On food security in Singapore & the world

June 9, 2017

Q: judging from what you have written concerning AVA in Singapore. You don’t seem to have much respect for their latest strategy to grow produce in Singapore or for that matter their global food sourcing strategy. How true is that?

A: Please don’t put words in my mouth. This is not the first time that you have tried to do this. In fact I have the highest respect for AVA and I do believe with mostly what they do. After all if they’re doing such a lousy job everyone in the Homefront will all be eating mud cakes and tree bark congee – food is by and large a non issue in Singapore and I don’t think it would all have been possible without the expertise, sound planning and hard working people in AVA.

Q: But you have reservations?

A: Of course. As I believe their current strategy of trying to grow food in Singapore does not cohere well to certain realities. As I see it the main problem with the planning unit in AVA is they are too Singapore centric – that’s to say they’re still stuck in the old cognitive map of trying to get the best out of every inch of arable land in Singapore. As for their global food sourcing outreach program it is too relied on middle men and traders. There doesn’t seem to be any strategy to eliminate the middle man who in my opinion adds very little value to the whole supply chain of food. If you look at most businesses, there is a relentless constancy to find ever more inventive ways to cut away at extraneous layers. So in retail for instance, even physical stores are going obsolete as the supply chain is continuously getting shorter that it’s today a warehouse to buyer relationship. In some cases it’s frictionless, it’s factory directly to buyer. This is how extraneous cost is eliminated and cost is kept low. That is the same reason why brick and mortar bookshops are going bust as most readers these days buy their books cheaper online. And AVA should emulate that same business model. After all everyone is doing it. So they should have a program to cut off the middle men from the food supply chain simply because he adds very little value to the produce. The goal should be to deal directly with the primary producers. But if you don’t grow or rear or breed or even get your hands dirty, then you can’t do that. The food supply chain will always be convoluted.

Q: What do you see as fundamentally wrong with growing food the high tech way in Singapore?

A: In one word it’s unnecessary and in more words it’s a great diffusion of energy and opportunity cost. I am not saying growing iceberg lettuce in the way one manufactures integrated circuits will necessarily be a failure. It cannot fail. As even in the international space station there exist such facilities so that astronauts can better flavour their sandwiches. But the cost in both capital investment for the farmer will be very high and all this would be borned by the consumer. So fail it cannot. But how does it all translate into cheaper produce for the HDB auntie? Cost has to feature in the calculus. And when it comes to cost efficiency nothing can beat the economy of scale of commercial farming. That is especially cogent in the case of Singapore. Because the real constraint is not land as much as water scarcity. Out of the two the latter is the key determinant. Not land per se. Land mass alone without water is a red herring in commercial farming. If you look at Saudi Arabia, they can farm commercially. They have 3% arable land. That’s a lot. But their primary constraint is water. And agriculture takes up a lot of water resources. Israel is agri giant, but what makes that possible is that their skill of arms in managing water so efficiently that they can reclaim 90% of their water resources for agri. Saudi Arabia consumes 24 billion cubic meters of water, but nearly 90% is used up in agriculture. And in a country where water comes primarily from aquifers that’s a lousy use of national resources, it’s as good as taking slow acting poison, that’s why wherever you go in Saudi Arabia you will find plenty of advertisements begging people to go to Africa to farm.

You want to know the awful truth. Even the Saudi’s don’t want to aspire to food independence any longer, they much rather prefer to grow abroad and import their food. And we are going down the same road they made an epic u turn on. How clever is that.

And another thing, one sees the same phenomenon in Saudi Arabia as in Singapore. Many farmers don’t want to venture abroad. They much prefer to grow water intensive crops like wheat and basmati rice in the desert even if it hardly makes any sense to use precious water for that purpose.

My point is like Saudi Arabia everything about Singapore militates against commercial agriculture. Cost of water itself will kill you dead! You don’t need ten bullet points to formulate a compelling case. As water scarcity just happens to be the killer Paretto rationale that makes the rest of the 80% of your business case nonsensical. Of course you can say some of the high tech farms can augment this by harvesting rain or ground water – I say that’s cheating as it should all rightly go instead to the reservoirs. So there is some accounting abberation there as well. And I mentioned opportunity cost. It’s all lousy – let’s not even talk about growing in lousy zero top soil reclaimed land. Monoculture. Location prone diseases and weather etc etc…it’s all lousy.

