Fragrant Frangipani Fans

Clusters of rich, pink flowers decorate its branches, sprinkled among the foliage. Yes, I’m talking about the frangipani tree! I recall that when I was very young, I loved to pick up fallen frangipani flowers and admire them. I’m sure many of you have done the same! I’ve always admired the beauty of the frangipani tree. So, allow me to share more about it with you!

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Photo of the frangipani plant outside the University Health Centre in NUS

There are a few different species of frangipani, which come in a range of colours: red, yellow, white and pink. The species of frangipani commonly found in Singapore is the plumeria rubra. ‘Plumeira’ refers to the genus of the flower, while ‘rubra’ means red in Latin. It first appeared in parts of South and Central America. In Singapore, you can find the frangipani along roadsides, as well as in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It is also found near Buddhist temples as the frangipani plant is a symbol of rebirth.

Interestingly, plumeria rubra produces no nectar, attracts pollinators with a unique floral scent which is more noticeable at night. This is how pollinators are fooled into pollinating the frangipani plants’ flowers. Sneaky, isn’t it?

If you thought that the frangipani plant was completely harmless, you’re about to get a shock! The frangipani tree contains poisonous “milky” sap, even in the leaf stems. This could irritate your skin and cause rashes. To prevent such a case, let’s not pluck leaves or flowers which are still on the frangipani tree! It is important to leave the plant alone so that we may prevent injury to ourselves and preserve the plant’s beauty.

There is a well-known spirit in Singapore – the Pontianak. A figure from Malay lore, she is an Asian vampire hungry for vengeance for wrong-doings to herself after dying during childbirth. She can make even the strongest among us tremble just thinking about her. Perhaps it is her frighteningly long, claw-like nails, or her glowing red eyes. It is said that the fragrant frangipani flower smell will hit your nose at night, right before the Pontianak pounces on her victim. There is little hope of escaping her claws. She sure is spooky!

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Boo! (Art: Chern Ling)

On the flipside, in Singapore’s context, the frangipani flower holds particular significance to the Hindu community. The frangipani flower symbolises love and loyalty to your spouse in Hindu culture. Hence, it is usually included during wedding ceremonies, to welcome the couple as they embark on their journey into marriage and their future together. Frangipanis are also used as decorations and in perfume production.

Evidently, the frangipani is a plant that is deeply rooted in Asian culture. Different cultures could have different perceptions of what the frangipani symbolises. To end off, here is some food for thought: What does the frangipani represent to you?

Written by: Fang Ning

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Singapore’s National Bird

If you have been walking around our “rural” parks and forests, you may have noticed a bright flash of red darting from shrub to shrub. What you have seen is most likely the crimson sunbird! It is an attractive and iconic species that can be found in Singapore.

What is the crimson sunbird?

The crimson sunbird, Aethopyga siparaja is a species of sunbird found in the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and Southern China [1]. It inhabits a wide range of habitats ranging from parks and gardens to forests. Males have a distinctive crimson red plumage on the head, mantle and upper breast while females are drab, with olive green upperparts and yellower underparts [1]. Its diet consists largely of nectar and insects [2].

 

Where can they be found?

While the more common sunbirds such as the olive-backed sunbird can be found in urban areas and parklands, the crimson sunbird is less commonly seen outside of rural parks and forests in Singapore. The best places to find them would be the Central Catchment Nature Reserve or Bukit Timah Nature Reserve [1] which are not too urbanised.

 

The national bird of Singapore?

Back in 2002 [5], this iconic bird was designated the unofficial national bird of Singapore after it emerged winner in a poll organised by the Nature Society. Although nature groups have pushed for its status to be made official, no relevant ministries have declared so. At a dinner held as part of the 6th Asian Bird Fair in 2015 [6], there was a short-lived euphoria when it was mistakenly declared as the official national bird of Singapore. However, the crimson sunbird remains a popular choice as the national bird among Singaporeans.

Parting thoughts

While this species is still quite common in Singapore, they are not as commonly seen as other bird species. Hopefully, with the ongoing greening efforts utilising more native plant species, we will see more of them in our neighbourhood parks and gardens. Giving such an iconic species the official status as the national bird of Singapore would also pique people’s interest regarding Singapore’s natural environment, helping to raise awareness about the rich flora and fauna we have on this sunny island.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this entry! Till next time!

Written by: Ke Yao

References

[1]: https://singaporebirds.com/species/crimson-sunbird/

[2]: B. C. (1992). A Guide To The Common Birds Of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.

