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A Call for Youth Action to tackle Food Security Issue

Food security threats are real, but not without a solution. Besides supporting local produce, we can switch to a more sustainable lifestyle to help mitigate climate change and food security issue.

SG20200816 CUA ZMZ 002Panellists and their online audience are ready for the much anticipated first Tzu Chi youth webinar on 16 August 2020. (Photo by Chan May Ching)   

The world has been experiencing frequent extreme weather events in the past decade due to climate change. Besides causing displacement of people and destruction of the surface of the earth, climate change driven disasters such as extreme droughts and massive floods are directly impacting our food supply chain.

The first of a series of quarterly webinars on Climate Emergency by Tzu Chi Singapore

In conjunction with the annual “Climate Action Week” by the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), a webinar titled “Will There Be Enough Food?” was held in collaboration with Tzu Chi Taiwan and Tzu Chi United Nations Task Force for the first time on 16 August 2020. Targeting youths below 35 years old mainly from South East Asian countries, this webinar hopes to raise the awareness of food security issue among youths to create positive social impact both locally and internationally, and gear towards a sustainable community.

The organizer of the event, Ms. Lim Choon Choon said, “The idea of organizing a series of webinars surrounding environmental issues was actually initiated by Tzu Chi Taiwan’s United Nations Task Force, and the reason Singapore was selected to start the ball rolling was due to its English speaking environment.”

“Food security is actually a hot topic in Singapore especially after the outbreak of COVID-19 because when panic buying happened during the earlier days of the pandemic, the concern of food supply became an urgent issue that calls for immediate attention,” Lim further added. 

Food Security issue is a global threat, but are we really short of food supply? 

SG20200816 CUA ZMZ 003Moderator, Kelvin Wong, is the founder and Planning & Development chief of Terra SG, an award winning environmental social enterprise. (Photo by Chan May Ching) 

The moderator of the webinar, Mr. Kelvin Wong started the session by saying that different people react differently to the question - “Will there be enough food?”. To people who live in abundance, they feel that there will always be food on their plates because they have the money to buy food, but it is the contrary to those who barely make enough to sustain their living. Poverty is undoubtedly an important factor with regard to access to food supply, but not the only reason.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), more than 820 million people were suffering from hunger globally in 2018. While disasters caused by extreme weather are still happening, the ongoing pandemic could further put over 100 million people at risk of going hungry due to disruption in food supply chain and poverty caused by unemployment. 

However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world produces more than 1.5 times enough food for its population of 7.8 billion, that is enough to feed 10 billion people. So, what has gone wrong?

What are the actual challenges in our food supply chain?

Panellist Ms. Koh Min Ai, the Programme Analyst of UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development shared that agriculture is the dominant driver of deforestation and contributor to biodiversity loss as one third of the planet’s landmass is used to produce food. Nearly a quarter of the global Green House Gasses emissions in 2010 were from agriculture and 70% of freshwater is used for irrigation. In other words, while we farm to produce food to feed ourselves, we are contributing to climate change, which leads to more extreme weather that could further damage and reduce crops and livestock production.

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Koh Min Ai (Photo by Chan May Ching)

Koh also mentioned that as many as 2.4 billion people are working in the agriculture sector, however, the vast majority of them are making less than USD 5 a day. That is a big issue for such a huge and important workforce that provides food to the world population as they are constantly struggling with poverty. In addition, the agricultural workforce is aging, with the average age of these farmers being 60 years old. It is a common global phenomenon for young people to move away from villages to urban cities for work opportunities in other sectors, this has posed a threat to the production of food with a diminishing agriculture workforce.

