The Big Read: Buy local but at what price? Pricier Singapore produce could hamper quest for greater food security
SINGAPORE — Though local food produce costs higher than imported ones, Ms Doreen Chan still believes she is getting more bang for her buck by buying local, as they are “fresher” and “better in quality”.
- Cabinet Minister Grace Fu recently called on consumers to buy local food produce, even if they cost more than imported ones, as a ‘co-investment’ in Singapore's food security
- The Government's ‘30 by 30’ goal aims to produce 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030
- While efforts are underway to boost local production and demand, the higher prices of local produce is a major deterrent for consumers interviewed by TODAY
- Food producers say the high costs of manpower, electricity, land leases and other overheads mean it is tough for them to compete on price alone
- To achieve the ‘30 by 30’ goal, experts suggest increasing public education and providing more financial assistance to farmers
SINGAPORE — Though local food produce costs more than imported ones, Ms Doreen Chan still believes she is getting more bang for her buck by buying local, as they are “fresher” and “better in quality”.
“I like hydroponic vegetables because they are much cleaner to me," said the 76-year-old, who works in the healing services industry.
"I get local eggs too, like Seng Choon eggs, which I find to be fresher than imported eggs. They’re more expensive, by a dollar or so, but the quality of local produce is so much better.”
Ms Chan is one of the few who are undeterred by the generally higher prices of local produce, based on TODAY’s interviews with 10 consumers.
For most of them, the price difference caused by high local production costs is significant enough to make supporting local products difficult.
One of them is 20-year-old student, Ms Clarissa Lim, who said: “I always look out for prices when buying produce, and the higher cost of local produce definitely deters me from buying them.
“Money is tight these days because of rising inflation, so it’s important that I save the extra bit of money.”
The issue of supporting local produce and its higher costs is back in the spotlight after Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu spoke about it in Parliament in April.
In her speech, Ms Fu highlighted Singapore’s “30 by 30” goal, which was announced in 2019, to produce 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030.
This has become even more pressing, in light of climate change and extreme weather events, geopolitical tensions, and disease outbreaks which have impacted food production and supply chains, she added.
Ms Fu called for more support in buying local, even if they cost more than imported produce.
“When we buy local, we are supporting our local farms and F&B businesses that use local produce. We are co-investing in our food resilience for the future. It is a symbiotic relationship,” she said.
The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said in response to TODAY's queries that local produce is one of Singapore's strategies in strengthening its food security and mitigates the country's reliance on imports.
Singapore currently imports more than 90 per cent of its food.
SFA did not respond to TODAY’s question on how far Singapore has progressed towards achieving this “grow local” target or what 30 per cent of “nutritional needs” refers to.
But it said that last year, local farms contributed around 29 per cent, 8 per cent, and 4 per cent of the total food consumption for hen shell eggs, seafood and vegetables respectively.
“As the local agri-tech industry is relatively nascent, we do not intend to fix the targets for each food item under the ‘30 by 30’ goal at this stage.”
SFA said there are efforts underway to boost local production, such as the Lim Chu Kang Masterplan, which will transform the area into a high-tech, highly productive and resource-efficient agri-food cluster.
The agency has also been supporting the industry to boost its capabilities and capacity through various incentives and grants for food producers to adopt innovative farming technologies or carry out research and development.
However, based on TODAY's interviews with consumers, industry experts and eight food producers, such efforts have yet to help reduce the cost of production enough to lower the prices of local produce to increase consumer buy-in.
Local food producers told TODAY that competition from lower-priced imported produce is their biggest challenge.
According to food security experts, the price difference is an issue that needs to be addressed if Singapore wants to achieve the “30 by 30” target.
As 2030 slowly but surely comes into sight, TODAY takes a closer look at the Singapore food story is developing.
WHY DOES LOCAL PRODUCE COST MORE THAN IMPORTS?