[3]: https://fryap.wordpress.com/2014/08/09/crimson-sunbird-in-singapore/#jp-carousel-2183

[4]: https://pixabay.com/photos/sunbird-bird-birds-doi-ang-khang-1863178/

[5]: https://singaporebirdgroup.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/crimson-sunbird-is-now-the-official-national-bird-of-singapore/

[6]: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/is-the-crimson-sunbird-singapores-national-bird-er-not-official-yet

Where the skies are not blue

A field trip! To a farm! That seemed like the kind of things we would only get to experience back in primary school. But the BES freshmen recently had the opportunity to visit a local farm called Sky Greens. Here’s a little bit more about it!

BES students getting a guided tour around the farm

Sky Greens is a vertical farm located in Yio Chu Kang and it was founded in 2010 by Mr Jack Ng. It is the world’s first low carbon and hydraulic driven vertical farm. Woah woah… what does this mean?

Basically, the vegetables are grown on shelves fitted on 9m high structures. How this farm works is that the shelves will rotate throughout the day to ensure that the vegetables on different shelves will receive sufficient sunlight for growth. Rainwater collected on the farm is pumped into the system to allow the shelves to rotate and also irrigate the plants.

Vegetables being grown on shelves

Mr Jack Ng shared that he started this project because he was interested in doing farming after he retired. However, as current farming methods are very labour intensive, he decided to explore better farming methods.

While some farms may use hydroponics, Sky Greens grow their vegetables in nutrient rich compost. The contents of the compost include “Nespresso” recycled coffee grounds, recycled vegetable waste, beneficial microbes, seaweed extract, bean sprout waste, recycled woodchips and chicken manure. It was really amazing how he was able to reuse food waste and incorporated them into his compost, turning waste into something useful instead! Such efforts to reduce waste are truly admirable. In fact, the coffee grounds act as a form of natural insect repellent due to its acidity, thus benefiting the vegetables as well.

More photos pf the farm

The efficiency of this farm also was truly mind-blowing. It required 95% less water, 75% less labour, electricity and 10x more yield compared to an open field vegetable farm.  It honestly sounded too good to be true! Such green solutions are definitely needed, given that the global demand for food is increasing while resources are becoming more scarce. Moreover, the farm produces approximately 500kg of greens per day which are packaged and sold at FairPrice express outlets around the island. The greens sold are mostly what locals consume (Cai Xin, Xiao Bai Cai, Mai Bai etc). In fact, it only takes 4hours for the greens to hit the shelves after being harvested, in comparison to imported produce which can range from 3 days to 3 weeks. (Lim, 2015).

A packet of Nai Bai Cai from sky greens

Mr Jack Ng explained that he wanted to keep his produce organic and not use pesticides to keep the pests away. As such, he resolved this problem by producing “mini vegetables” instead. These mini vegetables are smaller in size than regular vegetables, but also required less time to grow (only 3-4 weeks are required!) By harvesting the vegetables earlier, he would be able to reach the food before the pests, so that no pesticides would be needed. I personally thought that was a pretty genius idea.

Test results proving that the mini-series contained higher levels of Polyphenol, which acts as an                                                                                            antioxidant

Moreover, this mini-series was also found to contain 35% more antioxidants than regular Cai Xin. What struck me as well was his heart behind producing the vegetables this way. Mr Jack Ng shared that he was adamant about not using pesticides as he would only be willing to grow what he would be willing to eat. As a farmer, he had the responsibility over what he was producing, because it was what people were going to consume. Truly, being a farmer is more than just planting crops, but also impacting the health of whoever would be consuming your food!

As a country that imports more than 90% of our food (AVA, 2019), we are heavily dependent on other countries to supply us the food we need. Honestly, that is quite scary, because we definitely cannot sustain ourselves if we were to stop importing food. With urban projects such as Sky Greens, we are certainly heading towards more efficient and sustainable methods of food production and increasing our food security in the long run. What an eye-opening trip!

Written by: Ann Shin

References

LIM, J. (2019). Vertical farming invention wins global award. Retrieved 9 September 2019, from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/vertical-farming-invention-wins-global-award

AVA Vision | AVA Unveils Updated Food Security Roadmap. (2013). Retrieved 7 September 2019, from https://www.sfa.gov.sg/files/avavision/issues3-4_2013/food-security-roadmap.html\

What are the millennials up to lately?

Self-centred, self-absorbed, self-entitled. They are always on their phones, can’t let go of what they love, and seriously, they always think they deserve better in this world.

They are the millennials the society all so frown upon this day… right?

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Article posted by The Straits Times last week!

