Archived news articles - 2008

The Straits Times, 6 April 2008

When everything under the sun costs more...

A trip to the supermarket can be a bewildering experience these days.

A carton of milk used to cost $1.50. Then it crept up to $1.70, before leaping to $2.50 today. A bag of rice used to go for about $7. Today, it is over $10.

Toting up the weekly food bill is likely to induce the need for a fortifying cuppa. Except that the price of coffee has gone up too.

Indeed, just about every crop under the sun is trading at record price levels, with supplies for many at historic lows. On Friday, rice prices rose a further 10 per cent on world markets, making for a total rise of 50 per cent in just two weeks.

Little wonder then that the Economist magazine noted recently that its food-price index is higher than it has ever been since it was created in 1845.

Not surprisingly, rice rows, pasta protests and temper tantrums have flared up just about everywhere.

In Singapore, government leaders have been busy assuring the public and explaining how they are diversifying the country's sources of food to ensure continued supplies.

But diversification, while necessary, will only go so far given that the shortages are global and widespread and don't look like they are going to ease any time soon.

So what's to be done? Here are some thoughts:

Let the market do its worst
Politicians around the world have reached for some old chestnuts in the face of the current food shortages - price controls to prevent a spiral, and bans on exports to keep supplies up at home.

In Singapore, which imports just about every morsel it consumes and is a small price-taker, anyone who advocates this is, well, selling you a lemon. It just won't work.

Most economists agree that such measures, while politically expedient, are economically unsound. They send distorted signals to the market, discouraging farmers and suppliers from responding to meet the higher demand, at home and abroad.

Far better to let the market do its worst while targeting help at those who need it most.

Fears over Frankenstein
Popular opinion in the West has turned against genetically modified, or GM, foods. In Britain, the media has dubbed these Frankenstein foods, suggesting that they are untested products which might have unknown - or unknowable - effects.

Yet, this notion might be likened to empty rice bins, generating a great din, but containing much less substance.

Using the latest technology to boost crop yields has been practised for decades. It was precisely such bio-technological breakthroughs that enabled the green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s through enhanced crop yields.

Given that the world's population has grown from about one billion at the dawn of the 20th century to over 6.6 billion today and could hit nine billion by 2050, any serious attempt to tackle the looming food crisis will have to include technological innovation, properly researched and regulated, of course.

Cut waste
For all the panic over rising food prices, much continues to go to waste in Singapore. Just walk into any cafeteria, hawker centre or buffet hall and this will be plain.

Much waste also takes place in both government offices and private ones. So, what happened to the official Cut Waste panels?

Most people I know don't go to meetings to be fed. Few seem to touch the sandwiches or sweets that are routinely offered. Most seem to be thinking of the lunch they are heading off to or have come from, or the extra hours they will have to spend in the gym if they indulged.

Organisations would do better to keep their refreshments simple and donate the savings to those who need it more, such as children from poor families who struggle with hunger pangs at recess time.

Meeting rooms might carry signs on the door which read: 'Meeting in progress, proceeds to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund'.

Help those most in need
Regardless of all the efforts that are being taken to ensure food supplies, there is just no running away from the reality of higher prices.

Indeed, the governor of the Bank of England, Mr Mervyn King, put it starkly when he recently warned British consumers that higher energy and food prices will represent 'a genuine reduction in our standard of living'.

He urged people to accept 'that's not something that we can offset by just demanding higher wages, because all that will do is lead to another round of higher prices'.

The real rub, though, is that those who can least afford it are likely to bear the brunt of the impact. Given that spending on food tends to make up a larger proportion of household expenditure for the poor, rising food prices will hit them hard.

Like it or not, government officials and MPs will have to brace themselves to do more to help those most in need meet their most basic needs.

Others in society will have to play a part too. More creative community initiatives, like the one where busy professionals volunteered to collect bread from bakeries at the end of the day for the poor, will be needed.

Jiak kantang
For years as a child, I was referred to as the jiak kantang (Hokkien for potato-eating) kid by some classmates who assumed I was the son of potato-loving Caucasian parents, not quite realising that my rice-eating family and I lived in a Housing Board flat in Toa Payoh.

It did not bother me. For although I love rice as much as the next heartlander, I also rather enjoy potatoes in every form, from fries, to mash, to Swiss-style rosti.

Now, the humble tuber is getting its own back. The United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato.

With the world's population expected to grow by an average of over 100 million a year for the next two decades, pressures on land and food supplies will mount.

The UN's answer: the potato.
'The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop,' it says, adding that it should be a big part of the strategy to meet the world's food needs.

Even Asia is taking to the tuber as the prices of rice and other staples rise. China is now the world's biggest potato producer; almost a third of all potatoes are harvested in China and India. Half of the world's potatoes are consumed in Asia.

How is that for diversifying food supplies?

Hungry? Want some fries?

Warren Fernandez

Copyright @ 2008 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.