For the majority of the farmers TODAY spoke to, the high cost of manpower and production is the main factor that drives up the prices of local produce.
Mr Melvin Tan, director of fish farm Blue Ocean Harvest, which is managed by holding company Blue Ocean Group, said: “The production cost in Singapore is much higher than our neighbouring countries, easily three times much higher than in Malaysia.
"This poses a challenge in bringing our products to local supermarkets so they can be easily accessed by the public.”
Farming in land-scarce Singapore also means that the cost of land leases is high, which is another contributing factor to the price of local produce.
Mr Leon Hay, owner of goat farm Hay Dairies, said that he placed a “high bidding amount” for his current land lease, which is valid for 20 years — a period of time that he described as “very short”.
“Local produce loses out on pricing because labour here is very expensive, land is expensive. On top of that, we have the additional overheads to show SFA to prove that our produce adheres to very high food safety standards.
“We have to pay substantial amounts of fees yearly to be certified and audited for food safety, which imported produce are not subjected to since they undergo a different system of quality control and food safety,” said Mr Hay, adding that it costs about S$2 million per year to run the farm.
The increasingly erratic weather conditions in recent years and the rising temperatures in the past few months have also pushed farmers to invest more in technology and farming methods that can maintain optimal conditions for their crops.
This is crucial, particularly for highly perishable produce like beansprouts, which can spoil easily if temperatures reach too high, said Ms Jean Woon, manager of Ser Poh Farming and Trading.
The farm, which produces about seven tonnes of bean sprouts and soybean sprouts daily, has had to balance between the increased use of technology to maintain optimal temperatures and pricing its produce affordably.
“The extreme temperature recently has posed some challenges in maintaining product quality. To lower the temperature for our crops, we have been watering more frequently, which increases our water bill charges,” Ms Woon said.
Fish farmers who farm in open seas, like Blue Ocean Harvest, are also affected by climate change.
Mr Tan said: “The climate used to exhibit predictable seasonal changes, but now we are observing noticeable changes. This can be a problem for us because rising temperatures can cause harmful algae and parasites to increase, which will affect the survivability of our livestock.”
He added that his farm may eventually need to move to close containment farming where the temperature of the environment can be controlled, which will improve the survivability of the fishes.
But this will also incur more costs.
Another factor is the sharp rise in electricity costs in the last couple of years.
Ms Woon and Mr Tan said that increased use of technology will result in higher energy bills, which translate to higher prices for their produce.
However, not all local produce prices are higher than their imported counterparts, and such perception affects support for local produce, said Mr Peter Barber, chief executive officer of ComCrop, a local commercial rooftop farm that grows leafy greens.
“It’s not right to assume that all local produce costs more. If you compare our products against certain competitors like China and Malaysia, our prices are slightly higher, but not if you compare with similar produce from Australia, the United States or European countries,” he said.
Another problem, Mr Barber added, is that most consumers find it difficult to spot Comcrop’s products on supermarket shelves.
He suggested supermarkets have dedicated shelves for local products.
Though local produce is stocked in local supermarkets, their saleability is mainly based on shopper demand, said a spokesperson for FairPrice Group, which owns the chain of NTUC FairPrice supermarkets, in response to TODAY’s queries.
The spokesperson said that currently, 47 per cent of its supermarkets' eggs are sourced locally, while 17 per cent of its fish and seafood stock come from local farms.
Meanwhile, online supermarket RedMart, which is owned by e-commerce platform Lazada, said it launched a dedicated e-Singapore Farmers’ Market in 2020.
It features 29 local farms, of which the bulk of the produce, or 69 per cent, constitutes vegetables, while 14 per cent are eggs and dairy products, and 17 per cent seafood.
According to a Lazada spokesman, demand for local produce soared during the Covid-19 pandemic, and baseline demand has stayed “higher than it was pre-pandemic”.
In fact, some local produce fare better than imported ones, with kale being “the most popular vegetable sold by local farms”, accounting for three-quarters of total sales for all sales of kale, the spokesman added.
