Being a Locavore in Singapore

by Christina Crane

PIC_4884I cook.  It’s something I do to relax, which is important in a naturally stressful city like Singapore, but it’s also the way that I was brought up.  I’m also curious and want to know more about everything.  These two things are what led me to start Locavore Singapore.  My foodieness means that I want to know what is actually in the food I eat – what is that vegetable, where does it come from, who grows it, how is it grown, what else can it be used for?  What I’ve found in the last few months is that I want to know a lot more about the food I eat than the average person in Singapore.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a café in Vancouver, a very locavore city, and the location for a book ( The 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith & J. B. MacKinnon) that started me on my locavore journey a year ago.  In Vancouver, I can see a reality that is spreading across many cities in North America and Europe, and one that I hope will grow stronger in Singapore:  where locally produced food is mainstream.  This manifests itself in farmers’ markets in urban areas, in locally made ‘artisanal’ foodstuffs like jams, sauces and crackers that make it into regular supermarkets, small coffeehouses that use ‘local’ to create a thriving business that differentiates from multinationals, and kitchen and restaurant gardens on top of commercial buildings.  It’s a thriving (possibly self-sustaining in the future) local economy.

But Singapore is a different kind of place, and it is quite far from what is mainstream in cities like Vancouver (or London, or New York, or other cities that have turned their eyes toward sustainable sources of food).  Creating a locavore culture here may take a while, so I’m starting out with a lot of research to find out who is already thinking local and sustainable. My locavore journey in Singapore hasn’t been easy, and I expect many bumps still to come.

For me, being a locavore means that I want to meet the people who are producing my food, and understand more about how it is produced and the people who are making it.  When I go to Hay Dairies in Singapore and learn about what the goats are eating, it makes me feel better about what I am drinking – and question the diet of the cows at the dairies that have not responded to my request for information.   My curiosity about the food I eat is often not satisfied by the companies who make it, who choose not to reply to my phone messages or emails. Oh, how I’d love to learn more about the very tasty Alvas yoghurt, made in Singapore.  I’m ready to storm the factory, since they haven’t called me back to make an appointment to chat.

When I do meet with companies, the main obstacle that I face is that most of the businesses still believe that international is better, and that ‘local’ isn’t a feature to highlight.  One juice company I spoke to doesn’t understand why I’d prefer mango juice that comes from Malaysian mangos to Australian mangos.  They question me:  Doesn’t ‘Brand Australia’ provide a stronger stamp of quality?  (I’ve had good and bad mangos from both countries and can testify that the country of origin doesn’t mean nearly as much as the quality of the grower.)

Why should you care where your food comes from?

I’ve been questioned a lot recently about why people would want to eat locally grown foods, especially with the immensity of the challenge in Singapore with our small land mass.

The first reason, and the main one for me, is that I want to know more about what I eat – I think it’s important to know what is going into my body, and make my choices accordingly.  If I can avoid preservatives and pesticides, I will.  (OK, I do stray, but sometimes you just need the potato chips! ) As much as possible, I follow Michael Pollan’s advice about not buying foods that have more than 5 things on the ingredient list, or anything my great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.  But there are many other reasons, ones that can have a greater impact on the environment.

PIC_4824Around the world, communities are re-localising their food sources because they want to be eating fresher food with higher vitamin and mineral counts, reduce the impact on the planet through the carbon emissions of food production and transport, and just support the local economy and community – buying from a local small business instead of a multinational that they might not be able to trust as much.

In Singapore, 90% of our food is imported, and ‘air-flown’ has become a symbol of a premium product instead of a sign of dependence on fossil fuels for our most basic need.  Our entire agricultural and food system is based upon the availability of cheap fossil fuels for production, fertilization and transport. That isn’t a sustainable system, as with peak oil around the corner, fossil fuels won’t be cheap forever.  The government in Singapore is encouraging local farms to buy land in other countries to bring back the produce to Singapore and ensure our food security.  Food security and resilience are obviously important, but there have to be other ways that are less energy intensive.

The farther we are from the source of our food, the more complex the supply chain becomes and the more energy it consumes.  It is also more likely that it loses nutrients – through processing and addition of preservatives and additives, or because fresh produce has been picked unripe so that it can survive the long journey to your supermarket shelf.

For those who want to take action, the first step is to just be more informed about the food we eat.

