Food Security Expert Group Meeting on 'Food First: Ensuring Food and Nutrition for Urbanites'
Food security is one of this century’s key global challenges. The dramatic increase in food prices in 2007 and 2008 led to a global crisis, causing political and economic instability and social unrest in many countries. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates the number of people who went hungry in 2009, both as a result of the food crisis and of the global financial crisis which occurred at the same time, to be 1.02 billion. This, according to the Organization, is the highest number since 1970, the earliest year for which comparable statistics are available.
Drivers of food insecurity include the following: a financial crisis which reduces the purchasing power of the poor; population increase; changing and converging consumption patterns; increasing per capita income leading to increased resource consumption; growing demand for livestock products (meat and dairy products), particularly those fed on grain; growing demand for biofuels; increasing water and land scarcity; adverse impacts of climate change; and slowing of increases in agricultural productivity. Securing future food supplies therefore requires new, concerted and immediate international effort with a clear sense of long-term challenges and possibilities.
It was against this backdrop that the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies convened a two-day Food Security Expert Group Meeting in Singapore on 4–5 August 2010. The objective of the meeting was to:
Examine the context of ‘Urban Food Security’ relative to global food security and rural food security.
Explore the development of an ASEAN Integrated Food Security Management Information System.
Assist in developing a research agenda on urban food security, including identifying potential projects and collaborators.
Identify possible roles for Singapore in the global food system.
The Meeting was attended by experts, resource persons and participants from multilateral groups such as the World Food Programme (WFP), the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) and the ASEAN Food Security Information System (AFSIS); bilateral groups such as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC); international and regional research institutions such as the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA); universities such as the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU); local and international agribusiness firms; and relevant Singapore government agencies.
An agenda for action
The two-day Meeting focuses on two aspects of food security namely Urban Food Security and Food Security Information Systems.
Urban Food Security
There is a consensus among participants that the concept of food security needs re-conceptualisation as more people now live in urban areas. Unlike rural dwellers, urbanites are net buyers of staples, consume a wider variety of food and are more vulnerable to changes in the global market. There is a pressing need for urban areas to become food producers to feed its burgeoning population. Urban and peri-urban agriculture(UPA) which involves agricultural (including livestock) production, processing, and distribution within and around cities offers a way to improve urban food production. Rubanisation is another model of alternative development characterised by central cities surrounded by cultivated farmland. It offers a way to feed the urban masses in a sustainable way. Rubanisation also attempts to bridge the rural-urban divide and it considers rural and urban areas not as two spaces but one. Agribusiness firms can also contribute to urban food security by securing the global supply chain. As no country can claim to be fully self-sufficient in all food products, agribusiness firms can facilitate the movement of food across regions. It was also observed that research and development is crucial in order to increase food production and should be given priority.
Besides the various approaches and concepts relating to Urban Food Security, the following areas of interventions are identified:
Early warning systems: Food security is affected by a number of factors such as natural disasters, financial crisis, increasing or declining food price, falling stocks, adverse weather conditions, etc. An effective early warning system is therefore essential to help prepare stakeholders for any impending crisis and also help them manage policies and programmes better.
Social safety nets: Governments must develop social protection for the most vulnerable sections of society. Social protection involves policies and programmes that protect people against risk and vulnerability, mitigate the impacts of shocks and support people who suffer from chronic incapacity to secure basic livelihoods. It can also build assets, reducing both short-term and inter-generational transmission of poverty. It includes, among others, social insurance (such as health, life and asset insurance, which may involve contributions from employers and/or beneficiaries); social assistance (mainly cash, food, vouchers or subsidies); and services (such as maternal and child health and nutrition programmes). Interventions that provide training and credit for income-generating activities also have a social protection component.
Land use: Governments must carefully allocate land and preserve prime agricultural land for future use.
Standardised regional nutrition measurement: It is important to localise body mass index (BMI) standards, so that it is relevant to Southeast Asia. BMI is a statistical measure of body weight based on a person's weight and height. Also, the population should be made aware of the importance of good nutrients and the effects of diet change.
Reduction of ecological footprint: Governments should encourage its citizens to reduce their ecological footprint. Ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the earth's ecosystems. It compares human demand with planet earth's ecological capacity to regenerate. The individual’s ecological footprint can be reduced through lifestyle changes and sustainable living through for example ‘green consumerism’.