HOW MUCH MORE DOES LOCAL PRODUCE COST?
The price difference between local and imported produce varies according to the food category.
For produce like eggs and vegetables, the price difference can range between a few cents to a dollar by weight.
For example, a tray of 10 eggs weighing 60 grams each from Chew’s Agriculture costs S$3.65, whereas the same product weighing 55 grams per egg from Malaysia costs S$3.30 at NTUC FairPrice supermarkets.
Mr Ray Poh, founder and managing director of indoor hydroponics Artisan Green, said that his products, which are baby leaf greens, herbs and microgreens, generally cost between S$1 and S$2 more by weight compared to similar produce imported from regional countries.
A 100-gram bag of pre-cut baby spinach from Artisan Green, for example, costs S$6.95 on local fine food purveyor Merchant Brothers’ online shop Pantry Selects, whereas the same product with the same weight from Australia and Italy costs S$3.80 and S$4.80 respectively on RedMart.
This means the local produce can cost about 83 per cent more than imported ones.
Meanwhile, Mr Barber said that lettuce sold by ComCrop is about S$1 more expensive than neighbouring countries, but costs between S$1 and S$3 cheaper than the ones imported from countries like Australia, and premium lettuce from Malaysia.
On the other hand, food items like fish see a wider price difference, ranging from S$1 to S$3 more compared to fishes from Malaysia and Indonesia.
For example, a 500-gram seabass from local farms costs S$8.60 on RedMart, while one with the same weight from Malaysia is available at a price of S$7.80, or about 10 per cent cheaper, on the same platform.
The dearer price puts off customers such as Ms Sally Wee from buying local produce.
The 53-year-old, who is self-employed, said that she considers the price of the produce before purchasing, as well as its level of freshness.
Another consumer, Ms Afifah Shameemah, supports the idea of buying local, but in practice she would opt for whichever produce that is “value for money”.
“I don’t really have a preference or aversion to local produce. I just go for whatever that is cheaper, and if it happens to be sourced from local farms, then great,” the 24-year-old undergraduate said.
But there are those who will choose to buy local when the produce is available.
“I prefer buying local vegetables and fishes to imported ones, even if they are slightly more expensive, because local produce is fresher and better in quality," said 72-year-old Ms Anne Wong, a housewife.
“If you cook, you will know that local vegetables don’t have a bitter taste compared to imported ones. And actually, the price difference is not that huge anyway, probably about one dollar difference.”
WHAT IS ‘30 by 30’ GOAL AND HOW IS S'PORE GETTING THERE?
In 2019, the then Ministry of Environment and Water Resources announced the “30 by 30” initiative, to produce 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030.
This is to strengthen Singapore's food security.
Currently, Singapore is heavily reliant on food imports, with more than 90 per cent of its food imported from overseas.
According to SFA’s 2021/22 annual report, Singapore has 111 sea-based fish farms, 24 land-based fish farms, 110 leafy-vegetables farms, six beansprout farms, five hen and quail egg farms, and nine other general agricultural farms, including goat and frog farms.
Local production is key to Singapore's food security strategy, as it helps to mitigate the impact of supply disruptions and reduce reliance on imported food, the agency said in response to TODAY's queries.
To boost local production, SFA has been providing local producers with financial incentives to adopt innovative farming technologies and solutions.
It is also looking to plan and redevelop the larger Lim Chu Kang area and is working with other government agencies on the Agri-Food Innovation Park, a high-tech agri-cluster in Sungei Kadut.
“We are also working to transform the aquaculture zones in the Straits of Johor to support higher production levels, as well as exploring the expansion of productive, sustainable fish farming in the Southern Waters,” SFA said.
It added that it adopts multiple strategies to increase uptake of local produce and support local food producers.
