Food security – Definitions and what it means for Singapore

Continuing from the previous post on the Green Drinks panel, I have a look here at a definition of food security, and then ask one of our panellists, Abhishek, for his opinion of what food security locally means.

This definition has been proposed by a group of scientists working in food and agriculture systems for inclusion in the UN FAO’s upcoming Agroecology and its Innovations report, discussed at the UN High Panel of Experts forum. (see the scientists’ Comment, and other comments in a public consultation here).

Proposed by transdisciplinary team of scientists in their comment to the FAO High Level Panel of Experts

Food security’s 5 As, according to Rocha (2009):

  • Availability – Sufficient food for all people at all times.
  • Access – Physical and economic access to food for all at all times.
  • Adequacy – Access to food that is nutritious and safe, and produced in environmentally sustainable ways.
  • Acceptability – Access to culturally acceptable food, which is produced and obtained in ways that do not compromise people’s dignity, self-respect or human rights.
  • Agency – The policies and processes that enable the achievement of food security.
  • …[A]dequacy includes environmental sustainability and food quality. It also underlines cultural appropriateness, an underrecognized aspect of food security.


Cecilia Rocha (2009), the researcher who first put forward this definition, puts it this way:

The last piece of the food security puzzle is that adequate food should be produced and accessed in ways that do not compromise people’s dignity and self-respect. Shared food fulfills this condition when people feel reciprocity in the sharing. When food, however, is donated rather than shared, the reciprocity is broken. Food aid, through international donations, food banks, and charitable drives, while necessary for the survival of so many people, is one of the clearest indicators of food insecurity. In market economies, accepted, dignified ways of accessing food is often through markets. But when markets fail, the dignity and human rights of many people are put in jeopardy. (p. 9) 

Rocha (2009) goes on to talk about food security as a public good: that is, as non-reducible (there is no such thing as competition for the same resource, where someone else will reduce the amount of the good you can use) and non-exclusive (when I use it, you can also still use it).

The public-good nature of food security can be seen in its many public-good components. Environmental quality and food safety are examples of clear public goods. And while nutritious foods and healthy diets can be rival and exclusive (private goods), their insufficiency can create significant consequences for public health (a public good), through in- creased social and economic costs of malnutrition and diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

Traditionally, the solution for the absence of efficient markets for public goods has been to have these goods produced and delivered by governments. As we have seen in the case of environmental protection, however, many innovative policies such as the facilitation of new markets, are being attempted. This new approach allows for partnerships among governments, private sectors, non-governmental organizations, and communities to devise ways in which public goods can be produced and delivered. Free markets will not generate efficient quantities of public goods. But that does not mean that public goods can only be produced and delivered by governments. (pp. 16-7)

As Abhishek points out later, the“many helping hands” taken by the government to social welfare in Singapore is one attempt to more evenly distribute the provision of public goodsamongstmultiple actors—educators,social enterpreneurs, for-profit enterprises. Good food gone to waste and good people gone to waste are not such different problems. They are products of a similar economic logic of privatisation and exclusive access we place on our food logistics system, and social welfare system, and we are just beginning to see how they can be addressed together.

So, I’ll conclude my moderating role with a proposal, or food for thought: that cultivating agency in the food system reduces the overall cost to social welfare and waste disposal, and increases innovation, imagination, and a greater sense of fun. Such agency contributes to greater food security, and includes everyone: policy, business, civil society and social enterprise, scholarship, and on-the-ground initiatives.

What it means for Singapore: Thoughts from Abhishek

How many ways can we make and serve the same food item? Vegan Pizzas made with love and salvaged vegetables from Jurong market, with participants at Bold at Work early this month.

A key component of food security is not only having access to enough food resources in all its diversity to cater for varying dietary needs of our residents, but also identifying the underserved so that they don’t go hungry. One of the key challenges is the issue of dignity – even the residents living in Public Rental Schemes (PRS) would say it’s not me who needs help. It takes a lot for people to say they need help.

Secondly, not all the needy live in the rental flats. Singapore has a small presence of needy who are homeless– some out of their own choice and some because they are excluded from the PRS system. It is indeed difficult to identify them and often it’s our luck if we can find them. My fear is that there are some who have gone completely unnoticed.

Thirdly, food security should take ownership of making our residents healthy – this could be in terms of having brown rice options available in most hawker centers or better designing calories mapping for each resident – sometimes people don’t know how much they are having.

Lastly, is restoring our connection around food with all of us citizens. I think like many issues in S’pore these issues do not strike a chord with the citizens because we feel it is someone else’s responsibility to deal with it. We live in a systems bubble – outsourcing our needs to various institutions and as such do not feel ownership with what’s around us. This ties in the abundant mindset Daniel mentioned, as a move away from the scarcity mindset. This is especially hard to design because what will then be the associated practices that comes with this connection – could it be everyone’s involvement in a community garden? We can’t mandate everything in S’pore like NS for instance, so what is the middle ground here of agency among all of us towards the issue?



Thanks to suggestions and feedback from Olivia and Abhishek, who helped to improve this piece.

Abhishek Bajaj works as a Community Worker with a charity that serves communities living in Public Rental Scheme housing. His work focuses on creating self-organising communities that takes ownership of its resources and issues in rental flats of Ang Mo Kio.

Prior to this, Abhishek served as a Designer at ThinkPlace Singapore, a strategic design consultancy. Abhishek graduated with a degree in Engineering Systems and Design from Singapore University of Technology and Design.

He has studied and designed for social issues around vulnerable populations such as the urban poor in Singapore, malnourished in Nepal, refugees in South Asia.


Rocha, Cecilia. 2007. “Food Insecurity as Market Failure: A Contribution from Economics.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. doi:10.1300/J477v01n04_02. PDF here: Food Insecurity as Market Failure A Contribution from Economics

Comment by transdisciplinary team of scientists working in food and agriculture systems:

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