The next panellist, Ms. Nidhi Pant from Mumbai, spoke about the real situation in India, one of the largest food producers in the world. In her presentation, she mentioned about unnecessary loss of food in the process of transporting crops to the marketplace. The wastage in the supply chain stems from inadequate infrastructure at the farms and wholesale markets. Farmers hardly get the right price for their produce too, with many earning less than USD 2 per day. A lot of times, the cost of transportation is higher than the value of the produce. However, as a nation with so many people competing for their share of livelihood, there isn’t much space to negotiate the price of agricultural produce. Thus, farmers are forced to accept whatever price offered to them. There is a shocking revelation by Nidhi that every 30 seconds, one farmer commits suicide when farm yields are low due to extreme weather. There is also gender inequality in the agriculture sector where many women farmers are not provided with the necessary support they need to grow food. In India, women farmers are not qualified as farmers and not allowed to own land due to patriarchal system. 

SG20200816 CUA LYH1 011Nidhi Pant (on the right) shares some photos of the actual scenes at the marketplace in India on an ordinary day. (Screenshot of Nidhi’s zoom presentation by Mulias Lian)  

Apart from the challenges mentioned above, the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic has also placed unprecedented stress on the food supply chain when movement restrictions imposed worldwide are disrupting logistics and hindering the work of field labours as well as food processing due to labour shortage.

What about Singapore?

As a city state with limited land space, Singapore is at an even higher risk when facing food security, as 90% of its food supply comes from overseas. The closest encounter Singapore had with the fear of food scarcity was when DORSCON was raised to Orange. There was mass panic buying across the island because many were worried about disruption of supplies from overseas, especially Malaysia.

Despite topping the Global Food Security Index of 113 countries in 2018 and 2019, Singapore is still vulnerable to unstable food supply and food safety events that happen in other countries. With that in mind, Singapore hopes to reduce its reliance on imported food with its 30 by 30 Vision, aiming to produce 30% of its domestic nutritional needs.

To clear the questions and doubts of the public on the solutions that the Singapore government has to address local food security issue, the Director of Food Supply Strategies, Mr. Goh Wee Hou was invited as one of the panelists to provide insight on what the government of Singapore is working on to ensure sufficient supply of food in Singapore.

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One of Goh Wee Hou’s project is to help Singapore achieve its goal of producing 30% of local nutritional needs by 2030 through the development of spaces and infrastructure. (Photo by Chan May Ching) 

Goh shared that although more than 90% of Singapore’s food is imported from over 170 countries to diversify the sources of food supply, global food supply may not keep up with global food demand due to climate change, environmental degradation, growing population and disruption in transportation due to geopolitics. To strengthen food security in Singapore, the government has come up with a “3 Food Baskets” strategy.

“The first strategy is to diversify import sources to reduce over reliance on any single source. However, it is risky to depend on imports as shown by how global supply chain has been affected by COVID-19, with some countries banning export of their food produce. And that leads us to the second strategy, which is to grow locally and encourage consumption of local produce. Vision 30 By 30 is a goal to produce 30 percent of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally by 2030 in order to reduce dependence on imported food. To achieve this goal, the agricultural food sector must adopt new and high-tech solutions to raise productivity while overcoming the issue of land scarcity,” shared Goh.

Goh also mentioned an upcoming project called the Agri-Food Innovation Park in Sungei Kadut that supports high technology farming and R&D activities to provide high value agricultural inputs and solutions for urban indoor farming. The final strategy is to help local agricultural food companies to expand and grow overseas, in order to overcome local constraints such as land scarcity, high capital and operating costs.

In response to Goh’s sharing, an anonymous audience had posed a question to Goh asking if the government should legislate to limit certain F&B practices with a lot of food wastage such as buffet.

Goh replied, “Food wastage is something that a society must address at the individual level as well as within families. People in general must believe in reducing wastage before we impose a rule top down. Whether or not the government imposes a rule to mandate that you shall not have a certain amount of wastage doesn’t address the issue at the root. The issue should be addressed at individual level and within families by making it a lifestyle, having a mindset of not wasting food, that would address the issue at its root.”

Why are youths the solution to the issue of food security?

Koh’s answer to the above question is digital farming. We will see a transition of labour-intensive farming into data-driven farm management. Given that youths grow up in a digitally connected world where technology is the driving force in almost every part of their life, they are better able to apply technology to tackle existing agricultural problems. Therefore, the future of food lies in youth’s engagement. Globally, there are many youths who are tackling the global food challenge by using technology and maximizing limited resources to help increase agricultural yields.