Q: So Philip Yeo was right. When he said there is no agriculture in Singapore.

A: Yes at one level of intelligence he was certainly right. But what he should have gone on to say was this….but this doesn’t stop us from growing food elsewhere and that is what some countries actually do to improve their food security. America doesn’t grow all its cereal crops in Nebraska right across Ohio to Illinois. Some of it actually comes from South America. The same goes for the Saudi Arabia and most gulf states as well. They don’t home grow long grained rice. They used too. It’s just too water intensive. But they do grow it today in Etiophia, India, Indonesia and Philippines. So what you have mentioned is the sine quo non of the economics of food for virtually every country in this world.

Q: What is the problem with leveraging on global food sourcing as a strategy for food security?

A: Nothing is wrong with it. Japan imports all its oil from the US. Americans buy most of their track shoes from factories in China. But the difference between food and all these other imported products is that they are not necessities – for the time being I have to admit given the amount of cash per unit of population at its disposal, it would seem logical for Singapore to secure its food security agenda by outbidding other buyers and just securing its supplies thru CPO futures and block orders from its network of global food producers suppliers – but you’ve got to understand every country is also doing that and there are choke points or vulnerabilities within that sort of arrangement. For example if that country where AVA sources fishery supplies or rice from suffers a short fall for that particular year for whatever reason ranging from disease to freak weather then what the government of that country can do is impose a no export moratorium like what India did to Saudi Arabia in 2009 when the monsoon failed and rice stockpiles in India fell so precariously low that domestic supply was threatened – where did that leave the Saudis?

So I think on one hand you can certainly say, it’s better for Singapore to have long term food procurement agreements with countries like Canada and New Zealand for diary products and meat – and not get into the hassle of getting our hands dirty over the operations of primary production of food in other people’s countries where we are not in a position to mitigate the political and economic fallout. But you also need to recognise that by just limiting the food security strategy to just sourcing and buying, there will even be more weaknesses.

The problem as I see it is these weaknesses are systematic to agriculture and livestock itself and its global. El Niño doesn’t care whether you’re an Indonesian fish farmer who has a contractual agreement to supply X quantity of taliapa to Olam or whether you’re a cattle farmer in New Zealand who has an agreement to supply Y tonnage of meat to NTUC. Neither does Co2 emissions care either. I am not saying we are all going to have to eat our shoes just to fill our stomachs in the future because of climate change. But what I am saying is global food production has reached a tipping point maybe as far back as a decade ago, where it’s conceivable mankind may not even be able to produce enough to feed everyone in the world. So it’s a downhill game from this point onwards – and if that scenario plays out then sure you can still try to outbid every other buyer for that loaf of bread or halibut. Only is that sustainable?

But before you draw a conclusion maybe you should write to FAO in Rome and ask them how’s the global food outlook going to be like in ten or twenty years from now.

In my studied opinion at some point you have to get your hands dirty otherwise talking about food security is quite sterile and the problem is AVA does not seem to feature this aspect in their scenario planning. Or maybe I am wrong.

Q: How feasible is it for Singapore to go abroad and grow food in other countries when food itself is so politically charged as you mentioned?

A: As agriculture and livestock shifts imperceptibly from an environment of surplus to scarcity food will get increasingly politically charged like any other resource scarce commodity like oil. Why do you think China is militarizing and planting flags in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean? Oil. And food will be the equivalent of oil in the future. That’s a mathematical fact.

But you have to bear in mind at the present moment – it’s driven primarily by economics and to some extent geopolitics as well – Philipinos don’t have a problem exporting long grained rice to the Middle East, because they much prefer the flavor and texture of stubby rice. Thai and Loas don’t mind growing, harvesting and distilling agarwood perfume and exporting it to the middle east as they much prefer Ralp Lauren eu de cologne. Same goes for Egyptians cotton farmers they much prefer to export couture Giza 45 premium cotton as they’re accustomed to wearing cheaper open weave cotton that is cooler in their hot climate.

