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Canada and Singapore must put more (food) on the table

Authored by Wayne Farmer, President of the Canada-ASEAN Business Council

As a land scarce nation which imports over 90% of its food supply, Singapore requires reliable and trusted food sources. Canada, with its vast farmland and abundant agricultural output, is the world’s 5th largest food exporter. Despite this apparent supply and demand synergy, Canada does not rank in the top 25 food importers to Singapore. Countries such as Belgium, Ghana, and Mexico sell more food here. In an era of geopolitical upheaval, volatile trade policy and climate change, it’s time for Canada to play a much larger role in Singapore’s food security.

Recognizing its food challenge, the Singapore Food Agency is pursuing three broad strategies, also known as Food Baskets: Growing Locally, Diversifying Food Sources, and Growing Overseas. Canada can be a partner for all three strategies, but greater cooperation on the second and third baskets may pay the largest dividends.

While diversifying sources is a necessary policy, recent events have made it obvious that not all exporter countries are equally reliable. We are witnessing in real time the commitment, or the lack of it, to free and open trade by governments all over the world. Perhaps more concerning is that climate change will impact the ability of some major food exporting nations to Singapore to sustain their production. In this context, Singapore must choose its partners wisely, not only based on proximity or current trade flows, but also on food production models for the future, and on shared values for long-term stability.

Like Singapore, Canada is a committed free trader, by necessity as much as principle. The country produces far more than it can consume and finding markets is essential to its economic prosperity. Take, for example, the agricultural province of Saskatchewan, located in the Canadian prairies. With a population 1/5th of Singapore, it occupies a territory almost the size of Texas – about 910 Singapore’s could fit inside its borders. This one Canadian region exported 19 billion Singapore dollars’ worth of agricultural goods in 2021, including essential cereals, oilseeds, and pulses, such as peas and chickpeas. Other Canadian regions produce huge amounts of soy, meat, dairy, potatoes, and seafood. And there is still plenty of room to grow.

These incredible natural resources are backed by an R&D system that has grown alongside Canada’s agricultural industry over more than a century. In recent years, Canada has doubled down on alternative proteins, demonstrated by the establishment of Protein Industries Canada, one of five Global Innovation Clusters funded by the Government of Canada. Since 2018, PIC and industry partners have invested more than SGD $500 million into Canada’s plant-based food sector. These initiatives have created momentum in the sector, but Canada needs partners to bring its products to the world.

This leads to the third pillar of Singapore’s food strategy, Growing Overseas. Singapore is explicit in its support for its food production companies to internationalize. By venturing out, “companies can overcome land and manpower constraints, and access new and bigger markets.” In this way, opposites really do attract – Canada’s agri-food sector has room to grow but needs capital, while Singapore has capital but little room to grow. The potential for this relationship is exemplified by Singapore-based Agrocorp International’s investments in Canada. A long-standing commodity trader, Agrocorp has established multiple processing facilities in Canada, with the end product sold in Singapore and around South and Southeast Asia. Their success in sourcing safe and high-quality products has led them to establish their own food brand, HerbYvore, targeted to Asia’s growing plant-based protein market. There is room for many more companies like Agrocorp to prosper in Canada while contributing to Singapore’s food security.

So, what can we do to ensure more Canadian food makes it to Singaporean plates?

First, let’s drive the Canada-ASEAN FTA forward with speed. While tariffs are not a significant impediment to Canada-Singapore agri-food trade, the deal is a signal that both governments are committed to the relationship. Canada has a long history of under-trading with countries in Southeast Asia, and stands to see a major increase from the FTA. According to a recent economic analysis conducted by the C.D. Howe Institute, the FTA is likely to result in bilateral trade increases of up to $4.3 billion. The agriculture sector stands to benefit the most by the agreement, and much of this trade can be routed to and through Singapore.

Second, Canadian firms should increase their engagement in Singapore. On this point, the Canadian government has redoubled its efforts. During a recent visit, Canadian Minister of International Trade, Mary Ng announced that Singapore would serve as Canada’s Gateway to Southeast Asia, promising more investment in trade promotion. In addition, Canadian provincial governments, such as British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec have established permanent offices in Singapore to promote economic ties. For its part, the Canada-ASEAN Business Council, a Singapore-based organisation that promotes Canadian business interests in the region, has established an Agriculture and Agri-food Committee dedicated to promoting cooperation in the sector. These public and private sector-led efforts are practical and important steps to get more Canadian agri-food firms and products in Singapore and the region.

Finally, Singapore too can encourage greater economic cooperation. Canada’s abundance of agricultural products, stable business environment, and supportive government policies and programs provide tremendous opportunities for Singaporean firms – yet this may not be widely known in the local business community. Proactive steps by the Singapore Government can signal their support for stronger business ties. For example, Singapore could establish a High Commission in Canada, which it currently serves through a non-resident High Commissioner. In addition, Singapore’s economic agencies, Enterprise Singapore and the Economic Development Board (EDB) and major investment entities, GIC and Temasek, all of which have offices in the U.S., could establish a presence in Canada. A diplomatic mission or economic centre in Canada would signal a step forward and commitment toward strengthening trade and investment cooperation between the two countries, including in agri-food and other shared priorities.

Canada and Singapore are long-standing and friendly partners, but it is time to put more on the table. A strengthened trade and investment relationship will support both countries’ economic prosperity and secure Singapore’s food future.


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