Green Drinks: Singapore’s Food System — Security x Waste

This post refers to the Green Drinks panel on 5 November (event page).

Our talk on Wednesday had me thinking more about the loop between waste and security.  As a moderator, I see the role that “agency” plays—people’s agency in enabling change—as very significant, and worth elaborating on.

Agency connects waste and security. How so?

Three issues

1) Food waste

Mr Yap and Daniel’s work are clear examples of how one person’s decision to do something quite differently can make a huge impact. I think we can agree that people continue to be really taken aback by both of their work. Very simple reasons motivated their work, they made gradual changes in their lives;these have brought about immense changes and fulfillments for both of them and a wider community.

Abhishek’s experiences as a community worker, with a background as a design thinking consultant, showed us how communities living within narratives that strip them of agency can begin to develop a sense of agency—of their own making, not someone else’s narrative of them—by being given the space and autonomy to organize the re-distribution of salvaged fruits and vegetables within their own community, on their own terms. As he noted, food given by agencies do not really cater for diverse dietary needs by Indian or Malay households,vegetarians, or those with allergies. These cultural, social, and spiritual dimensions of food are vital.

Manda Foo, Max Yeo, Abhishek Bajaj, Bjorn Low, Daniel Tay, and Mr Yap – and a pretty engaged audience!

What we see in both these cases is a redirection of salvageable food from the landfills to people ready to receive them, and redirection of people from poor food handouts, to food shared with care and still nutritionally wholesome. Who’s mediating these redirections? People like Mr Yap and Daniel, who together (and a small team) started SG Food Rescue; and people like Abhishek, whose tireless work as community workers mediate, translate, and introduce the people that society forgets, to resources and means to build common capacity to organise theaid and accessthat they need.

As I learnt from Abhishek, community workers serve the larger community and look at the gifts everyone brings. Social workers deal with more individual cases and work closely with families. The difference lies in people being treated as individual cases that weigh on the state—which is not a healthypsychological state to be in—versus as part of a larger interwoven fabric, in which more equalpartnershipsare cultivated throughout a community.

Okay. How does that relate to food security today? What’s so special about the workof these individuals connecting people and waste?

2) Local food prices and imports – a long overdue rebalancing, for greater resilience?

Let’s go to an insight we heard about local food prices. Manda shared about Singapore’s abundant food imports, priced by trade and import policy directed at pushing down the domestic prices of food products. She writes about this in her book, Food Matters, co-authored with Professor Paul Teng. (Together, they look at various definitions of food security including food security robustness, and how it matters to Singapore.)

Low domestic prices mean local farmers can hardly compete, given the disproportionately high value given to the property market above and beyond food production. High land prices are good for property developers, and for the biggest property owner (the Singapore Land Authority).

Many agricultural countries provide subsidies to farmers that protect them, enabling them to provide a public good: locally grown food. This often has multiple benefits: fresher, more nutritious food, and educational and wellnessopportunities.

But I might have just lost many of you. What’s the link here- between local farmers, food waste, and “poor people”/vulnerable communities?

Handouts—food, funding, and careless social welfare—are the biggest threat to resilience. We’ve seen this in many examples of “First World Aid and Third World Underdevelopment”. This narrative says: the first world has to take care of the third world, for human rights we must give them food! What happens economically is that local economies are unable to build and sustain dynamic, local, responsive networks of trust.

The narrative has begun to shift in the nations now called developing countries. Many are changing their trade relationswith developed nations, working with development aid groups to establish more equal relationships, and working with funders to invest in work that builds capacity by first building internal community strength.

This brings me to the last point: social agency.

3) Innovation and agency

Whether we call it resilience, empowerment, or self-organizing communities, there are many approaches to thinking about agency. But in the practical day-to-day, we don’t need to be too picky about what terms we use.

Daniel and Mr Yap’s work has brought a community together where people feel empowered to see the value of food items differently. They are sensing, testing, tasting, smelling out the differences and learning to see what is good and what is no longer edible. They are building this kind of sensory ability along with their own intrinsic set of survival resources: decision-making, new habits, new acquaintances, testing the waters, growing braver, trusting themselves.

Anyone who has scaled a rockwall or begun a marathon or learnt to cycle knows how valuable trusting yourself is—no one can take that new-found self-knowledge from you.

Abhishek’s work does the same for the communities he supports. Because it’s a collaborative effort with SG Food Rescue, an equally volunteer-driven, self-organizing group, his community shares many similarities with the people bringing them the food: everyone is gaining in their resource capacities, including one very important one: agency.

We like to talk about innovation but we leave agency out. Let’s go to Bjorn. Bjorn’s work was hard to place when it first began, but has become recognised as innovative . But the essence of innovation doesn’t come from pushing out some new-fangled shiny marvel. It comes from an actually very humble moment: an idea by a person, that becomes interesting to another person, becomes worked on by a few people, and slowly becomes real. What drives innovation is the will to see an idea transform to take up space in the world. This is equally true for eco-Wiz’s work: 8 years of pushing at industry standards to introduce biodegradable food wasterecycling into households, industrial kitchens and neighbourhoods.

That social agency—to drive a new ideathat can steer our current systems onto new paths, and connect separate, wasteful nodes, through innovation,to rebalance our industries and priorities in order to build greater social and ecological resilience, is the core of what food securitycan and should mean.

More on food security and what it means for Singapore in part II.

Other tidbits

What did people find interesting? As shared by our audience online:

1. the conflicting nature of some of the issues: Like food wastage, high production cost, Low imports prices, affordability

2. the supply chain of trust: from food sharing at a minimart with unsold produce, to a freegan, to a social worker, the chain of redistribution goes a long way with trust. (Jared Tham, LinkedIn)

Facts and food for thought: 

1. Paul Teng, Manda’s co-author on Food Matters, introduced the concept of food security robustness (Teng and Morales 2014), which is based on the idea of having the capacity to withstand destabilising factors in food security by having a balanced capacity in making food available, which is backed by an efficient import infrastructure and sound trade policies and facilities, as well as the management of food demand and its affordability. That has a lot to do with society and culture, and what people want to do, how they want to change their behaviours. Is this other dimension of social agency for people to find new solutions something we are seeing more of today be it in policy or society? 

2. Australia’s military land has a portion set aside to agriculture. In Singapore, the buffer land between actual military grounds and civil grounds is often empty land that can be used for soil-raised agriculture, or at least soil rehabilitation and on-land composting. If we make every resource in Singapore work for its keep, why not put the land to work in the way it can naturally do, without cost? 


Teng, Paul, and Maria C S Morales. 2014. “‘Food Security Robustness’: A Driver of Enhanced Regional Cooperation?” RSIS Policy Brief. Singapore.

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