Legislating Food Waste. We Can Do More.

Parliamentary Speech, 12 February 2019

Introduction

Mr. Speaker, I support the Singapore Food Agency Bill and wish to highlight the opportunities that this Bill presents in support of our Zero Waste aspirations, especially with 2019 being designated as Singapore’s Year Towards Zero Waste. I shall focus, in particular, on food waste and food security today.

This Bill could, if utilised purposefully, be the catalyst to new laws, regulations and policies relating to sustainable and effective food waste management. In doing so, Singapore would be taking a momentous step forward in shouldering our shared responsibility of creating a way of life which not only minimises damage to our environment, but also ensures safe and healthy living as well as working conditions for our people.

Examining the Root Causes of Food Waste, From a Linear to a Circular Economy

Mr. Speaker, if we are truly serious about becoming a Zero Waste nation, then the first step must surely be to seriously examine the current state and the root causes of food waste. Food waste comprises avoidable food waste and unavoidable food waste. In the following sections, I am referring to avoidable food waste.

Singapore’s current food supply chain is a linear economy which is the cause of much food waste every day because it is simpler and cheaper for businesses and individuals to throw away food than channel the same to better use. I was heartened by Minister Masagos’ acknowledgement of this fact at the launch of Singapore’s Year Towards Zero Waste, where he noted the need for Singapore to adopt a circular economy approach to achieve Zero Waste. A circular economy is one where the ‘waste’ of one part of the food cycle becomes resources for another.

Mr Speaker, let’s start upstream with food imports. Based on 2016 figures provided by AVA, there were almost 1.4 million tonnes of food (plus 1.9 million eggs) available for consumption versus almost 800,000 tonnes of food wasted in the same period, according to NEA. This shows that more than half of all food available in Singapore was wasted in 2016. While it is important to ensure enough food for Singapore, how can we make sure that we do not over-import food that leads to much waste?

Next on the food chain is avoidable waste generated by businesses including food manufacturers, food wholesalers and F&B businesses. While no official numbers have been released, an informal group like SG Food Rescue can give us some indication. SG Food Rescue rescued over 100 tonnes of food in the past year through volunteer efforts alone. Less than $5000 was spent to collect and redistribute the food by 250 individuals to feed 550 people, 3 meals a day for a year. That’s 200,000 meals! Remember that this is just one group’s effort.

And now let’s examine the amount of “avoidable” food waste generated by each household, Mr. Speaker. This amounts to 2.5kg each week according to a 2017 study by the NEA. With 1.28 million households in Singapore, 168,000 tonnes of food waste is generated by households which is 21% of total food waste of 800,000 tonnes.

Mr. Speaker, these are big numbers and hard to fathom for laypersons like myself. An easier way to understand what 800,000 tonnes of total avoidable food waste a year means is to look at someone like Ah Hua whom I met at Kreta Ayer a few weeks ago. In his 50s, partially blind and likely intellectually-challenged, he was not asking for money but for food. Ah Hua is one of the 400,000 food-insecure people in Singapore who need 438 million meals a year (400,000 x 3 meals x 365). Now 800,000 tonnes of edible food waste translates to 486 million meals a year which would allow us to more than provide for everyone who struggles with food security. Too simplistic a calculation I admit but I hope we get the point.

NEA’s current food waste management strategies expressly state that the most preferred methods for food waste management are to (1) prevent and reduce food wastage at its source, and (2) redistribute unsold/excess food. In food resource management, the order of priority should be first to feed humans, then animals, then to “feed” the soil via composting (i.e. recycling), before finally generating energy from food waste. Currently, we seem to manage food waste seems by doubling down on recycling food waste and recovering energy from food waste, and not enough is done to reduce food waste from upstream sources.

All edible food waste can and should be redistributed to people like Ah Hua instead of investing millions of dollars* to build digesters to turn food waste into energy. The benefit here is not merely reduced waste, but a long term reduction of the inflated cost of food resource which worsens food insecurity for the poorest amongst us. [* Source: The Straits Times (HDB Blocks) The Straits TImes (Schools) Eco-Business (5-Star Hotels)]

Concrete Measures that Addresses Both Food Waste and Food Insecurity

Sir, I would like to share some concrete proposals that are made in consultation with several seasoned members of the green community including Climate Conversations, SG Food Rescue and Lepak in SG:

First, regulations should clearly define terms used in the sale of food, such as “best before”, “consume by”, “sell by”, “use by” and “expiry” dates. Presently, these terms denoting dates all have the same meaning — which is that businesses are not legally allowed to sell an item past the indicated date. However, if some of these terms in fact only denote the food manufacturer’s recommended period of consumption for the food items sold, then regulations can be enacted to extend the shelf life of, for instance, processed foods on the condition that the food is donated to charities. This allows for food to be redistributed instead of being discarded.

