Food as a common good

Always a hot and popular topic, we all consume food yet give it so little thought at the same time. What kind of food do you most commonly consume, where do you get it from, how was it procured, what were the lives of the animals/vegetables/people who grew your food like?

I attended a Green Drinks session on mapping the food sharing landscape by Monika Rut on 29 June 2017, a researcher based at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland who is working on a project about food sharing in cities (SHARECITY), with Singapore as her case study. The project is still in its preliminary research stages, and I felt the session served mainly as a platform for talking about food-related issues. As the organiser remarked, food is a great way to bring people together, not just because everyone eats and most Singaporeans consider eating to be their past time, but because you get the whole gamut of people interested in growing food (urban farms), making food (chefs), and sharing food/cutting food waste (sustainability). Personally, food is an easy entrance for me to talk about sustainability (and link to environmental conservation) to the average individual, who may not otherwise care about wildlife, or plastic in the oceans, or other natural resource exploitation. When I was doing my master’s at Imperial College London last year, we had to organise a symposium as part of our course requirements, and we chose the topic of sustainable food for the same reason.

A comment made by one of the audience, a chef who has had many years experience working in hotels, was that food should be perceived as a common good. And that was a novel thought to me, to frame food as a common good. Classic examples of common good would be freshwater and air, at least according to Wikipedia (my economics is slightly rusty). In our society, surrounded by commercialisation and capitalism, it is easy to see how common goods can be exploited by private firms and become non-sustainable — and we as consumers and citizens fail to consider the links between our actions and the inevitable end result. Why do so many Singaporeans waste food (average of 179 kg per person in 2014), or consume food unsustainably?

Part of the problem is a result of the culture we’re surrounded by. For all that we’re a ‘foodie nation’, eating out is a huge part of it. Compared to other nations well-known for their relationship with their food like Italy and Japan, where their people take pride in their knowledge of producing and cooking their food, we just want to know which restaurant/hawker stall sells the best *. While paying for food makes people realise the value/cost of producing it, on the flip side it also results in a sense of entitlement that they have the right to waste it. When that really shouldn’t be the case.

Constantly buying food also results in a disengagement with how the food was produced, or where it was procured from. I never thought about how fortunate I am, or how different it is to the way most others in Singapore might live. We’ve always had home-cooked meals, if not lunch then at the very least dinner.¬†Especially since my younger brother started his baking and culinary science diploma, and my mom became semi-retired, we’ve increasingly prepared more (and more elaborate) meals at home, rather than eating out. Just today, three out of the five people living in my household spent hours/the whole day preparing food: baking bread, preparing tarts/pies, making traditional tapioca kuehs, and cooking shakshuka for lunch. What is perhaps usually a once/twice a year affair for most families is an almost daily occurrence for us.

How can we get more Singaporeans to care more about the food they’re consuming, the way they’re obtained and the sustainability of them? Ground-up movements like Love Food Cut Waste are a great start, but Singapore being Singapore, where government public education campaigns have proved time and again to be fairly effective, I am inclined to think that food waste numbers will only go down when our government agencies are fully on board.