If you have seen young people watching their instagram feed every moment at noon on 15 March, looking disconnected and dissatisfied with the world, you have probably just encountered someone who has joined the Global Climate Strike 2019 (Tan, 2019). And he or she is probably more conscious about her surrounding and the world than you did at that moment.

Advocating for greater climate action is no longer the sole responsibility of climate scientists or influential businessmen and politicians; the young ones are taking charge, telling the world how the future generations deserve better and how the planet deserve better.

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Greta Thunberg (in yellow) the 16-year-old millennial who started this movement!

The global climate strike was a concerted effort of thousands of students from all over the world. In many of the countries, the students were skipping school and physically coming together to show the grown-ups that one doesn’t need to be rich and powerful to demand a change from the world.

Despite the growing movement towards sustainable development, climate change scepticism still prevails. This clearly shows that we should no longer rely on the scientists and statisticians to persuade the authorities and the general public.

In Singapore, where strikes and protests are not an option, the young people chose to make their voices heard by having a virtual strike on social media.

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Post for the Global Climate Strike from local advocates @theweirdandwild and @tingkats.sg

Several of the climate action and sustainability pioneers in Singapore have also expressed their support for this initiative. Singapore, as the forefront of urban development in Asia, has the ability to lead and set an example on sustainable development for the region (Hermes, 2019). While the booming trend of adopting zero-waste lifestyle such as ditching single use plastic straws and other disposable products used to be criticised as simply a fad, the fact that a growing number of young people have stayed religiously faithful to their commitment shows that the millennials in Singapore are ready to be the change they have envisioned.

Indeed, the millennials are still self-centred, self-absorbed and self-entitled. However, the sense of “self” has grown out of the stereotyped individualism. To the fervent advocates of climate actions and environmental sustainability, they feel the sense of entitlement not for themselves but for the environment, they are so stubborn that they refuse to budge from their pledges to slow climate change and most of all, while the world label millennials to be full of themselves, their belief that every individual has a power to change allow them to push forth many successful ground-up initiatives in the past years.

The strike may be over, but climate change doesn’t stop, and neither should our climate actions!

Written by: Andrea Law

References:

Tan, A. (2019, March 11). Global youth movement on March 15 calling for greater climate action may be held in Singapore as well. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/global-youth-movement-on-march-15-calling-for-greater-climate-action-may-be

Hermes. (2019, March 15). Strike by Singapore students unlikely. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/world/strike-by-spore-students-unlikely

Banking on Sustainability

You might have noticed these sleek white boxes popping up around your town recently:

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Photo: Qiu Jiahui

If you’ve ever been curious enough to peruse their charming infographics, you’ll know that they’re collecting non-perishable food items from the general public, so that they can be delivered to the food insecure population in Singapore, rather than collect dust on mistake-prone shoppers (it happens to the best of us ;)).

I, too, was curious… Curious enough to travel all the way down to their warehouse on Keppel Road, which serves as the headquarters for this simple, spirit-lifting operation!

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Photos: Qiu Jiahui

That’s it! This is where the food you drop off in their boxes is stored, sorted, and carted off to over 300 beneficiaries ranging from family service centres, nursing homes and childcare centres. An office the size of a regular school classroom and a storage space the size of a regular school hallway are where a tiny organization brings their big ambition to life – and the issue at hand is certainly huge. FoodBank Ltd was born when sibling entrepreneurs Nichol and Nicholas Ng discovered the magnitude of Singapore’s food waste problem.

As a land-scarce nation, Singapore has only one landfill for waste disposal – Semakau Landfill, which does not accept organic waste (Tan & Khoo, 2006). Thus, food waste is largely incinerated, generating huge quantities of carbon emissions. In 2002, for example, Singapore produced almost 500,000 tons of food waste, 94% of which was incinerated (Lang, 2008). In 2004, slightly over 300,000 kg of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions were generated per ton of food waste (Tan & Khoo, 2006). The implications of this overwhelming excess on Singapore’s overall carbon footprint are obvious.

Meanwhile, 12-14% of Singaporeans are living under the unofficial poverty line of $1500 in income per month (Loh, 2011), and by extension experience food insecurity.

FoodBank aims to close the gap between these two issues, eradicating their ironic coexistence in a fast-paced, extravagant Singapore. Though we’ve seen the quaint little warehouse where excess goodies from the wealthier spectrum of our society are stored, the real genius in this operation is that it largely takes place on the go. FoodBank knows that powdered Milo, biscuits and candy are far from enough, so in addition to facilitating the donation of non-perishables, its programmes include:

  1. A fresh food truck that collects fruits and vegetables rejected from supermarkets and wholesalers for solely cosmetic reasons,
  2. The Food Rescue Project, which whisks away excess cooked meals from the kitchens of reputable hotels and restaurants, and
  3. Joy in Every Bundle – bundle pledges for members of the public to fund balanced food packages for beneficiaries.