- An award for hotels, restaurants and catering establishments which procure at least 15 per cent of local produce in dollar value under a Farm-To-Table Recognition Programme
- Rolling out the bright red "SG Fresh Produce" logo in 2020 which makes it easier for consumers to identify and buy local produce while grocery shopping
- Promoting local produce through an integrated marketing communications campaign called #fromSGtoSG
- Encouraging retailers such as supermarkets to carry more local produce
- Working with other agencies and aggregators to pool together and distribute fresh produce to hotels, restaurants and cafes. This helps to aggregate demand for smaller farms and achieving scale this way is key for local produce to be price competitive
“While SFA will continue to explore ways to increase production and uptake of local produce, we encourage consumers to buy more local produce, as well as retailers, restaurants, and hotels to come forward to support our local farms," it said.
“This support will enable local farms to thrive and contribute meaningfully to food security.”
MORE PUBLIC EDUCATION, FINANCIAL SUBSIDIES NEEDED: EXPERTS
With consumers reluctant to pay more for local produce and high production costs, it is a race against time for local farmers to achieve the '30 by 30' goal in seven years.
But Associate Professor Matthew Tan, an aquaculture expert at James Cook University, is optimistic that the goal can be achieved, provided that farmers are given adequate support.
Assoc Prof Tan, who is also the Singapore representative of the private sector to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation policy partnership on food security, said that while SFA is already providing financial help in the form of grants to local producers, this support must be increased, along with public awareness on improving the nation’s food security.
Other countries have mitigated similar problems by imposing import taxes, and using the tax gains to subsidise local farmers, he added.
“However, this may not be viable here as Singapore prides itself as a free port, and may be hesitant to impose an import tax.
“We must then find a balance between maintaining our stance as a free port, while also increasing support for local farmers, so that we can achieve 30 per cent food self-sufficiency by 2030.”
Public education should be the emphasis, said Professor William Chen of Nanyang Technological University.
“Our farms have been able to increase production, even with the existing constraints, such as land and production costs. We can push for more volume in production, but we cannot keep producing more if no one will buy it," said Prof Chen.
He wears several hats at the university, including as director of its Food Science and Technology Programme.
“There must be a concerted effort by consumers, F&B operators, and the Government to boost the buy-in of local produce," he added.
"Cultivating local food production has become even more crucial in light of global warming and recent disruptions in the food supply chain, due to geopolitical tensions and the pandemic.”
Assoc Prof Tan agreed on the importance of public education, which he said is sorely lacking.
“I believe we can start education from young in schools, not just about food security and sustainable consumption, but also about reducing food waste,” he said, citing national water agency PUB’s water conservation campaign as a successful model to emulate.
While the costs of production may be high, particularly for tech-reliant farms, Prof Chen believes that such costs can eventually be recovered through higher levels of production and consumer buy-in.
Agreeing, Assoc Prof Tan said: “We can achieve 30 by 30, and we have to. We are lucky that we have enough food in our generation. We must ensure that our future children have the same luxury. This is about investing in their future.”
SFA did not respond to TODAY’s queries on how to address the price conundrum faced by local farmers.
BETTER MARKETING, FARM-TO-TABLE CONCEPT TO BOOST DEMAND
Despite the odds being stacked against them, local producers and establishments are taking concrete steps to create and boost demand for local produce.
These include marketing and branding of local produce as fresher, more value for money, and better in quality compared to imported produce.
Mr Poh of Artisan Green said: “We brand our products as being fresher, locally grown and pesticide-free. This is a prominent feature throughout our packaging, which is made from sustainable paper, to make us stand out more on the supermarket shelves.
"I think it works because our loyal customers tell us they are willing to pay more for our produce since they are fresher and last longer.”
Some local producers, such as Chew’s Agriculture, which sells hen shell eggs, also emphasise the nutrients and healthy benefits of their produce, as well as their size, on their product packaging.
