to have served to them—citizens become conscious consumers and buyers, supporting safer and healthier practices of farming. In this sense, citizen-driven approaches do not simply complement governmental or private sector solutions—they both provide us alternative ways to ensure food security and even help to further reduce food demand, as people purchase only the amount of food they need in order to produce less waste.
Although it doesn’t hurt to try growing food on our own, home gardening isn’t necessarily for everyone, and there are many other ways people can support local food production. Volunteering, buying locally produced groceries, and choosing eateries that use local ingredients all support the local food movement. Even the government has been making it easier for us to do so—in mid-2020, the SFA launched the “SG Fresh Produce” logo, which is stamped on the packaging of certified locally produced food items. These food items are sold in common supermarkets, so they are easily accessible.
With the state of the world right now, we can no longer take our resources for granted. Even though Singaporeans live in comfort, our food security is still extremely reliant on other countries, where a lot of factors remain highly unpredictable to us. A global pandemic has shown that in times of crisis, a country needs to rely on itself first and foremost. The future of our country’s food security must be a mix of top-down and on-the-ground approaches—we would do well to support local food growers and use the power of citizen movements to our advantage in maintaining Singapore’s food resilience.
Gwyneth is immensely curious about the way the Earth works. An Environmental Biology graduate, she is particularly interested in environmental issues and the many ways in which human beings are intertwined with the natural world.
Foodscape Collective is an ecosystem of individuals, communities, and enterprises. We are guided by our mission for a fair and circular food system for all. Through our focus on community-building, education, well-being, and research, we co-create regenerative practices that are nourishing for the self, community, society, and the planet.
Edible Garden City is a social enterprise that is dedicated to creating social change through community-centric agriculture. We are a diverse group of local farmers, with the common goal of helping cities become more self-sufficient. We believe that growing our own food connects us with nature and cultivates a sense of community.
Through edible landscaping or foodscaping, we have activated under-utilised areas into green community spaces. Our closed-loop farming model produces fresh, tasty, and nutritious herbs, flowers, and vegetables. Additionally, we teach and support fellow farmers and gardeners, hire from marginalised communities, and employ therapeutic horticulture. We are committed to finding a sustainable solution to managing food waste and achieving greater food resilience in Singapore.