Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Organic food in Singapore

I became interested in organic food after reading Michael Pollan’s two excellent books: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

In an era when sustainability is a major issue, it’s become fashionable to talk about organic food. For the purpose of putting things in a more critical perspective, let’s mention some controversial issues concerning organic food. There are of course, issues associated with labeling organic food. Is USDA labeled organic food really organic food? Does the entry of big business into the organic food industry compromise the spirit of the organic food movement? See The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a more thorough discussion. There is a New Yorker article here. Organic food has ramifications on climate change as well. “Locavore” is a word that is found in the modern lexicon today. “Food miles” is another. But the intelligent eater will know that eating local isn’t necessarily better for the environment.

All of the above suggests that we should approach the topic of organic food carefully, with an open but critical mind. But this post isn’t about the issues surrounding organic food. If you’re interested in the wider issues concerning organic food and industrial food, and more broadly, the modern culture of food, reading the two books mentioned above is a good start.

This post is about the business of organic food in Singapore. Bear in mind that this is a blog, so this post is about my opinions and my perceptions. This isn’t necessarily the truth about the organic food situation in Singapore.

Let’s talk about cost first. Generally, organic food everywhere costs more (in dollars and cents, ignoring externalities) than ‘regular’ food. However, in many countries, organic food is generally still regarded principally as food. In the USA, outside of Whole Foods (which more closely resembles the situation in Singapore, as we shall see), organic food is associated with small farm cooperatives. It may cost more, but a family can still subscribe to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program for a reasonable cost. Eating organic is largely about healthy living, sustainability and caring for the environment.

In contrast, in Singapore, it’s hard to escape the perception that organic food is gourmet food, and, as the luxury industry would call it, an aspirational product.

Why do I say this? Look at the major purveyors of organic food here. Singapore imports most of its food, and organic food retailers are no exception. But what retailers they are! Bunalun, Supernature, L'organic. Distributors of such artisanal brands like Duchy Originals; the food they sell is literally fit for royalty. Their websites are full of pretty pictures, what I like to call gastropr0n (pardon the leet). With prices to match. Unsurprising considering that the food is imported in small quantities by firms that have relatively high profit margins, and that market their products to the upper crust of Singapore society. How do I know that they market mostly to the highest income groups? These organic food stores in Singapore are located at some of the toniest addresses in town: Jalan Merah Saga and Chip Bee Gardens (Holland V.), Dempsey Village (so hip it hurts), and Orchard. And their customer base is composed mightily of expatriates on generous compensation packages. Admittedly, expatriates for the most part are also more well-informed on the benefits of eating organic than local Singaporeans.

The example of Supernature is particularly interesting. It was acquired by Christina Ong, proprietress of Club 21, a multi-label boutique and distributor of numerous luxury brands, owner of the uberluxurious chain of Como resorts, wife of tycoon Ong Beng Seng, and reportedly chummy with the fashion designer Donna Karan. If Supernature isn’t going to be revamped to match the other brands in Christina Ong’s stable, I would be very surprised.

Would I really be off the mark if I described organic food in Singapore as being marketed as an aspirational product?

There are alternatives of course (thankfully), for people genuinely interested in organic food for food’s sake. Bollywood Veggies and Greencircle come to mind. However, here we come to a separate problem. If we survey the complete range of organic food products available here, we see that it is difficult to go fully organic in Singapore, since the range of organic foods isn't as wide as most people would like. This includes raw foods as well as prepared foods. And the cost of going organic is prohibitively high. 

From my very casual and unscientific observations, it would appear that organic food in Singapore has come far, but still has a ways to go. But one thing of concern is that it seems to have taken on a highly aristocratic sheen, which is ironic considering its formerly more humble roots (not that that hasn't happened elsewhere as well). Will the situation in Singapore change for the better? Stay tuned.

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