Coupled to that in many countries especially in the ASEAN region. The whole idea of agriculture is actually very inefficiently run. There is usually layer upon layer of hidden subsidise. Even in advanced economies like the US and Canada. They get government aid but usually it’s done obliquely like when USAID airdrops bags of wheat on famine stricken parts of Africa. The bag bears the caption gift from the American people but what it should say is this is a bailout to the Farmers lobby. So farming and the idea of provincialism in the form of the barangay, Kampung, village or hamlet will always be a form of social security to most governments in developing countries. The perennial challenge for them is they don’t want their transmigration from rural to urban as that would cause a lot of social and economic problems. To paraphrase agriculture is a burden to the taxpayer in virtually every developing country.

So that is a plus point to countries that want to invest in agriculture. They all welcomed. From time to time it gets politicised as Neo colonialism, land grabs, imperialism. But by and large developing countries see agro based FDI as a good and not a bad thing. And that accounts for why in the last ten years there is a historical land grab in the fertile plains of Africa by every country from China, US to Saudi Arabia to grow. Not to source, but to grow for their home markets. Sudan. Mozambique swinging to Uganda along the gambezi. They’re all conseccionaries parcels of land right down to the Cameroon. As what these nations want is not land per se rather a reliable source of water from the Great Lakes up in Uganda.

Q: So you’re saying Singaporean firms can invest in agriculture. Grow in other countries and even export back home?

A: Don’t try to run yet. To do that you first need an army of frontier men. China and Saudi Arabia can do all that as they have the skill of arms in the form of very competent farmers and a whole network of knowledge base to support it – it’s a bit like an aircraft carrier. It needs to be complimented with an entire accoutrements of minesweepers, destroyers, supply ships, submarines etc etc. In the case of Singapore you just have tub. Because there is no strategic vision for agriculture or livestock. So if you want to be a farmer in Singapore. There is no means to learn the ropes of the trade. You can do stupid things lah like get some really passionate hypie to teach you how to start a herb garden in your void deck or maybe save people and planet by spending the weekend planting saps in Bukit Timah. But the serious arcanum of farming. How to scale a plot of land. How to farm commercially so that you can buy a car or maybe spire to be a proud owner of a Honda jet one day. All this you have no avenues to acquire the knowledge systematically in Singapore. If you ask AVA the auto answering machine will direct you to ITE or NTU or maybe outer space. I really dunno. And that is a very big problem. As what AVA should be strategically doing. They are not doing. They have all the accumulated skill of arms. You name it they have it everything from agriculture to livestock but its all under utilised, as since it’s all streamlined to what I consider to be a flawed vision – only a very few farmers and traders who all seem to suffer from either a lack of geographical knowledge as they think the world begins in Changi village and ends in Woodlands or maybe they just suffer from a morbid fear of going abroad.

The executive summary is they all want to stay in Singapore only, work in their high tech farm, then drive back on the ECP back home. If you ask them to go to the wild or some place where there is no aircon or maybe to a place where it is the local custom where people like to point guns. Dowan lah. So the way I see it, it’s just a country club culture the custodians of power are propagating. It’s got nothing to do with real agriculture and livestock or for that matter what I consider real food security.

As farming is a very mysterious thing in Singapore, it’s like the illuminati or the Freemasons. That is very sad as I feel farming should be accessible to everyone in Singapore. Many young and capable Singaporeans want to farm, but since it resembles a big Da Vinci code, no one knows where to even start.

Q: Again I ask. So you’re saying Singaporean firms can invest in agriculture. Grow in other countries and even export back home?

A: Yes. My feel is the risk can be intelligently managed within a given set of paramaters. Of course as I mentioned earlier land and whole idea of farming produce to export will always be somewhat controversial from an economic, political, institutional, legal and ethical standpoint especially when they are raised in relation to property rights, food security, rural development and access to water etc etc.

On the other hand you need to recognise, lack of investment in agriculture and livestock over decades has meant continuing low productivity and stagnant production in many developing countries. Lack of agro based investment in fact is the primary reason for perennial food shortages thru out the third world.

