BLOOMBERG, JUNE 15, 2020
Nation has 23 countries approved for frozen pork, 13 for eggs | City state also has an air freight agreement with New Zealand
By De Wei Dexter Low for Bloomberg – Singapore faced a daunting challenge when the coronavirus pandemic started to ground planes and upend global supply chains earlier this year — how to feed 5.7 million people in a country smaller than New York City and one that produces less than a 10th of the food it consumes.
The city state now imports oranges from Egypt, milk powder from Uruguay, eggs from Poland and shrimps from Saudi Arabia as part of efforts to broaden food supplies, the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Singapore Food Agency said in a joint written response to questions. The import list now extends to more than 170 countries or regions.
“Over the years, Singapore has been diversifying our food sources, including commonly consumed food items like eggs, chicken and vegetables,” according to the statement. To ensure greater food security, “we are seeking new source countries and deepening engagement with existing suppliers.”
As the spread of the virus disrupted meat processing plants in the Americas and Europe, infected farm workers and roiled air and sea transport globally, supermarkets in Singapore saw some initial panic buying and hoarding, though that faded as confidence increased that supplies would remain sufficient.
Demand for daily essentials like instant noodles, canned food, rice and toilet paper surged as much as five times in early February when the country raised its disease response level, compared with the week before, according to Seah Kian Peng, chief executive officer of FairPrice Group, which operates Singapore’s ubiquitous supermarket chain. During that time, the group increased the volume of daily essentials being sent to the stores by three times and doubled delivery trips.
“We have never seen anything like this on such a scale, but our contingency planning for unexpected situations enabled us to take swift actions,” Seah said. He called the Covid-19 pandemic an “extraordinary circumstance” that has affected global supply and prices of certain items. Freight and production costs have gone up significantly and demand for food and grocery products outstrips supply, though Fairprice will work closely with its partners to keep prices stable for as long as it can, Seah said.
The food agency has required importers of key items to have plans in place in case of disruptions. Singapore had 13 approved countries for egg supplies as of last month, almost double the tally in 2016. Twenty three nations are approved to export frozen pork products to the country such as the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Spain and Poland, while eight are permitted to supply chilled pork.
Among other moves, the Southeast Asian nation has a project with New Zealand to provide air freight capacity between the two countries for essential supplies such as food produce, and will continue to “work with like-minded partners to diversify and strengthen” food supply chains, the statement said.
FairPrice’s Seah said the group currently sources from more than 100 countries, and is constantly looking for more. During the pandemic, the firm expanded sources for eggs to include Spain, Ukraine and Poland. Besides stockpiling essential products, the chain has also inked agreements with local and overseas farms in countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia to forward buy produce at an agreed price, so as to stay insulated from sudden price changes due to shortages in the market.
Singapore is also ramping up domestic production, seeking to boost output of its nutritional needs to 30% by 2030, and offers funding to growers to rapidly raise production of eggs, leafy vegetables and fish within the next two years.
The “proactive” stance Singapore has taken to import food from as many countries as possible to secure its food supply is a sound strategy, according to Paul Teng, an adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies in the country’s Nanyang Technological University. Many countries are seeking to emulate Singapore’s approach, Teng said.
— With assistance by James Poole
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