Second, and I acknowledge that this might be controversial, the law should make it costly for businesses to throw away edible food. Donating food which remains edible but is no longer retailable costs time and manpower. Businesses therefore prefer to discard food because it is cheaper and more convenient to do so. Policies which dis-incentivise edible food wastage will push businesses to seek alternatives. (In France, a law was enacted in 2016 exactly for this). The enactment of such regulations certainly requires much preparatory legwork such as better measurement and reporting of how much food is discarded, so commissioning a continuous collection and study of data concerning food waste would be important and relevant to Clause 5(1)(n) of the Bill. After all, if we can’t measure something, we can’t improve it. Another step could be to legislate that all food imported or grown in Singapore has to be sold or donated, with a similar concept to the Extended Producer Responsibility that is coming into effect for e-waste.

Given that such a policy would be controversial, it should be accompanied by a third complementary measure: a law which incentivises businesses to donate food to charity. This could come in the form of tax rebates from food donations. Ideally, the charities which receive food donations should be the ones to weigh the donations received and provide receipts to the businesses for their food donations. The tax rebate should also be based on weight of food donated, not price.

Our Food Decisions and Implications on Climate Change

Mr Speaker, I am heartened that the Bill explicitly recognises climate change’s impact on food resiliency as distinct and separate from the impact of natural or man-made disasters. We know that we will not be able to feed future population growth if the world continues to produce and consume food the way we currently do. At the same time, research is also showing that with changing air quality, concentration of CO2 as well as soil quality, the levels of nutrition in our staple foods could change drastically. This dual challenge requires radical re-imagination of the world’s food production systems. New farming techniques, plant-based meats, alternative protein, all these developments require adaptable food regulations that allow for rapid adoption without compromising on food safety considerations.

With this in mind, I would like to make further suggestions specific to the Bill including:

(a) A more robust and accessible food issues reporting and whistleblowing system in performing its functions of regulating businesses, as per Clause 5(1)(e). Such a system is already present in the UK.

(b) Being flexible to react quickly to changing technology and norms when it comes to food labelling and food risks assessments. Transparency around supply chains and therefore confidence in terms of food safety can be achieved through increasingly low-cost technology. While championing the development of information labelling systems, as per Clause 5(1)(h), there is also need to strike a balance to ensure it does not become a barrier, for example, to the use of non-commercial composting as fertilizer within our food systems. It would be counterproductive to stifle production systems and models that are striving to achieve wholesome nutritious food that is also fair to producers.

© Developing deeper analytics as part of data collection in Clause (5)(1)(n) around our food sources and nutritional content over a period of time to ensure wholesomeness of our food supply is not compromised due to changing geographical and climate realities affecting our food sources.

(d) Exploring ways within or related to our carbon pricing framework to reward actors that are helping to reduce the carbon burden of our food system.

Conclusion

Mr. Speaker, please allow me to end with some food for thought, pun intended. We can learn much from our own history. When we gained independence, we harnessed our limited resources to save every single drop across our national water taps because every drop counts. Whatever actions we take with food, it shall be with the same indomitable spirit that we save every single grain across our national food baskets: no food goes to waste. Every morsel counts.

We can learn much from the rainforest that wastes none. One’s trash becomes another’s treasure. It shall be with this same wisdom, creativity and kampung spirit involving all sectors of society — from the public service to businesses to civil societies, and every single consumer, that we collectively ensure Ah Hua’s and our next generation’s food security. Every act counts. Everyone counts.

Finally, Mr Speaker, against the backdrop of our bicentennial commemoration, overfishing and climate change triggering global food shortages, and volatile geopolitics limiting food trade, the Singapore Food Agency Bill with the vision of a Zero Waste Nation is not only timely but also timeless, as Singapore embarks on this journey of becoming a thriving circular economy and nation within the next 200 years, and beyond.

Thank you.

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Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities.

She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion, environment — and volunteerism in Parliament.