What Happens If Singapore Runs Out of Food? The National Stockpile, Explained.

On Friday (Feb 7), Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from Yellow to Orange due to a sustained increase in the number of Coronavirus cases. What followed was a frenzy of panic buying in supermarkets around the island, prompting politicians, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to call for calm. Officials have all echoed the same things. That one, Singapore’s supply lines are intact and that there is no risk of a shortage of essential food or items; and two, that there is a national stockpile that we can fall back on if needed. But to what extent are these assumptions true? If there is really a national stockpile, why isn’t the government telling us much about it? 

These are the questions that we decided to look at in today’s explained.

1. What is the possibility of a shortage happening in the first place?

In short, very low.

Through the Food Security Roadmap, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) has intentionally diversified food sources in order to minimise the impact of global supply shocks. The agency claims to work closely with industry players, conducting sourcing missions to different countries. In 2013 for example, it facilitated overseas sourcing trips to Indonesia, Philippines, Israel, Poland, Denmark, and China to help traders build networks with potential suppliers. These efforts seem to have paid off, with food items from over 170 countries being imported into Singapore, and the Economist Intelligence Unit naming Singapore best in the world for food security.

Next, zooming into essential foodstuffs like rice, we can see that Chinese imports play a very small role in the overall market. To be specific in 2017, Chinese rice imports only consisted of 0.11% of the overall market. The Singapore Food Agency has also confirmed that the country does not import livestock or raw meat from China. 

The chunk of Chinese food imports come in the form of fruits and vegetables — in which they were second overall to Malaysia in 2013. Even then, as there is currently no evidence linking the spread of the virus to the consumption of food, no restrictions have been placed on food imports from China. 

2. What happens in the event of a food shortage?

Part of the rice stockpile. (Source)

Singapore has a few levels of contingencies in event of a food shortage.

The first level consists of private stockpiles. In March 1968, Singapore implemented a Rice Stockpile Scheme, under which importers are required to maintain a prescribed quantity of rice before they are given a license. Currently, that prescribed quantity amounts to two months worth of imports stored in a private warehouse designated by the government. While the importers continue to own the stock, the government can acquire the stocks during times of emergency. Importers are also responsible for rotating stocks, with any batch of stock allowed to be stored for a maximum of one year. Bigger importers like NTUC Fairprice can keep the rice at their own warehouses. Theoretically, this means that Singapore would have a two month surplus of rice to fall back on at any point in time.

Next, there is the national stockpile that has been alluded to multiple times by officials. In a response to the recent panic buying, Minister Chan Chun Sing talked about how Singapore’s supply lines are still intact and how there is a “national stockpile for essential items.” While details about this stockpile are scarce, we know it might consist of items like infant milk powder. It is also the same stockpile that the N95 and surgical masks were drawn from. 

While the stockpile is being used, a search for alternate sources would also probably be underway. To see this system in action, we can look at the government’s response to the 2013 haze crisis. As an increase in demand for N95 masks led to risks of a shortage, the Defense Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) was activated to source for additional supplies. DSTA tapped the global network of MINDEF’s Defence Technology Offices in Europe and the US and referred to past purchase data to identify all potential sources of supply. Within five working days, DSTA managed to establish the contracts for S$24 million worth of masks from various sources and saved up to S$14 million as compared to market pricing. A similar strategy could be employed during a food shortage. 

3. Why is the government being vague about the national stockpile?

Minister Lam Pin Min visiting one of the warehouses holding the mask stockpile. (Source)

Information about what’s in the national stockpile and how much of it is present seems to be hard to find. While we know for sure that there are 16 million N95 masks, surgical masks and other “essentials,” we don’t know what these essentials consist of. One document for example says that Singapore has stocked up on infant milk powder in preparation of influenza pandemics. But apart from that, little about the stockpile is known.

The reason for this secrecy might be attributed to national security considerations — with other stockpiles around the world being similarly vaguely defined. The exact number of warehouses, the contents and the locations of the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) isn’t public information either. Describing the reason for the SNS’s secrecy, Rocco Casagrande, managing director of Gryphon Scientific says: “If you know what’s in it, you know what’s not in it, which could suggest some vulnerabilities. It would describe exactly which attacks we don’t have preparations for.” Similarly, by releasing specific information about Singapore’s stockpiles (which would inevitably be used during times of conflict or turbulence) the government risks compromising its own capabilities.

4. What about medical and industrial supplies?

Apart from food items and masks, Singapore also has stockpiles for medical and industrial supplies.

The SARS epidemic in 2003 was a valuable lesson for Singapore. With personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and waterproof gowns in short supply during the epidemic, the government has started to maintain stockpiles of PPE sufficient for at least 5 to 6 months use by all frontline healthcare workers. The Ministry of Health (MOH) has also stockpiled antiviral drugs that act against both the influenza A and B viruses and vaccines.

There are also measures to ensure that Singapore’s industries aren’t impacted during a large scale disruption to supply lines. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) manages a sand stockpile, while there have also been granite stockpiles held by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) in the past. Private power-generating plants are also required by law to keep 90 days of fuel oil stock as backup for oil-fired power plants.

5. So is there actually a need to stock up on necessities?

A NTUC FairPrice store after the increase in DORSCON level. (Source)

While many of these contingencies have not been put to the test or used before, theoretically, they are pretty robust. There are definitely enough safeguards to protect Singaporeans against potential supply issues that might arise due to the 2019-nCov situation. In other words, there is no need for you or your family members to rush down to a supermarket to create your own stockpile. Chances of supply lines being affected are low in the first place, and there are private and national stockpiles as fail-safes. 

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