Singapore Food Agency Bill – Speech by Daniel Goh

(Delivered in Parliament on 12 February 2019)

Mr Speaker Sir, the Singapore Food Agency, which this Bill proposes to establish, will be a significant step forward for a critical sector. As a small nation and city-state highly dependent on imports for our food supply, food security and safety is a constant concern for Singapore.

We have done well in this respect, having topped the Global Food Security Index last year for the first time. The Economist Intelligence Unit, which publishes the Index, cited Singapore’s access to cheap, safe and nutritious food. But the Unit also noted that Singapore is most vulnerable to potential disruptions to our food supply due to climate change and natural resource risks. When these risks were taken into account, our position in the Index would slip to 16th. Establishing the Singapore Food Agency at this juncture is therefore a timely move to address these risks.

My colleague Mr Leon Perera had addressed the food security and safety issues that the Agency will be chiefly concerned with. For my part, I would like to raise what I believe are two important functions that Agency can and should perform given its powers and position. These two functions are, one, mitigating rising food prices that fuel increases in cost of living and, two, addressing household food insecurity within the country.

Mitigating Rising Food Prices

The first function is the mitigation of rising food prices. According to the Consumer Price Index, the price of food excluding food services rose 22% in the last ten years from 2009 to 2018 and 51% in the last twenty years from 1999 to 2019. At first glance, rising food prices do not discriminate between the rich and the poor.

However, rising food prices affect lower and middle income households disproportionately. The Household Expenditure Survey of 2012/2013 shows that for the bottom 20% of households in terms of income, food expenses make up some 13% of total expenditure. For the top 20% of households, food expenses make up only 6%. This means that any increase in food prices would have double the effect on the budget of poorer households compared to richer households.

Rising food prices have been a regular concern of this House. There have been many questions raised on this by members. Last month, I asked the Minister for Trade and Industry about the rise in prices of eggs, which is a staple in our food culture and an important source of nutrition for Singaporeans. Minister Chan Chun Sing’s reply is instructive.

He said that the prices of eggs from some of our import sources went up significantly between June and November 2018, by up to 50%. This reflected the experience and concerns of ordinary Singaporeans, which were reported in the press. However, Minister Chan also said this increase was mitigated by other import sources, the prices of which remained stable or declined by up to 7%. On average thus, the local retail price of eggs only increased around 4%.

The big differences in percentages actually pose a mathematical puzzle worthy of a PSLE exam question. I suspect the 50% increase is for the cheaper eggs imported by land and sea transport from neighbouring countries, and the other sources are much more expensive eggs air-flown from Australia and New Zealand. Thus, the average retail price did not seem to have increased much. However, the more important point here is that the low average rise in the price of eggs conceal the fact that the lower income households are disproportionately affected by the 50% increase in the price of cheaper eggs.

Nevertheless, Minister Chan’s answer points to how rising food prices can be mitigated by strategies targeted at our food supply sources. He said that, quote, “we must continually and consciously diversify our supply sources and supply chains to avoid being held ransom by the discontinuity in any particular supply source or disruption to any supply chain. This includes sourcing from different countries and building up a certain amount of local capacities where we can and when it makes economic sense.” unquote

The proposed Singapore Food Agency will be in a good position to do just this, to diversify our food supply sources to avoid disruption and build up local food production capacity to mitigate price increases. The Agency could perform this function indirectly or directly.

As listed in the Bill, one of the Agency’s function is to collect data on food supply and analyse them, another is to conduct research on food supply, and yet another function is to advise the Government on food supply. Thus, the Agency can assist the MTI to mitigate food price increases by collecting and analysing data on food supply and import prices, conduct research on alternative food supply sources and provide advice on the diversification of food supply sources.

A more direct way that the Agency can do this is to leverage its close relationship with the food import and distribution businesses here to diversify food supply sources to mitigate food price increases. Compared to MTI, the Singapore Food Agency will be in a better position to do this, given that it will be working closely with stakeholders on the ground and will be the domain expert in understanding our food supply system.

In case anyone thinks this is going beyond the natural scope of the Singapore Food Agency, I would like to point out that the Agency is housed under the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources together with the National Environment Agency. NEA has been managing our hawker centres and has been concerned with both the food safety and hygiene aspects of our hawker centres as well as ensuring a low-cost avenue of cooked food for Singaporeans. The function of mitigating the rising cost of living is well in the institutional purview and experience of MEWR and its agencies.

Addressing Household Food Insecurity

The second function is addressing household food insecurity. A recently published report of a study of household food insecurity in Singapore by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University warned that we may be underestimating the problem of hunger here. Household food insecurity comes about when a household has problems with economic and physical access to enough food for a healthy life.

Though the study is limited by the small sample size of 236 households and a non-random targeted sampling, it suggests that there are significant pockets of food insecurity in a country that has topped the Global Food Security Index. The Lien Centre for Social Innovation researchers found that around two-fifths of the households surveyed experienced mild food insecurity, meaning that they worried about the ability to obtain food, while one-third experienced moderate insecurity, having to compromise on quality and variety of food. Around one-fifth experienced severe insecurity, cutting down on quantity consumed and experiencing actual hunger.

This is a disconcerting finding and warrants a more thorough investigation by the government. The Singapore Food Agency is well placed to do this and, I argue, it is obliged to do it, as the Agency’s second function stated in clause 5(b) reads, quote, “to support regulation of the handling and supply of food to ensure that it is safe and suitable for human consumption and to promote public health”, unquote. Let me emphasize, quote, “and to promote public health”, unquote. Surely, the problem of household food insecurity is well within the scope of the Agency’s function to regulate the supply of food to promote public health.

The Lien Centre researchers also interviewed the representatives of 35 organisations that provided food support to Singaporeans. The researchers concluded that there is a need to focus on developing a national food support system to combat household food insecurity. Two of the recommendations were, one, greater coordination of food support organisations and more effective targeting of food support, and two, prioritising nutritious and quality food.

Again, given the Singapore Food Agency’s would-be close links with food supply businesses and its knowledge of the supply chain networks, the Agency is well placed to develop the national food support system to fight hunger in Singapore. The Agency can connect the food support organisations with the food supply chain, to help the food support organisations coordinate their efforts as well as to provide the organisations with a good supply of excess nutritious and quality food from the supply chain.

Just to give an example of how the powers of the Agency will be useful in this respect, Clause 64 of the Bill amends Section 56(1) of the Sale of Food Act, expanding the record-keeping requirements to enable the collection of current and accurate data related to secure and reliable food supply such as data about the level of imports or stores of food held by food businesses. This means the Agency will know and be well-placed to identify the excess stores of food that can be supplied to food support organisations for the national food support system.

Mr Speaker Sir, the Prime Minister spoke at length about alleviating Singaporeans’ concerns with the rising cost of living at the National Day Rally last year and the Workers’ Party has raised this issue time and again in Parliament. Rising food prices feed into the perception as well as the experience of increasing cost of living. The Singapore Food Agency is in a good position to mitigate rising food prices and we shouldn’t waste the opportunity. Furthermore, hunger has no place in Singapore, even if it is just small pockets of households facing food insecurity. Again, the Singapore Food Agency is in a good position to address this issue and it should.

I support the Bill, thank you.