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Singapore needs to lift farm production, cut waste, as global protein shortage looms: Study

SINGAPORE — As a result of climate change and rising population, the world is set to face a 56 per cent shortfall in food nutrition by 2050. Yet, Singapore is still heavily reliant on food imports from countries with weather-dependent traditional farms, a new study has found.

Singapore needs to lift farm production, cut waste, as global protein shortage looms: Study

Kok Fah Technology Farm at Sungei Tengah in western Singapore uses techniques such as hydroponics to produce large amounts of fresh green vegetables.

SINGAPORE — As a result of climate change and rising population, the world is set to face a 56 per cent shortfall in food nutrition by 2050. Yet, Singapore is still heavily reliant on food imports from countries with weather-dependent traditional farms, a new study has found.

Released on Tuesday (Aug 27), the study by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and consulting firm Deloitte said that Singapore's farms are the key to bolstering the country's food security — by deploying smart technology to boost yields.

Singapore should also become a centre for food by-products, as a way to tackle large levels of food waste, it added. Some details of the study, on food waste, were released earlier this month. 

The latest report warned that the shortfall in food needed to feed the world in 2050 is likely to be exacerbated by a global shortage of nearly 600 million hectares of agricultural land.

This could have significant implications for Singapore, which imports 90 per cent of its food. Food imports here are substantially sourced from countries that use traditional farming methods which are dependent on weather conditions.

The study, titled Advancing a Circular Economy for Food: Key Drivers and Recommendations to Reduce Food Loss and Waste in Singapore, was released at the annual Singapore Environmental Achievement Awards held at Pan Pacific Singapore hotel on Tuesday.

The ceremony, hosted by the SEC, recognised 11 organisations for their commitment to sustainability

FOOD LOST FROM FARM TO MARKET

Despite the threat to Singapore’s food sources, the study — which was conducted through academic research, in-depth interviews and surveys — found that an estimated S$2.54 billion worth of food was lost every year from farm to market in Singapore.

The study also examined the causes of loss among three main food groups: Vegetables and fruits, seafood, and eggs. These food groups were chosen as they form a large part of Singapore's food imports even though they are also produced locally.

Among the three food groups, the highest level of loss occurred among fruit and vegetables (167,000 tonnes), followed by seafood (25,000 tonnes) and eggs (5,500 tonnes).

The reasons for food loss from the point of production to distribution included: The disposal of imperfect produce due to strict industry standards, mechanical damage to vegetables during harvesting, bad farm management such as overcrowding of fish in small tanks, and fragile or haphazard packaging.

LOCAL FARMS ARE KEY TO MEETING 30% FOOD TARGET

“In our opinion, local farms have the opportunity to scale, and thereby hold the key to meeting 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030,” the report stated.

In March this year, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister of the Environment and Water Resources, announced that Singapore would aim to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030.

Singapore’s nutritional needs are made up of 50 per cent fruit and vegetables, 25 per cent proteins and 25 per cent staples, as shown in figures published by the Health Promotion Board.

The country aims to produce 20 per cent of its fruit and vegetables and 10 per cent of protein. Now, it produces less than 10 per cent of its nutritional needs.

The report said that new farms in Singapore could adopt technology and innovative thinking to scale up and contribute to the nation’s food security. Traditional farms could also apply new technology, seek out creative solutions and adopt state-of-the-art practices to improve efficiency and increase yield.

This would help push local food production “to new heights” and mitigate the environmental, economic, social and food security impact brought on by the heavy reliance on food imports, it said.

The report added that Singapore can also manage food loss by building a circular economy which plugs “leakages and gaps” in the food supply chain. In a circular economy, whatever that is usually thrown away or wasted can be reintroduced into the food supply chain as useful by-products.

For instance, unsold seafood can be converted into other products to extend their shelf life, such as ready-to-eat seafood products, while damaged eggs can be used to create liquid or powdered eggs.

SOME PROPOSED SOLUTIONS

1. Implementing technology in farms

One suggestion in the study was for vegetables and fruit to be grown in climate-controlled farms. This could reduce the loss of these items due to over-ripening or changes in the environment that affect their ability to be sold. The report added that further research can be conducted to help farmers identify climate-resilient fruit and vegetable varieties.

To reduce the chances of chickens laying smaller or cracked eggs as a result of low calcium or salt in the feed, farmers can introduce consistent and automated feeding and probiotic feed for chickens.

2. Better management by businesses

To ensure that suppliers do not import too much food into Singapore, the study suggested that businesses forecast the demand for food to predict how much food will be sold. It also suggested that unsold excess food be redistributed.

To meet consumer demand for cosmetically perfect products, businesses can turn cosmetically imperfect food into higher-value food products such as juices and jams.

3. Introducing legislation and policy

Fish farming: Policy-makers could share relevant data on water conditions with fish farmers to help them take necessary action, such as raising nets or transferring fish stock before any harmful algae blooms emerge, for example, to minimise the loss of their stock.

When businesses donate food to charity, they are not protected from potential liability. As a result, they opt to discard rather than donate excess food. To address this, the study proposed the introduction of policies to discourage food waste and incineration, and encourage the donation of unsold food from hotels and restaurants.

4. Changing behaviour and attitudes

To reduce food waste as a result of consumers objecting to the appearance of some food, the study suggested that emphasis be placed on the nutritional quality of food rather than its appearance, and to sell items with irregularities in packaging at a discounted rate.

BIGGER PUSH NEEDED TO SUPPORT URBAN FARMS

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Veera Sekaran, the founder and director of Vertivegies, an urban farm, said that technology is one way to reduce food loss in farms here.

The 57-year-old added that his farm, located in an industrial building along Loyang Way, relies on artificial intelligence to optimise the use of resources such as water and fertiliser.

It also grows produce based on the quantities requested by clients as a way to avoid over production.

The farm has a food-processing facility which turns produce which is not cosmetically appealing to consumers into products which are easier to sell such as salad punnets.

Mr Veera added that the farming sector needs a greater push forward to meet the country’s goal of producing 30 per cent of its food locally.

He said that Singapore had lost “generations of farmers” after it largely ceased having an agricultural economy resulting in a “deficit of talent to push the industry forward”.

Barriers to entry for high-tech farming are low, given that the industry is mostly based on data and working within a controlled-environment — rather than outdoors as is the case for traditional farming. However, Mr Veera noted that many people lack training in farming methods or simply do not have a real interest in farming.

To address the gap, he suggested that the Government should try to encourage more entrepreneurship in the area and also introduce more flexible policy and regulations for farmers, such as in the use of land.

Related topics

nutrition food Singapore Environmental Council food waste farming

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