Singapore vegetable, seafood production fell in 2023 due to construction challenges, inflation: SFA

The lower local vegetable production comes despite an increase in the number of farms. - PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO via The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN): Local vegetable and seafood production fell in 2023, despite an increase in the number of vegetable farms, while local egg production went up.

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said in its yearly food statistics report on May 20 that the industry faced challenges in building up its farms during the Covid-19 pandemic, and grappled with inflationary pressures, higher energy prices and manpower costs.

Local vegetable production accounted for 3.2 per cent of total food consumption in 2023, down from 3.9 per cent in 2022.

Seafood production fell to 7.3 per cent from 7.6 per cent in 2022, said SFA.

The lower local vegetable production is in spite of an increase in the number of farms – 115 vegetable farms in Singapore in 2023, up from 111 in 2022, according to SFA’s food statistics report.

The number of sea-based seafood farms fell from 109 in 2022 to 98 in 2023, whereas the number of land-based seafood farms rose from 27 in 2022 to 33 in 2023.

The fall in local production comes amid reports of other headwinds confronting the local farming sector.

Vegetable farm VertiVegies had scrapped plans to build what would have been one of Singapore’s largest indoor farms in Lim Chu Kang, citing issues with its joint venture partner, Chinese farming company SananBio, which supplies the farm with its production hardware.

It returned the 2ha plot of land to SFA in April 2022.

VertiVegies had intended to produce about six tonnes of vegetables daily, including local favourites such as xiao bai cai, nai bai and cabbage.

The farm would have been one of the Republic’s largest indoor vegetable ones, boosting local production of greens by 10 per cent.

SFA will also be looking to improve fish farming infrastructure in the southern waters, where the only farm operating there – Barramundi Group – has plans to exit, said the agency.

The company, which farms Asian sea bass, had to grapple with inadequate infrastructure and the endemic scale drop virus disease, which has killed large numbers of its fish population.

It stopped farming in Singapore in June 2023, and will focus on scaling up its fish farming business in Brunei instead.

It will also continue its research and development work on St John’s Island.

Barramundi Group had open-water sea cages off Pulau Senang and Pulau Semakau, as well as a land-based hatchery and nursery on Semakau.

A spokesman for the company had said that farming in the southern waters comes with higher-than-usual operating costs due to inadequate infrastructure, making it challenging to be cost-competitive and to achieve long-term profitability.

He added there is no dedicated jetty for fish farmers to use, and the hatchery and nursery on Semakau do not have access to grid-supplied electricity or fresh water – so the company had to transport diesel and fresh water there weekly.

In contrast to vegetable and seafood production, local egg production increased in 2023 to make up 31.9 per cent of food consumption, up from 28.9 per cent in 2022.

This is despite the fact that Singapore’s fourth egg farm, ISE Foods Holdings (IFH), which was slated to open in 2024, is facing construction delays, as reported by The Straits Times.

The IFH farm aims to cover the full ecosystem of egg production here, the only such facility here with the capability to do so. Its egg-laying facility in Lim Chu Kang was supposed to begin operations this year, followed by a day-old chick hatchery at the same site, a parent pullet farm in Tuas, and a parent layer farm in Sungei Tengah.

A parent pullet farm rears young chickens till they are around 16 to 18 weeks old. These mature chickens are then transferred to the parent layer farm to breed and produce fertile eggs, which are sent to the hatchery.

The female chicks that hatch will then be transported to the commercial egg farm, where they are reared as egg-producing hens.

The Republic currently imports more than 90 per cent of its food sources, making it vulnerable to global supply chain disruptions from disease outbreaks, policy decisions by foreign governments, and geopolitical tensions, said SFA.

To bolster food security, Singapore has a goal of producing 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030.

Singapore has also increased its number of food import sources in the past year, from 183 countries and regions in 2022 to 187 in 2023.

Spain, for instance, was approved as a new source of mutton, Turkey a new source of eggs, and Indonesia a new source of eggs and live chicken.

“SFA remains dedicated to accrediting new import sources and promoting further diversification within the industry through initiatives such as sourcing trips and business networking sessions,” the agency added on May 20.

Agritech consultant Lee Eng Keat noted that there is a shortage of farm production workers in Singapore.

On the one hand, there are currently not enough Singaporeans to fill these roles, but employing too many low-skilled workers from overseas may not be desirable from a social standpoint either, he noted.

At the same time, the increased cost of both energy and capital is posing a challenge to further growth among local farms, which would lead to further consolidation in the market, he said.

“Those that can grow will do so based on a few factors, such as building up a brand that can command a price premium, maintaining low cost of production, and sustaining positive cash flows,” he added.

The viable farms will ramp up production, which could support a turnaround in production levels in the future, Mr Lee noted.

Asked whether the dip in production levels could impact Singapore’s “30 by 30” target, he said high-tech farmers now are in a better position to expand production as they can quickly assemble systems to grow more in the event of a disruption to supply, for example. - The Straits Times/ANN

Image from The Straits Times/ANNImage from The Straits Times/ANN

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