When you think about it, our food is needlessly thrown away through countless pathways, often even before they get the chance to reach our plates. For example, at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, inspectors who need to work quickly will examine fruits and vegetables by the carton, and if they spy even one blemished item, the entire carton is discarded. That adds up. Three times a month, FoodBank’s van dutifully pulls up to the centre, fills to the brim with these fruits and vegetables, and distributes it to rental flats around Singapore. It’s hard not to think of what the situation looked like before FoodBank came along: all these riches, turned to rubbish, and on the same island where thousands of poor are living.

With that in mind, I asked an employee what she thought the organization could really use right now, and the answer is: long-term volunteers. Sorting and organizing the food items requires some training, and having nothing but ad-hoc volunteers means that the staff spends a lot of time teaching new volunteers, only to have them leave in a week. Consistent volunteers would save some of that time, and be able to train up newer ones as well.

If you are interested, do drop by their website and check out how you can get involved:

One more thing: this is going to seem trivial, but if you have a lot of used cardboard boxes around, well, the ones that they have at the warehouse are getting a little worn out. And of course, check out their website to participate in their various programmes, learn more about the food waste issue, and make a donation to help out with transport costs (you may have noticed that there is a great deal of transport involved). Wastage in general is awful, but food waste is downright painful. There’s a hole in our system, and it’s time to plug it.

Written by: Qiu Jiahui

References:

Lang, J. C. (2008) Zero Landfill, Zero Waste: The Greening of Industry in Singapore In Leapfrogging Development In Emerging Asia: Caught Between Greening and Pollution. pp 151-172. New York, New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Loh, J. (2011) Bottom Fifth in Singapore. Social Space. 88-90. Retrieved from https://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1072&context=lien_research

Tan, R. B.H. & Khoo, H. H. (2006) Impact Assessment of Waste Management Options in Singapore. Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 56:3, 244-254, DOI: 10.1080/10473289.2006.10464463

 

Do You Eat to Live or Live to Eat?

There exists two extreme groups of people in this world: those who eat more than they need and those who struggle to get enough to survive. Even if you fall into neither of the groups, we’ve all probably been guilty of food wastage before!

Either way, it is clear that much of humanity’s dietary choices are slowly killing this planet.

The EAT-Lancet Commission recently published a report detailing the environmental unsustainability of a modern-day diet – high in red meat but low in vegetables. According to the UN, livestock contributes to at least 14% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions which is equivalent to the emissions of all vehicles combined! If this is not alarming enough, think about it as being responsible for half the total global GHG emissions by the year 2030.

The reason for this is the large amount of methane emitted by livestock and the need for grains to feed them. On the other hand, having a plant-based diet drastically reduces the level of GHG one would emit. Dr. M. Sanjayan from Vox shared in a video that an average of 330g of CO2 is produced for every serving of beef, 74g for any cheese and 14g of CO2 is emitted for every serving of vegetables or rice and a shocking 2g for lentils.

Before we start accusing Lancet of trying to brainwash everyone into adopting veganism or vegetarianism, this is absolutely not the case!

What the EAT-Lancet Commission is proposing is the adoption of a Planetary Health Diet that is similar to the Mediterranean diet – one that is largely plant-based with moderate consumption of dairy and low consumption of red meat.

Based on the planetary health diet, it is recommended to reduce our food consumption by one serving of red meat per week, one ounce of white meat and fish and a quarter of an egg per day. This is equivalent to simply eating less of one serving of beef rendang, one serving of chicken (as in a plate of chicken rice), one tuna sandwich and 2 eggs every week.

I know it’s difficult… but you can do it!

Here is a food guide for the Planetary Health Diet:

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While it seems stringent, the nutritious value does not fall short of the 2000 kcal needed by an average adult every day.

If changing personal diets can save the planet, then what are we waiting for?

Unfortunately, there are problems equally, if not more pressing, than the sustained high GHG emissions; the global food system impacts not only the rich but also the poor. It is indeed applaudable that the first world countries persist in their pursuit to alleviate issues such as global warming and environmental degradation as a result of the global food system. However, as we overcome these issues through breakthroughs in sustainable food production methods one after another, we must never overlook the fact that there is way more people who are overfed than those that are malnourished in the world.

According to the Guardian, while around 820 million people worldwide are underfed, over 2.6 billion people are at the same time either overweight or obese, and many of these cases arise due to poor dietary choices.