So there is a lot of untapped agri and livestock capacity in these developing countries. It’s not as if they are operating efficiently at all. Ironically no where near what’s currently being done in Singapore. If you look at poultry in Singapore for instance, it’s a science right down to how much antibiotics in every growth rotation. Same goes for agri products, they’re all tested on parts per billion of herbicides etc etc to ensure the highest stringency of food safety.

Q: What about the danger of the host country cutting off exports in emergencies?

A: That sort of force majeure clause features in all agri based instruments. If let’s say Olam buys up CPO futures for let’s say X quantity of rice harvest three months from the date of the publication of this article and should the north easterly winds fail to bring life giving rain from the Himalayans to swell the Ganges and allow for crop irrigation of padi. Those futures will be summarily rendered null and void.

That was exactly what happened to Saudi Arabi during the global commodity crunch of 2007, when India, their main supplier of rice, temporarily banned exports because of oceans off the coast of Peru started to warm so much that it interfered with the convectional currents in the Pacific Ocean that led to less rain in the Andaman, the monsoon that year was a no show and the prices of corn, rice, barley and other grains went thru the roof.

That was the primary impetus to led the Saudi think tank to re-examine their assumptions concerning food security. Today Saudi Arabia is scaling down home grown agriculture. In fact if you’re a Saudi citizen and you walk into the ministry of agriculture and livestock and shout out, ‘I want to go to Africa and plant Basmati rice!’ You will be a national hero and the ministry of happiness will offer 1,000 pleasures till you pengshan. I am not bluffing. As the Saudis suffer from the same disease as Singapore based farmers as well – they all want to stay home and they seem to have an acute shortage of frontier men, so although they seem to have grand plans to grow alfalfa in the waterglades to feed their cattle and to expand rice growing in Sudan all the way to up to Libya to connect up with the upper Nile delta of Egypt. They cannot do it as no frontier man. Everything also cannot do.

That is why I believe before this can even be a serious basis of consideration plans to develop a frontier culture must first take root in earnest. But that is very difficult when AVA seems to be only Singapore centric in their strategy and even if they go all over the world to source food, they don’t seem very interested to encourage the current cohort of farmers to venture out and grow primary produce outside Singapore. Instead AVA wants to them all to stay in Singapore and only grow veggies like the way iPhones are manufactured.

Q: You mentioned there is a geopolitical dimension to food. Can you elaborate further?

A: Food and everything related to it will always be encrusted with power and politics. If you look at Qatar it’s been blockaded. Of course the politically correct parlance is diplomatic ties have been suspended. But it’s really a blockade and one of the phalanx of this strategy involves cutting off the supply of food. Saudi Arabia weaponizes their food resources. That’s her way of exerting collective influence over the affairs of the region that’s why the Kingdom has invested so much skill of arms in agri based knowledge along with keeping stockpiles of food for both domestic consumption and more than enough reserves to export as well. It’s a deliberate strategy. Food is the equivalent of their seventh fleet. And that should not be a surprise as every Civilisation that aspires to empire has done this. Agriculture has always been a combination of geopolitics and economics, it goes right back to the ancient Sumerians who developed core agricultural techniques like their complex irrigation methods that required them to engineer flooding along the Persian Gulf delta to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates using moon charts. This skill of arms was obviously required to perpetuate their civilisation. Their Sumerians were so agro centric that it became the very means by which they perpetuated their class politics and priest were the landowning classes. Agriculture was also central in cementing primacy as a regional superpower. Every country does this in one shape or form – they use food as means of conducting war.

That is why the skill of arms of growing food is so important. Because when I say Singapore must grow food abroad. I don’t necessarily mean that it should all be exported back to Singapore only. If it is done right, there will be surpluses and it’s possible to migrate up the value chain to more sophisticated skill of arms such as food processing, it can feed the population of not only the host country be a source of employment for Singaporeans as well. Not to mention a revenue generator.

I think one of the saddest things for me is that everyone is trying to crack their head on what is the next big thing to remake Singapore…could it be the jewel, which is after all just a glorified mall lah. Could it be self driving cars. In fact the answer is right there on the table….it’s food. Glorious food. But if you go and tell people back in the homefront, this is the future. This is where you should go. They will laugh at you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: