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Putting Food on the Table
Innovation

Putting Food on the Table

10 May 2016

As a small, highly-urbanised island with no agricultural hinterland, Singapore depends heavily on imported food to keep its population healthy and well fed. Over 90% of the food on our tables is imported, with local farmers producing only 8% of the vegetables and fish, and 26% of the eggs eaten in Singapore.

 

On the surface, there appears to be no reason for concern – Singapore is ranked second on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index, and first in Asia – but Singapore’s near-total reliance on imported food makes Singapore’s food security vulnerable. Risks include pest or disease outbreaks in suppliers’ country, supply chain interruptions and higher local demand that reduces the amount of food for export.

 

On a macro level, food security is a major challenge in Asia, which is already home to 67% of the world’s undernourished people. The nature of the challenge is also changing due to the region’s expanding middle class. As the region becomes wealthier, this middle class will consume more food, which will require more land, energy and water.

 

Without an increase in supply, the growing demand and strain on resources will push up food prices, and the above risks potentially damage Singapore’s food security. It is vital that Singapore develops a reliable domestic food source.

 

Growing local food security

 

To address this challenge, Professor Paul Teng, Principal at the National Institute for Education, points to urban farming. He said: “The question is not `should we do urban farming’, but `how much urban farming should we do?’”

 

As if answering this question, a number of urban farms have emerged in Singapore over the past five years, showing what Singapore can do for its own food security. 

 

Sky Greens, the world’s first low-carbon, hydraulic-driven vertical farm, launched its first prototype in 2011. From an initial batch of 205 vertical growing towers, the company now has over 1,000 towers in Singapore, and additional facilities in Thailand and China.

 

Growing greens on a land-scarce island

 

In the bustling metropolis that is Singapore, a wave of urban farming is slowly but surely changing the way urbanites perceive farming. Photojournalist Ray Chua takes a closer look at one of Singapore’s vertical farms.

Land-scarce Singapore is more reliant on food imports than many other countries in Asia. While community gardens within residential spaces exist, these are not adequate as a food source. Agricultural production requires scale and efficiency. To overcome this, Singapore-based Sky Urban Solutions Holding Pte Ltd created the world’s first low carbon, hydraulic-driven vertical farm – Sky Greens, located in Singapore’s Lim Chu Kang.
Sky Greens launched its first vertical farming prototype in 2011. Since its first installment of 205 vertical growing towers, Sky Greens’ farm facility has added over 1,000 production and R&D towers. In collaboration with clients and partners, it has even ventured overseas, with another 192-tower facility in Hainan, China and a 16-tower facility in Thailand. Each tower houses an aluminum tower frame, hydraulic system, water basin, growing trays and planter boxes where its crops are cultivated.
Compared to traditional farms, the towers’ controlled environment allows crops to be produced year-around, without being affected by weather changes. The tiered vertical farm also means better yield per plot of land. The farm currently produces more than 1.2 tonnes of leafy vegetables daily, which accounts for 1% of Singapore’s consumption. Asian leafy vegetables such as Nai Bai, Cai Xin, Xiao Bai Cai, Mao Bai, Japanese Mizuna, Purple Cai Xin and Kale make up Sky Greens’ main crops. When Sky Greens’ farm facility expands to 2,000 towers, it will produce enough leafy vegetables to feed up to 4% of Singapore's population when it runs at full capacity.
The tower houses are maintained by an operating team and engineer team. The Farm Operating Team monitors and optimises greenhouse ambient conditions, vegetable growing media and water quality on a routine basis, in order to ensure that the key process parameters are in place, while the Engineering Team focuses on new greenhouse structure, integration with artificial lighting technology, farming process automation, as well as remote control and data logging.
The photo above shows a supervisor from the operating team monitoring the insect count at regular intervals so as to tweak environmental controls to reduce the insects found in the farm systems.
Sky Greens’ operations team is also involved in all research areas, with a plant scientist and a chief engineer running the show. The research focuses on horticulture, conducting trial cultivation using different media and nutrient types, and continually improving the farm’s patented systems. The above photo shows a researcher testing soil acidity to ensure it is at the right level for optimum plant health and yield.
Currently, Sky Greens’ vegetables are sold exclusively at selected NTUC Fairprice outlets. Homemakers who prefer the freshness and higher quality of local produce make up the majority of their customers. To ensure their customers get the freshest greens on their plates, vegetables from the vertical farm are seal-packed immediately after they are harvested, reducing possible damage from transportation and delays.
After being harvested and packed, racks of greens are immediately sent to the stores. Because vertical farming system’s design allows them to be sited nearer to populated centres, it further shortens the farm-to-store time, hence allowing consumers to enjoy the taste of enhanced freshness and a higher product quality.