Currently, there are increasing opportunities to encourage youth’s involvement in the agricultural business.  There are also new innovations to help them find a living in this sector and become part of the solution to produce sufficient food to meet the demand of our society.

We can help by changing our mindset and switching to a more sustainable lifestyle

The final panellist of the webinar, Ms. Susan Tan is a Volunteer Leader of Tzu Chi’s Environmental Protection Mission. Susan’s sharing is more on the humanitarian approach as she spoke about adopting a sustainable lifestyle as the solution to mitigate food security issue and climate change. Sustainability is a lifestyle which must start with a change of mindset. The effect can be transformational when more people are willing to do their part for the environment.

According to the data by Ministry of Environment and Water Resource (MEWR), Singapore had generated around 744 million kg of food waste in 2019 which is equivalent to about 51,000 double-decker buses. Food waste is among the five largest sources of waste in Singapore and it is happening every day in every layer of our food cycle, from production, distribution and all the way to the dining table. A study conducted by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and Deloitte has discovered that close to 1/5 of imported and locally farmed fresh produce is lost along the food supply chain each year before they reach the consumer. To put things into perspective, the economic loss of such wastage amounts to SGD2.54 billion each year. On one hand, we have millions of people going hungry mainly in poor nations and farmers trapped in poverty while struggling to produce food, on the other hand, there is so much of food wastage happening in Singapore (and probably some other countries too).  

In the face of such a massive challenge, what each and everyone of us could do in our daily life is to stop wasting food. By doing so, we show more respect to the farmers by not wasting the fruit of their hard work.  Moreover, we are placing less burden on the food supply chain, which in turn reliefs the mother earth. Our collective actions are like the little drops of water which could add up to an ocean when the vast majority of us are willing to do our bit for the environment.

SG20200112 GNA PBT 078Susan Tan (first from the right) helps to move the food waste to a collection site at United World College South East Asia East Campus, where they will later be turned into compost. (Photo by Pua Poo Toong) 

Susan also calls out to all to love and live with the perspective of co-existing with mother earth by adopting a plant-based diet, which is a more sustainable diet option. Through refusing and reducing food waste, we can all do our part to relief climate change and lower the threat of a food supply crisis.

An online audience asked Susan, “How do we move from mindset change to behavioural change?”

Susan’s reply to the question is to first have an understanding about the topic, it will assist in behavioural change. When there is a bigger pool of people having the same mindset and doing the same thing, it would be easier for us to adopt change due to influences from the people around us.

The moderator of the webinar, Kelvin Wong gave a very good closing speech to sum up the session. He said, “Our need for food actually poses one of the greatest dangers and risks to ourselves and the planet. Food production and agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, so the environmental challenges posed by agriculture are really huge, and they will only become more pressing as we try to meet the growing demand for food worldwide. This is a pivotal moment, with the COVID-19 going on, with the climate change intensifying, we are facing unprecedented challenges. But the good news is, we have already known what we need to do, we just have to think of how to do it collaboratively. Addressing our food global challenges requires us to be more thoughtful about the food we put on our plates, we need to connect with the farmers who grow it, and with the planet Earth which sustains us. Next time when we steer our grocery cart down the grocery aisles of the supermarket, the choices we make will decide our future.”

Urban Farming as one of the ways to relief food security problem 

The webinar ended at 3.30 pm with the participation from close to 200 audience online. As part of the efforts to create awareness on environmental issues and global issues, Tzu Chi is encouraging youths to take part in an urban farming project in Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre in Yishun, which will see its first phase of farm setup by end of November this year. For a start, the centre will focus on planting leafy vegetables with a vertical farming system.

By joining as urban farmers, we will learn how food is produced and naturally, we will come to realize the value of food and cherish the effort of food farmers. To participate in the urban farming project, please sign up at: https://forms.gle/piDMDao5MsBfMTGi7 

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