Radio Programme: Food and “The World”

Starting today, PRI’s The World is looking at food production and consumption around the world. Those interested in finding sustainable solutions for food production as our global population soars, check out “What’s for Lunch?”. This news feature should run all summer, with different regions getting time in the spotlight.

The first episode looked at technology that will help Singapore break its dependence on Malaysia and other nations. They are working to produce more food locally, indoors, and on the vertical. According the report, these high-tech A-frame gardens are 10 times more productive and use fewer natural resources than regular farming. Next time I am in Singapore, I will try to get a closer look.


Food waste in Singapore

According to the UN study quoted in the first entry on this blog, consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia throw away an average of 13 to 24 pounds of food a year – which, compared to the 210 to 250 pounds of food the average North American or European consumer throws away each year, is amazing.

As I was in Singapore in March, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do a little research into food waste there. The first thing I wanted to figure out was if Singapore, with the (by far) highest GDP per capita in Southeast Asia, was typical for the region when it comes to food waste. I wasn’t able to find any rigorous studies on household food waste per capita. What I did find was a two-week study of 150 families that found that the average household food waste per consumer was about 7 pounds a year. Given the methodology, my suspicion is that that estimate is a little low – but probably the right order of magnitude, so very much in line with the rest of Southeast Asia. And one thing is certain: with total food waste (commercial and household) coming in at 570 million kilograms per year (or 248 pounds per person), there’s no question that household food waste is significantly lower than in the US, Canada or Europe.

So how to people manage to waste so much less? I had a few conversations with locals and expats in Singapore to try to tease that out.

South Indian curry

One big reason has to do with transportation. Owning a car in Singapore is expensive. There is a registration fee of 1000 SGD – except the first time a car is registered, when that fee is 150% of the car’s value. There is an import duty of 41% on cars. There are road taxes, and extra fees if you drive your car on busy roads during rush hour (tallied automatically, thanks to transponders installed in all cars). And those are just the big ticket items. The good news is that there is a great, reasonably priced, countrywide metro and bus system, and most people (for obvious reasons) use that for daily travel. So what does that have to do with food waste? Well, a lot. For one thing, it means that food markets have sprouted pretty much in walking distance of everywhere. People tend to go to local stores, and the fact that they have to lug whatever they buy home in 90 degree humid weather encourages them to buy only what they need for the next day or two – something that naturally leads to better planning and less waste.

Typical hawker center

Another factor keeping household waste low is hawker centers. These open air eateries are everywhere, and house multiple food stalls featuring good, cheap fare. You can eat well for less than 5 Singapore dollars (less than the cost of cooking at home) – and most people I asked said that they ate dinner out at least three times a week. That certainly reduces food waste in homes – but what about restaurant waste? I suspect that is small relative to restaurants in the US. The hawker portions are smaller than those in US restaurants, and so a lot less gets left on plates – and each hawker stall makes a limited number of dishes with a limited number of ingredients, and keeps only a small amount of inventory on hand, which reduces waste due to spoilage.

Nothing earth shattering here, but it does suggest a couple of good practices that anyone can implement to reduce food waste, no matter where they live:

  1. Only buy what you need – plan!
  2. Finish what you buy – avoid leftovers or eat them.

Those things are easier said than done in an environment that makes it easy to waste (the US, for example, has 5 times more cars per capita than Singapore, cheap groceries and huge restaurant portions) – but they can make a huge difference (less than 25 pounds of wasted food vs. more than 200 pounds of wasted food).

If that’s breakfast, this must be Singapore

Mee siam

Mee siam

I’m tired – a special kind of tired, born of twenty hours on a planeful of babies who took turns at voicing their displeasure. I’ve been up 47 hours, with the most recent 10 of those spent working.

Yup, tired sums it up.

So I will be brief.

I am in Singapore, and as far as this blog is concerned, that means a few things:

  • I’ll be away from my kitchen, so no recipes for a few weeks.
  • I’m in a country with a love of food, and a very different relationship to it than the US. If it’s a typical Southeast Asian country, then consumers here waste about 10 times less food than typical American and European consumers. I need to see if I can find some stats, and learn how people pull off that trick.
  • Thanks to this trip, and others to this fair city, my carbon footprint is Sasquatch-sized – so I find myself motivated to learn more about carbon negative activities and carbon offsets. If anyone has and suggestions on specifics to explore, please share them in the comments.

So, hopefully I’ll have a few minutes in the next three weeks or so to escape work, learn a few things, and share.

For now, though, it’s bedtime.