Moving forward, Sky Urban Solutions will build an Urban SG100 Agripolis to harness the agricultural potential of urban spaces, to achieve our national goals in food security and resilience. Through research and development, it will meet more than 30% of green leafy vegetable consumption in Singapore, with just 20ha of land. 

 

Artist impression provided by Sky Urban Solutions.

Another urban farm company, Comcrop, opened in 2014 as the country’s first rooftop farm, and runs training courses and a volunteering program to build local farming skills and knowledge.

 

These farms produce leafy vegetables such as Nai Bai, Cai Xin and Kale, as well as varieties of basil, mint and Wasabi greens. However, their output is still small, for now. Sky Greens estimates that after it completes its 2,000-tower facility, it could supply leafy vegetables for up to 4% of Singapore's population, while Comcrop supplies about 2% of the local market’s herbs and greens.

 

Although urban farming will not completely satisfy Singapore’s food demands anytime soon, Niyati Gupta, CEO and Co-Founder of Comcrop advises it “will provide an important buffer (in food security) in the case of supply disruptions.”

 

A sustainable food supply?

 

Given the small contribution that Singapore’s urban farms make to the national diet, questions remain about whether the sector is sustainable. Prof Teng acknowledges the business case still needs to be made, otherwise the sector will not survive market competition to offer cheaper vegetables to local customers.

 

Suggesting there is a business case, Jack Ng, Sky Greens’ CEO and Founder argues urban farming delivers food supply more securely than traditional open field agriculture, due to higher land productivity, lower water and energy use, and reduced danger of disease and pests in a controlled environment. It also involves lower transport costs and wastage, reflecting higher efficiency. Nonetheless, Sim notes that agricultural production requires scale, and that vertical farming can be set up on building facades, green buffer zones and industrial estates to boost production.

 

Urban farming is not without its challenges as well. Comcrop’s Gupta  points out a major barrier to entry: “The technology is expensive, so there is a higher start-up cost and upfront investment.”   

 

In order to overcome this challenge and support the sector, Prof Teng believes government support is needed. He recommends that the government conducts studies on the business case of urban farming, promotes community farming, and offers incentives for R&D.

 

R&D support is particularly important: despite its overall high food security ranking, Singapore scores poorly on the Global Food Security Index (12.5/100) for public expenditure on agricultural R&D. Public sector support in this area could focus on technological innovation, and investigating opportunities for low-space, high-value plants. These moves would address the entry barrier, boost supply and productivity, and support the efficient use of space.

 

Importantly, even if urban farming remains focused on local food security, this technology could become an important export. Ng recommends “transforming and upgrading traditional farmers with the collective and systemic embracement of modern technology”, such that Singapore could help improve food security throughout Asia.

 

With Asia’s urban population projected to grow 61% from 2.0 billion in 2014 to 3.3 billion in 2050, urban farming will surely be a key part of ensuring regional food security. Vertical, rooftop and community farms currently make a small but encouraging contribution to supplying safe and affordable food to Singaporean tables. With expansion and technological development, they could help feed not only Singapore, but also cities throughout Asia.