Hence, beyond just informing the world about making better dietary choices, the Planetary Health Diet could potentially be tailored to achieve better food distribution around the world.

This begs the question: how do we make such a radical change to the food systems in the world?

It is not uncommon for individuals to lack motivation when it comes to drastic lifestyle changes. Therefore, more top-down approaches can be adopted to induce a greater change in people. Perhaps, on top of the “healthier choice” label in dining places, dishes that adhere to the Planetary Health Diet guide can be marked out to give consumers a better indication of the better choices that they can make.

So, to all those faced with the first-world problem of deciding what to eat every other meal, the Planetary Health Diet could very well be your solution!

Written by: Andrea

References:

Barclay, E. (2019, January 24). The way we eat could doom us as a species. Here’s a new diet designed to save us. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2019/1/23/18185446/climate-change-planet-based-diet-lancet-eat-commission

Carrington, D. (2018, November 28). Global food system is broken, say world’s science academies. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/28/global-food-system-is-broken-say-worlds-science-academies

Of Changing Colours, Bubble Tea and Ink Jets

One is not like the other… 

 

Did you guess which is the odd one out? If you guessed that the image in the middle is different, you are right! Although similar looking, those are not bubble tea pearls, but rather, cuttlefish eggs. Sounds bizarre? Well, they can be found right here on our Singapore shores!

Cuttlefish belong to the class Cephalopoda, which includes the octopus and more similar-looking squid. So first, how do we tell cuttlefish (Sepiidae family) apart from squids (Teuthida family)? Both of these marine mammals are molluscs, and while they do not have the characteristic shells of clams, they have stiff structures within their bodies.

Squids have a squid pen, which feels somewhat like plastic to the touch.

 

For cuttlefish, they have a porous cuttlebone which is used for buoyancy. It is also used as a calcium supplement for birds, and even acts as casts for metal jewellery as it is easy to carve yet resistant to the high heat of liquid metal.

The streamlined torpedo shape of squids helps them to move quickly in water, while the wider, stout cuttlefish moves more slowly with the rippling long fins along the sides of their bodies. In addition, while squids have round pupils like us humans, cuttlefish pupils are w-shaped.

Now that we know how to better tell apart the cuttlefish from their similar looking squid cousins, what is so special about the cuttlefish?

First, cuttlefish have three hearts which pump greenish-blue blood. This is due to copper-containing proteins which transport blood, as compared to iron-containing haemoglobin proteins in humans. Like other cephalopods, cuttlefish can squirt ink to confuse predators as an escape measure. While cuttlefish are unable to discern colour, they can change their body colours through the use of pigment containing cells called chromatophores. Furthermore, they are able to change their body texture too!

During the mating season, males have to compete to mate with a female, with larger males usually gaining the upper hand and getting to mate. How do smaller males get their shot at reproduction? Some of them make use of their camouflage skills and disguise themselves as females, allowing them to sneak up to females to mate! And that is how these black or white bubble tea, pearl-like eggs are formed 😉 Cuttlefish can be commonly found seasonally on our shores and tend to be found near seagrass meadows. I personally saw a clutch of cuttlefish eggs hatching at the intertidal area of Changi Beach!

While it might seem more accessible to appreciate terrestrial wildlife, it is also possible to get up close with marine or coastal wildlife such as these unique cuttlefish in Singapore! In fact, I managed to see these cuttlefish eggs while on a guided walk through the Changi Intertidal. Some guided nature walk programmes include free walks by NParks, and paid programmes by organizations such as the Lee Kong Chian Musuem and Young Nautilus.

There’s much biodiversity to be found in Singapore, as long as you know where to find them! 😊

Written by: Choo Min

References:

Ebert, Jessica (2005). “Cuttlefish win mates with transvestite antics”. News@nature. doi:10.1038/news050117-9.

Spencer, E. (2018, September 13). How to Tell the Difference Between Squid and Cuttlefish. Retrieved from https://oceanconservancy.org/blog/2017/04/07/how-to-tell-the-difference-between-squid-and-cuttlefish/

Tan, R. (2016, October). Cuttlefishes. Retrieved from http://www.wildsingapore.com/wildfacts/mollusca/cephalopoda/sepiidae.htm

Tan, R. (2016, October). Cephalopods. Retrieved from http://www.wildsingapore.com/wildfacts/mollusca/cephalopoda.htm

Yeo, R. (2012, December 6). Cephalopods (Phyllum Mollusca: Class Cephalopoda) of Singapore. Retrieved from http://tidechaser.blogspot.com/2012/12/cephalopoda-of-singapore.html

The BES Drongos adventures on the Petai Trail and more!