SINGAPORE - The ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 may have highlighted Singapore's vulnerability to global supply shocks, but Singapore has over the years taken steps to ensure that its supply of food is not compromised.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Wednesday (April 1) reassured Singaporeans that the nation's food supply was adequate, pointing to various measures that the Republic had undertaken over the years.
It has, for example, collaborated with nations around the world to diversify its food import sources, maintained a national stockpile, and is continuously looking to technology and research to boost the productivity of local farms, he told reporters on the sidelines of a visit to a local fish farm owned by Apollo Aquaculture Group.
Singapore currently imports more than 90 per cent of its food - a vulnerability that was highlighted during two recent mass panic-buying sprees induced by news of the escalating outbreak.
The first panic-buying spree took place on Feb 7, after Singapore announced that it would be raising its disease outbreak response to the coronavirus situation by a notch to orange, which is just below the highest level of red. The second took place after Malaysia announced on March 16 that it will be restricting all movement throughout the country to prevent further spread of Covid-19.
"The security of our food supply is critical to Singapore, and it is important that we make adequate plans," said Mr Heng. "I'm glad that we have made these plans many years ago."
Singapore imports food from over 170 countries.
Talks are ongoing with various countries to ensure that these supply chains remain open, said Mr Heng. He said: "We are now enhancing our cooperation with many other countries around the world to look at food security, food safety, and to improve the supply chain. So even when supply chains are disrupted, and (in) moments like this, we can still have better security of supply."
On March 25, the governments of Singapore, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Myanmar and New Zealand issued a joint ministerial statement affirming their nations' commitment to maintaining open and connected supply chains.
"We will also work closely to identify and address trade disruptions with ramifications on the flow of necessities," the statement said.
Mr Heng said that the national stockpile was also adequate if Singaporeans exercise restraint in what they buy.
"I'd like to assure Singaporeans that if we use (the stockpile) in a responsible way, we will have enough supply that comes on stream that will provide for our needs, even as the situation gets worse," he said.
On the efforts to boost local production, Mr Heng pointed to Singapore's target of producing 30 per cent of the Republic's nutritional needs locally by 2030, saying that efforts are under way to see how this can be accelerated on the research and development (R&D) and policy fronts.
A spokesman for the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said that local production could help to mitigate the Republic's reliance on imports and serve as a buffer during supply disruptions to import sources.
Currently, the 10 per cent of food grown locally is produced on about 1 per cent of the Republic's land. But there are plans to increase the space available for farming on land and at sea.
This year, for example, SFA will study how the Lim Chu Kang agriculture area can be planned and redeveloped to enhance food production, said its spokesman.
"This study will consider feedback from farmers for centralised facilities and services to reduce the cost of food production. SFA will work with farms, including successful tenderers in recent land sales exercises, to work towards transforming Lim Chu Kang into a vibrant agri-food cluster that not only achieves high productivity but also achieves greater synergies, economies of scale and efficiency," she added.
And out at sea, SFA said it has conducted a broad scan of the southern waters for potential aquaculture sites and is targeting for sustainable farming systems to be adopted at those sites. There are currently 110 licensed sea-based fish farm sites in Singapore, of which 108 are coastal fish farms situated in the Johor Strait north of the mainland.
Asked if local production could be ramped up ahead of Singapore's 2030 target in light of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, Mr Heng said that this had to be more closely studied and depended on the status of various projects.
He cited Apollo's new eight-storey vertical farm in the Neo Tiew area, which could be partially open for farming by June this year and fully operational by year-end.
"For instance, at Apollo, by the time the building is constructed, we'll be able to do a lot more. So in areas like this where the project is already underway, we can accelerate the project, but in other areas - new areas, which we'll have to explore - it may take a bit more time," said Mr Heng.
However, he emphasised that local production was but one pillar of Singapore's strategies to ensure its food security.
"Besides fresh food, we also have other sources of imported food. So this will add to our security of our food supply," said Mr Heng.
Apollo Aquaculture Group chief executive Eric Ng said his company is currently able to produce about 300 tonnes of fish annually, almost all of which goes to the Singapore market. When its new farm is ready by year-end, this could be ramped up to 2,000 tonnes, said Mr Ng.
While the sale of seafood to restaurants and other businesses fell by about 80 per cent due to people's preference to stay home instead of dining out, Apollo has also seen increased demand from customers who shop online.
Another fish farm, Barramundi Asia (BA), also reported similar trends.
A BA spokesman said that it was hit badly over the past two months as sales to hotels and restaurants that contributed to the majority of business fell by close to 50 per cent.
"There was some respite as we directed our efforts towards our online e-store to deliver fresh local barramundi directly to consumers' homes... However, it does not offset the material drop in sales from our (business to business) channels."
The hope is that more Singaporeans will choose to buy local as this would also allow farmers to expand production, said Apollo's Mr Ng.
Added the BA spokesman: "During this period of crisis, we hope that local consumers will choose to support local produce and purchase our Kuhlbarra barramundi from our online store."