Let’s face it, 250,000 is no small number, especially when it’s the number of eggs Singapore threw away just in June. We’re not referring to a fraction of the national food waste produced, though that itself is another terrible statistic (744,000 tonnes last year since we’re talking about it), but the amount Kim Hock Eggs Merchant had imported to meet a demand spike a few months prior, only to be discarded due to an unexpected plunge in sales that followed. The oversupply had gone bad, and what’s more dismal about the number is that it doesn’t account for what goes unreported by other suppliers.
This news came on the heels of the first arrival of eggs from Poland on our shores, for being the forerunning batch of agricultural product shipments from the country. As you would already know, the high-profile import marked bilateral economic cooperation amidst the virus outbreak, and more significantly, Singapore’s efforts to diversify our food sources. Like every other entity disrupted by COVID-19, our food security had to be re-evaluated. That’s because while receiving from over 170 different countries, outsourced food supply perches dangerously over 90 percent.
In these (here it comes) uncertain times, the system is perceptibly vulnerable to export issues, tensions, bans and, of course, the unmissable impact of climate change. In fact, coupled with the pandemic, it’s one of the biggest drivers of food consumption change. Going vegan is no longer a disdain nor novelty now that animal conditions not only hurt from an ethical perspective, but also breach into illnesses that lead to widespread outbreaks. Outbreaks like the Avian influenza, African swine fever …and the one we’re most familiar with this year.
The shift to plant-based food
With the presumably lower health risk due to the higher hygiene standard of the controlled environment that plant-based food offers, Euromonitor International forecasts Asia’s substitute meat market worth to grow to USD17.1 billion this year. The shift toward plant-based is barely recent, with celebrity-invested Impossible and Beyond Meat on their way to becoming household names. This alongside grocery store fixture Quorn from UK, Hong Kong’s pseudo-pork Omni, Spanish substitute chicken fillet Heura, and now Kellogg’s Incogmeato.
For the purpose of saving the earth and all things green, 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 93 percent less impact on land use, and 99 percent (how does one top that?) less impact on water scarcity compared to a quarter pound of traditional US beef does sound mighty effective. The numbers are crunched by the Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan for a study commissioned by Beyond Meat, but the media was not slow to further this marketing angle. For America alone to replace beef with alternative patties equates to taking 12 million cars off the road for an entire year, estimates Fast Company.
The notion seems borderline romantic if you stop to think about it.
“The carbon footprint of these processed plant-based products falls in between chicken and beef, so Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint, but saying it’s the most climate-friendly thing to do—that’s a false promise,” University of Oxford’s senior environmental researcher Marco Springmann tells CNBC. “If Beyond’s products help people switch from normal beef to a replacement, it’s not so bad. But it should not be the end goal.”
Just as it takes 0.8 CO2e/kg for Quorn to produce mycoprotein (a meat substitute grown from fungi), it takes almost four times the amount to produce Beyond’s vegan nuggets, due to the energy required for processing. Again, an emission report supplied by Quorn. Weighing the methane production of livestock based on the time it lives for against the impact of CO2 from running the labs, you wonder if it’s a fair argument to say that only one option reduces fossil fuel dependency. More so when alternative meats include not just plant-based, but cell-based protein from animal cells grown in lab culture.
We haven’t even begun to touch on the detrimental effects of single-product cropping on biodiversity in the long run. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and bring the conversation back to local ground. We’d venture to say that 721.5 square kilometres doesn’t allow much space for regenerative agriculture when it’s home to some 5.8 million, but permaculture could stand a chance with technological leverage. Having announced the ‘30 by 30’ plan last year, Singapore has unveiled its strategies to develop our agri-food industry to produce 30 percent of the population’s nutritional needs by 2030, comprising 10 percent protein and 20 percent fruits and vegetables.
Presently, self- production is at 10 percent for fish, 26 percent for eggs (500 million) and 14 percent for vegetables. Eco-Ark, Singapore’s four-million-dollar offshore fish farm, reaped 24 tonnes of sea bass earlier this year. Eco-Ark requires just 14 percent of the area that current coastal fish farms need while producing up to 20 times minimum production level, thanks to its smart management. Its capability to duplicate deep seawater conditions uses an ozonation system which self-filters and self-cleans, and 40 percent of total operational needs are solar powered.
Five-year-old Citiponics, born out of its founder Teo Hwa Kok’s desire for healthier, safe leafy greens after he witnessed the abuse of pesticides on food safety, has famously been growing up to 25 types of vegetables out of its Ang Mo Kio rooftop carpark farm. The pivot from traditional to urban farming led to the Aqua Organic System, growing towers that function vertically and encourage minimal wastage.
Even rice is not spared. The locally born-and-bred Asian staple Temasek Rice was selectively formulated by Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory to produce four times the amount of rice of regular rice breeds.
After eight years of research and development, the cross-pollinated creation is able to survive fungal diseases and extreme weather for a prolonged period. Having obtained patent and trademark protection last May, the rice brand is now ready for export.
These examples of supervised environments seem promising in ensuring consistent output amidst unpredictable weather patterns like droughts and floods as well as recent locust plagues, on top of ever-rising temperatures. A glimmer of hope when a 25 percent decrease of global crop yields is expected by 2050, hence the heavy investment to bolster the industry’s upward trajectory, as with the 18ha Agri-Food Innovation Park located at Sungei Kadut that’s well under way.
“While space is constrained, our urban and dense environment does afford us to be a living lab to experiment with urban agriculture,” says Dr Koh Poh Koon, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, in a Temasek Digital interview, citing the vision for the park to be an enriched ecosystem of international players working alongside local entrepreneurs to co-create solutions specific to Singapore’s needs.
Encouraging green fingers
However, not all of us are scientists and high-tech farmers of tomorrow. National Parks Board (NParks) probably acknowledged this and sprung into action—it launched a Gardening with Edibles initiative. Free seed packets for one type each of leafy and fruited vegetables were distributed upon online registration, limited to one seed packet per household.
The array consists of 10 types of vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, brinjal, cucumber and tomato which take between four and eight weeks to cultivate. Coupled with step-by-step instructions including how to set up a home hydroponics system with sponges and plastic containers, and online resources like a 10-part YouTube series to walk through novice and advanced gardeners alike, the initiative is serious business.
The timely giveaway paid off with NParks receiving over 400,000 responses in under two weeks.
A decade from now appears to be the popular year for goal-setting, as the board also aims for a two-fold increase of community plots and allotment gardens by 2030. In fact, horticulture enthusiasts are not alone in their quest for homegrown produce. Neighbourhood folk—plant-lovers or otherwise—have gone green… with envy, according to a report by The Straits Times on the monthly thefts that occur. Shoots plucked and whole pots stolen have deterred potential growers and rendered existing gardeners to grow extra along the fence or rent private plots instead.
Malicious as it seems, the demand is telling. The course for farm-to-table is set. With the robotic arm of technology growing our food baskets and the expanding collective of green fingers tending domestic soil, the decade-long journey to self-sufficiency is optimistic. And the day will come where, if we were to once again face the unfortunate situation of laying waste 250,000 eggs, they will likely come from our own land.