As consumers, we are more often treating food as something that should be convenient, fast and tasty, but we aren’t thinking about what that might be doing to our bodies or to the planet.  Food is our source of nutrients, our brain food, our health. We should know more about it than just the name of the shop we patronise.  Most likely, the fish in your fishball soup came from America or Japan instead of local waters – and it might not actually be fish at all, just heavily processed fillers with fish flavouring.  Learn what is in your food.  Ask your stall holder about what you’re eating and where it came from, don’t just accept the your meal without question.  Do the same with your vegetables – where are they grown?  Is there a local alternative?  Reconnect with your food and think about it as another area where you can take action and have an impact on the planet by consuming things that are produced a bit closer to home.

Once you know more about what you are currently eating, then you can begin to make your food choices based on your personal beliefs – eating ‘ethically’ can be very complex.  It will be near to impossible to find the ideal solution, at least for the short term in Singapore.  By working together as a food community, we can build support for more sustainable agriculture and food production in the long term.

I will be opening a takeaway café later this year, and much of my locavore research is to help me to find the suppliers for this business.  I’ve learned that my curiosity is unusual in the food industry, where much of the food that goes into commercial kitchens is processed and packaged for convenience, and vegetable farmers aren’t used to being asked about their philosophy on pesticides.  Luckily, I’ve found a few gems that give me hope and keep me optimistic for a local food future – small businesses who are as interested about where their ingredients come from.  These companies are only going to grow… or so I hope, as long as we all support them. The journey will be long, but I can see a local food future.

Our Guest Writer, Locavore-logoChristina Crane is Founder of the website, Locavore Singapore which is seeking out the people who grow and produce  food within a 300km radius of Singapore (Malaysian peninsula, Singapore and Riau Islands).

One goal of the local food movement is to think about what’s gone into to the meal on our plates and its impact the planet.  More importantly, Locavore is about building a community of healthy people who care about what they eat – so much so that they want to learn from and support the people who produce it.  Join the Facebook page: Locavore Singapore. She can be contacted at christina@da-pao.com .

Christina’s 10 tips to get into
the Locavore lifestyle in Singapore:
1. Pick 5 things in your house that you could buy a local product for (don’t try to change everything at once)
2. Lobby your supermarket to have a local food section.
3. Learn more about gardening by volunteering one Saturday morning with the
Ground Up Initiative
4. Buy fruits in season and preserve them instead of buying canned fruits out of season (as well as being better for you, there’s some controversy at the moment about the BPA levels in canned food)
5. Challenge yourself to make an entire meal from only local ingredients
6. Expand your one herb plant from the easy list to plant a herb garden – aside from basil, some easy ones are chili plants, chives, dill and mint. This is easy to do, even with limited space!
7. Know what is in season in Singapore and wait patiently for the season instead of buying things grown & flown around the world.
8. Order a vegetable delivery from
Fireflies Farm or Green Circle Farm
9. Shop at the wet market instead of the supermarket for vegetables and get to know the person who’s selling you your produce. Ask questions about where things are coming from and who is growing them.
10. Plant a fruit tree. And be patient – it won’t produce fruit right away.

Christina recommends these links:

* This is from the people who inspired me:  100MileDiet.org
* Edible communities does a gorgeous magazine about local food in 30+ communities in North America
* Put yourself on Green Circle’s mailing list, as Soo updates on the local farm weather every week in Singapore
* 10 steps to becoming a locavore, from PBS in America
Further links you may be interested in:
EWTT:  Reading Food Labels: Food Additives
WebMD : Michael Pollan’s 7 Rules for Eating
Videos 1.  “Watch Your (Fo)odometer” showing how food miles lead to use of oil and unsustainable agriculture
2.  “Home is where the Food is” – a short video for the 100 Mile Diet Society.

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Posted by on Jun 11 2010. Filed under Food. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “Being a Locavore in Singapore”

  1. [...] Farewell – The boy who knew too much: Ridzwan Dzafir, Mr. Asean, Pondok Boy. – Eco Walk The Talk: Being a Locavore in Singapore – The Long and Winding Road: Grown men prancing on cardboard horses: Kuda [...]

  2. Hi, this is Jessica Lim, a journalist from The Straits Times. I am working on a story about the increasing number of locavores here. It would be great to speak with you – give me a call if you can (before Sunday if possible, i am aiming for a story for publication on Monday). 98508988. thanks!

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