Agriculture for development: Agriculture is a source of livelihood for an estimated 86 per cent of rural people. It provides jobs for 1.3 billion smallholders and landless workers, ‘farm-financed social welfare’ when there are urban shocks and a foundation for viable rural communities. Agriculture can thus be a source of growth for the national economy, a provider of investment opportunities for the private sector and a prime driver of agriculture-related industries and the rural nonfarm economy.
Food crops over cash crops: Most private agribusiness firms, with their high-capital-investment and industrial-scale agricultural practices, very often skew production towards cash crops and away from subsistence crops. Cash cropping, such as planting oil palm, seeks to maximise crop yield and therefore favours large-scale monoculture; this has led to adverse long-term environmental consequences. While there are many advantages to cash cropping, it may also result in the farmers of these cash crops, as well as their families, finding themselves unable to eat due to a lack of diverse production. Additionally, the heavy focus on exports that comes along with cash cropping may result in a shortage of locally available food, making the price of food significantly higher for the farming families as well as other locals.
Food Security Information System
The overall objective of a food security information system is to strengthen food security through the systematic collection, analysis and dissemination of food security related information in order to better manage policies and programmes. For the existing regional food security information system, the ASEAN Food Security Information System (AFSIS), to be more effective, the following projects were identified:
Capacity building and training: Capacity building and training is a prerequisite for an effective food security information system. Areas for action include: the development and fine tuning of data collection techniques, and the use of statistical tools, hardware and software; the development of analytical tools for supply/demand forecast; expert exchange programmes; the strengthening of agricultural statistical staff in ASEAN countries; the training of farmers to be real-time data suppliers; the establishment of partnerships with international research institutions, etc.
Data quality: The effectiveness of a food security information system depends on data quality. In order to improve the data quality of an existing information system, an analysis of its weaknesses and limitations must be conducted. One limitation of the current information system is the lack of standardised data. This can be attributed to the absence of a standardised data collection and processing methodology. In the absence of such methodologies, states provide data using different methodologies and this often proved problematic to analysts.
Research projects: Further research is needed in the following areas: supply/demand elasticity estimation, the establishment of parameters for effective forecasting, household/farm/industry surveys, and the documenting of ASEAN intra-food trade over the period 1990–2010.
Regional food security indicators: The aim of a food security/hunger indicator is to capture the various aspects of hunger and offer a quick overview of a complex issue. It also helps in understanding the scope and scale of food insecurity at both national and regional levels. Indicators such as the proportion of undernourished as a percentage of the population, the prevalence of underweight children under the age of 5 and the mortality rate of children under the age of 5 can be employed to capture the various aspects of hunger.
Communications: To effectively reach out to stakeholders on the issue of food security, good communication strategies will be required. Communication tools such as websites, e-newsletters, brochures, press releases, etc., can enhance the reach of the information database. In particular, farmer-centric websites which operate in various local languages should be emphasised in order to enable farmers to be directly involved in the process of data collection, harvests, price forecasts, etc.
Informal trade: Cross-border rice smuggling, although an important issue, is largely understudied. As rice smuggling has an adverse impact on availability and prices, it is worthy of detailed analysis.
Budget: Budget has direct implications for the success or failure of projects and initiatives. It was estimated that a food security information system project will require sustained funding of at least USD 1 million annually.
Role of Singapore
Singapore can become an important player in promoting regional food security. Specific roles include:
Research on marine aquaculture: Such research in relation to climate change issues can be beneficial to other island-nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia.
Catalyst for venture investment funds: Given its role as a regional financial centre, Singapore can serve as a catalyst for venture investment funds.
Logistics hub: Singapore’s efficient port and logistics can also help the country establish itself as a regional food processing and distribution hub.
R&D hub: Singapore can play a significant role in furthering research and development in biotechnology (life sciences and genetic engineering) to empower rural farmers and help them improve productivity. Singapore is also home to a number of research-oriented local and foreign agribusiness firms. By harnessing the knowledge and expertise of these firms, it can take the lead in developing high-yielding seed varieties, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. Moreover, the relevant Singapore government agency (or agencies) can act as a technical referral point for setting food standards in Southeast Asia. Singapore can also facilitate and inspire technology transfers, best practices, business models and standards.
An honest broker: Singapore can play the role of an ‘honest broker’, encouraging greater cooperation between cities and their hinterlands.
The report and the conversation videos on the expert group meeting are now available online.
The Rubanisation Concept to Bridge Rural-Urban Expectations and Needs
Adjunct Professor Tay Kheng Soon
Department of Architecture, School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore, Singapore