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The Big Read: Buy local but at what price? Pricier Singapore produce could hamper quest for greater food security

Cabinet Minister Grace Fu recently called on consumers to buy local food produce, even if they cost more than imported ones, as a ‘co-investment’ in Singapore’s food securityThe Government’s ‘30 by 30’ goal aims to produce 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030While efforts are underway to boost local production and demand, the higher prices of local produce is a major deterrent for consumers interviewed by TODAYFood producers say the high costs of manpower, electricity, land leases and other overheads mean it is tough for them to compete on price aloneTo achieve the ‘30 by 30’ goal, experts suggest increasing public education and providing more financial assistance to farmers

By Nur Hikmah Md Ali Published June 9, 2023 Updated June 10, 2023 Bookmark Bookmark Share WhatsApp Telegram Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

SINGAPORE — Though local food produce costs more than imported ones, Ms Doreen Chan still believes she is getting more bang for her buck by buying local, as they are “fresher” and “better in quality”.

“I like hydroponic vegetables because they are much cleaner to me,” said the 76-year-old, who works in the healing services industry.

“I get local eggs too, like Seng Choon eggs, which I find to be fresher than imported eggs. They’re more expensive, by a dollar or so, but the quality of local produce is so much better.”

Ms Chan is one of the few who are undeterred by the generally higher prices of local produce, based on TODAY’s interviews with 10 consumers.

For most of them, the price difference caused by high local production costs is significant enough to make supporting local products difficult.

One of them is 20-year-old student, Ms Clarissa Lim, who said: “I always look out for prices when buying produce, and the higher cost of local produce definitely deters me from buying them. 

“Money is tight these days because of rising inflation, so it’s important that I save the extra bit of money.”

The issue of supporting local produce and its higher costs is back in the spotlight after Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu spoke about it in Parliament in April. 

In her speech, Ms Fu highlighted Singapore’s “30 by 30” goal, which was announced in 2019, to produce 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030. 

This has become even more pressing, in light of climate change and extreme weather events, geopolitical tensions, and disease outbreaks which have impacted food production and supply chains, she added.

Ms Fu called for more support in buying local, even if they cost more than imported produce.

“When we buy local, we are supporting our local farms and F&B businesses that use local produce. We are co-investing in our food resilience for the future. It is a symbiotic relationship,” she said.

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said in response to TODAY’s queries that local produce is one of Singapore’s strategies in strengthening its food security and mitigates the country’s reliance on imports.

Singapore currently imports more than 90 per cent of its food.

SFA did not respond to TODAY’s question on how far Singapore has progressed towards achieving this “grow local” target or what 30 per cent of “nutritional needs” refers to.

But it said that last year, local farms contributed around 29 per cent, 8 per cent, and 4 per cent of the total food consumption for hen shell eggs, seafood and vegetables respectively.  

“As the local agri-tech industry is relatively nascent, we do not intend to fix the targets for each food item under the ‘30 by 30’ goal at this stage.”

SFA said there are efforts underway to boost local production, such as the Lim Chu Kang Masterplan, which will transform the area into a high-tech, highly productive and resource-efficient agri-food cluster. 

The agency has also been supporting the industry to boost its capabilities and capacity through various incentives and grants for food producers to adopt innovative farming technologies or carry out research and development.

However, based on TODAY’s interviews with consumers, industry experts and eight food producers, such efforts have yet to help reduce the cost of production enough to lower the prices of local produce to increase consumer buy-in. 

Local food producers told TODAY that competition from lower-priced imported produce is their biggest challenge.

According to food security experts, the price difference is an issue that needs to be addressed if Singapore wants to achieve the “30 by 30” target. 

As 2030 slowly but surely comes into sight, TODAY takes a closer look at the Singapore food story is developing.

WHY DOES LOCAL PRODUCE COST MORE THAN IMPORTS?

For the majority of the farmers TODAY spoke to, the high cost of manpower and production is the main factor that drives up the prices of local produce.

Mr Melvin Tan, director of fish farm Blue Ocean Harvest, which is managed by holding company Blue Ocean Group, said: “The production cost in Singapore is much higher than our neighbouring countries, easily three times much higher than in Malaysia.

“This poses a challenge in bringing our products to local supermarkets so they can be easily accessed by the public.”

HOW MUCH MORE DOES LOCAL PRODUCE COST?

The price difference between local and imported produce varies according to the food category.

For produce like eggs and vegetables, the price difference can range between a few cents to a dollar by weight. 

For example, a tray of 10 eggs weighing 60 grams each from Chew’s Agriculture costs S$3.65, whereas the same product weighing 55 grams per egg from Malaysia costs S$3.30 at NTUC FairPrice supermarkets.

Mr Ray Poh, founder and managing director of indoor hydroponics Artisan Green, said that his products, which are baby leaf greens, herbs and microgreens, generally cost between S$1 and S$2 more by weight compared to similar produce imported from regional countries.

