Singaporeans love food. As Anthony Bourdain said, “New York may be the city that never sleeps but Singapore is the city that never stops eating.” The variety of food alone is amazing. Being an incredibly multi-ethnic city the “local” dishes are an eclectic mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indian. But the variety of food goes far beyond the local population, and amazing food from all over the world can also be found here.
Needless to say Singapore, although far from home, was not a bad place to spend Thanksgiving as an expat since everything needed to create a traditional Thanksgiving meal was available, although not always affordable, somewhere on the island.
Yet despite this love of food and the endless conversations about food, I still find it shocking that there is very little talk of where all this food comes from. Especially after experiencing the New York City food scene were local food is the topic. But few people seem to be concerned with how sustainable it is to have my cranberries, pecans and turkey flown across the globe. Even more surprising few seem to be worried about food security. Of course though as an island city-state with no rural area Singapore has very few options for growing its own food. Which also explains why so many young Singaporeans have never seeing where food is grown.
Despite all of these issues Singapore does manage to produce 23% for eggs, 4% for fish and 7% for vegetables locally and many of these farms are open to the public. Luckily I have a few very curious Singaporean friends that not only love to explore Singapore’s restaurants and hawker stalls, but they also love to cook and explore where their food comes from. So a few weeks ago we took a drive at 3am to one of Singapore’s wholesale fish markets in search of a salmon. I had visited the Guangzhou wholesale fish market before so I was prepared for a some early morning chaos. However what surprised me the most was that unlike the market in China with hundreds of tanks filled with live with fish, all of the fish here we on ice, no longer alive, having been freshly caught about 1-2 days before from various places across the world, then immediately flown to Singapore. Our final selection was a salmon flow in a few hours before from Norway.
After purchasing our fresh catch and taking a nap we decided to explore a few local farms. Despite the lack of space Singapore has managed to retain and foster a few farms on the far north eastern portion of the island, in Kranji. We ended up at Quan Fa Organic Farm, which specializes in organic Chinese leafy vegetables. Across the street we could also see large hen houses where about a quarter of our eggs come from.
Although our lovely afternoon drive in Singapore’s “country side” reminded me that this tiny island does have the potential to produce some food locally the goal of producing all food locally is unrealistic. Despite it’s challenges though the government is trying to increase local production so that 30% of eggs, 15% of fish and 10% of leafy vegetables are sourced locally. The topic of food security has also begun to appear at local universities. I recently sat in on an architecture studio at NUS which designed solutions for Singapore to grow enough food to support the basic nutritional needs of the entire population for one year if their was a food crisis. Their design solution used the many multi-story carparks located in HDB estates (parking garages in public housing estates) to grow leafy vegetables in elevated planters.
Even though food security issues are not commonplace topics here, it is encouraging to see that these issues are beginning to be taken up by policy makers and academics. However like any urban planning policy, allocating land for more farming can not be the only solution for creating a more “food secure Singapore.” Instead civil society must also embrace the topic of food security though such activities as community gardening, educational trips for children to Singapore’s farms and generally more dialogue on food issues beyond taste. In the mean time I will continue to enjoy the amazing food of Singapore and wonder where does my food come from?
All photos by Melissa Reese. Check our Food for All for more on food issues in Singapore.