“Our eggs weigh 60 grams each, whereas most competitors’ eggs normally weigh 55 grams each," said Ms Yancy Tay, marketing lead of Chew’s Agriculture.
"We make sure to emphasise the size in our marketing, and we also label the nutrients available in our eggs, such as Vitamin C and Omega 3, on the product packaging.”
One consumer told TODAY that he would choose local over imported produce if they are branded as a healthier choice.
“Generally, I look at the prices when I am buying my groceries, not whether they are local or imported products," said Mr Abdul Raup, a 56-year-old driving instructor.
“But if the local product is marketed as healthier, for example, the product contains Omega 3 or other nutrients, then I will choose that product, even if it is more expensive.”
Besides marketing, local farmers also invest in efficient and quality customer service to retain and expand their consumer base.
“Our advantage as local farmers is that we are faster in providing our products, and can cater to urgent or last-minute orders,” said Ms Woon from bean sprouts and soybean sprouts farm Ser Poh Farming and Trading.
“We make use of this by emphasising on customised service and responding quickly to customer feedback. We make providing quality beansprouts consistently as our top priority so that our business remains sustainable,” she added.
Some farms also sell directly sell to consumers and local restaurants, including fish farm Blue Ocean Harvest, and vegetable farms Nature’s International Commodity and Tomato Town, both of which grow various vegetables on top of a Housing and Development Board multi-storey carpark.
Mr Tan of Blue Ocean Harvest said that since 2021, Blue Ocean Group has established three food and beverage outlets specialising in Chinese cuisine, particularly fish soup, which uses fish harvested from the farm.
Mr Nicholas Goh, founder of Nature’s International Commodity, said that it “makes little sense” to push their products to local supermarkets in a competitive environment.
So the company provides monthly and yearly membership subscriptions which include a weekly package of fresh vegetables and tours on its farm.
"By doing this and maintaining a good standard of quality of our products, we also raise awareness of quality produce and the importance of food security," he said.
“We currently have 150 regular monthly subscribers, but our farm has the capacity to handle 250 so we hope to get more consumers to sign up.”
Tomato Town’s managing director, Mr Webster Tham, says that the farm diversifies its sales by selling to local supermarkets and directly to local restaurants.
“Demand has been good for us in general, and our consumers have been supportive of us, mainly because our products are fresh and free from pesticides and preservatives,” said Mr Tham.
This pitch of local produce being fresher and of higher quality also helps food producers target eateries here that bank on a “farm-to-table” concept to attract customers seeking an authentic experience of having fresh, local produce on their plate.
Quality is a major push factor for sourcing produce locally for some establishments, such as Resorts World Sentosa (RWS), a recipient of SFA’s highest tier Farm-To-Table Recognition Programme.
The programme, which was launched in March, awards a recognition logo to hotels, restaurants and catering establishments that procure at least 15 per cent of local produce in dollar value, for the food categories of hen shell eggs, leafy vegetables, beansprouts, or fish.
The award is tiered depending on the number of food categories that the establishments procure from local farms.
RWS senior vice-president of attractions and sustainability Loh Su Kim said it procures more than 45 tonnes of local produce annually, including fresh eggs, leafy vegetables, beansprouts, and barramundi.
“This ensures maximum freshness of the ingredients — which enhances the quality of our culinary creations for guests.”
The Local Farm Bistro by Gardenasia is another recipient of SFA’s highest tier Farm-To-Table recognition logo, and procures all its vegetables, eggs and fishes completely from local farms.
Gardenasia consultant Karen Pang said: “Even though imported produce cost less, we choose to procure our produce from local farms where possible because we believe in fostering a resilient and vibrant local food system.”
While such farm-to-table initiatives are laudable, the farmers interviewed said that they are not enough to move the needle to address their main problems.
“We need more public education on buying local produce to boost local demand, which is lacking," said Mr Hay.
"The public and private sector should also take the lead by choosing local over imported produce to drive home the message that no country can survive without its own food supply.”