A 100-gram bag of pre-cut baby spinach from Artisan Green, for example, costs S$6.95 on local fine food purveyor Merchant Brothers’ online shop Pantry Selects, whereas the same product with the same weight from Australia and Italy costs S$3.80 and S$4.80 respectively on RedMart.

This means the local produce can cost about 83 per cent more than imported ones. 

Meanwhile, Mr Barber said that lettuce sold by ComCrop is about S$1 more expensive than neighbouring countries, but costs between S$1 and S$3 cheaper than the ones imported from countries like Australia, and premium lettuce from Malaysia.

On the other hand, food items like fish see a wider price difference, ranging from S$1 to S$3 more compared to fishes from Malaysia and Indonesia. 

For example, a 500-gram seabass from local farms costs S$8.60 on RedMart, while one with the same weight from Malaysia is available at a price of S$7.80, or about 10 per cent cheaper, on the same platform.

The dearer price puts off customers such as Ms Sally Wee from buying local produce.

The 53-year-old, who is self-employed, said that she considers the price of the produce before purchasing, as well as its level of freshness.

Another consumer, Ms Afifah Shameemah, supports the idea of buying local, but in practice she would opt for whichever produce that is “value for money”.

“I don’t really have a preference or aversion to local produce. I just go for whatever that is cheaper, and if it happens to be sourced from local farms, then great,” the 24-year-old undergraduate said.

Public education should be the emphasis, said Professor William Chen of Nanyang Technological University. 

“Our farms have been able to increase production, even with the existing constraints, such as land and production costs. We can push for more volume in production, but we cannot keep producing more if no one will buy it,” said Prof Chen.

He wears several hats at the university, including as director of its Food Science and Technology Programme.

“There must be a concerted effort by consumers, F&B operators, and the Government to boost the buy-in of local produce,” he added.

“Cultivating local food production has become even more crucial in light of global warming and recent disruptions in the food supply chain, due to geopolitical tensions and the pandemic.”

Assoc Prof Tan agreed on the importance of public education, which he said is sorely lacking.

“I believe we can start education from young in schools, not just about food security and sustainable consumption, but also about reducing food waste,” he said, citing national water agency PUB’s water conservation campaign as a successful model to emulate.

While the costs of production may be high, particularly for tech-reliant farms, Prof Chen believes that such costs can eventually be recovered through higher levels of production and consumer buy-in. 

Agreeing, Assoc Prof Tan said: “We can achieve 30 by 30, and we have to. We are lucky that we have enough food in our generation. We must ensure that our future children have the same luxury. This is about investing in their future.”

SFA did not respond to TODAY’s queries on how to address the price conundrum faced by local farmers. 

BETTER MARKETING, FARM-TO-TABLE CONCEPT TO BOOST DEMAND

Despite the odds being stacked against them, local producers and establishments are taking concrete steps to create and boost demand for local produce.

These include marketing and branding of local produce as fresher, more value for money, and better in quality compared to imported produce.

Mr Poh of Artisan Green said: “We brand our products as being fresher, locally grown and pesticide-free. This is a prominent feature throughout our packaging, which is made from sustainable paper, to make us stand out more on the supermarket shelves.

“I think it works because our loyal customers tell us they are willing to pay more for our produce since they are fresher and last longer.” 

Some local producers, such as Chew’s Agriculture, which sells hen shell eggs, also emphasise the nutrients and healthy benefits of their produce, as well as their size, on their product packaging.

“Our eggs weigh 60 grams each, whereas most competitors’ eggs normally weigh 55 grams each,” said Ms Yancy Tay, marketing lead of Chew’s Agriculture.

“We make sure to emphasise the size in our marketing, and we also label the nutrients available in our eggs, such as Vitamin C and Omega 3, on the product packaging.”

One consumer told TODAY that he would choose local over imported produce if they are branded as a healthier choice.

“Generally, I look at the prices when I am buying my groceries, not whether they are local or imported products,” said Mr Abdul Raup, a 56-year-old driving instructor. 

“But if the local product is marketed as healthier, for example, the product contains Omega 3 or other nutrients, then I will choose that product, even if it is more expensive.”

Besides marketing, local farmers also invest in efficient and quality customer service to retain and expand their consumer base.

“Our advantage as local farmers is that we are faster in providing our products, and can cater to urgent or last-minute orders,” said Ms Woon from bean sprouts and soybean sprouts farm Ser Poh Farming and Trading.

“We make use of this by emphasising on customised service and responding quickly to customer feedback. We make providing quality beansprouts consistently as our top priority so that our business remains sustainable,” she added. 

Some farms also sell directly sell to consumers and local restaurants, including fish farm Blue Ocean Harvest, and vegetable farms Nature’s International Commodity and Tomato Town, both of which grow various vegetables on top of a Housing and Development Board multi-storey carpark.

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