Can high-tech urban farming reduce Singapore’s reliance on imports? | FT Food Revolution
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We’re very much in a perfect storm right now.
We are vulnerable to external shocks and supply disruptions.
The attitude towards food and food security here has changed dramatically.
It’s one of the smallest, most densely populated countries in the world. With less than 1 per cent of its surface dedicated to growing food, the high rise urban island state of Singapore seems an unlikely agricultural hub. But that’s what a new wave of indoor farms aims to create in congested suburbs.
From a modest 162sq m VertiVegies says it can produce more than 10 tonnes of vegetables a year.
Innovation, technology is key because it’s not just so much about growing. It’s really about growing efficiently.
Using specific wavelengths of growth-boosting artificial lights, it’s one of around 260 producers helping a government campaign to boost food security and agricultural technology.
For vertical indoor, controlled environment indoor farming, one of the things that we do is we look for underutilised spaces or dead spaces.
Outdoor spaces are also being repurposed. Redundant properties like this former secondary school, have been cleared to produce and promote home-grown food. City Sprouts covers around 9,000sq m and aims to get city dwellers interested and involved in sustainable food and agriculture. Hobby farmers share allotments with would-be professional growers.
Before you have a farm you actually need almost like a farm space to show a proof of concept before you actually can be a licenced farmer. So we come in terms of offering space.
Launched in 2019, the Singaporean government’s 30 by 30 policy target is to have 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs produced locally by 2030.
Singapore moved away from an agricultural society back in the 60s or 70s and have relied on neighbours from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and China for imports.
Food security is actually a substantial issue for us. Currently, our local food production accounts for less than 10 per cent of our nutritional needs.
As long as supply chains are working, Singapore can afford to buy in food. But panic buying and down shortages in relatively affluent nations over the Covid pandemic proved that supermarket shelves can empty quickly.
We are vulnerable to external shocks and supply disruptions. For example, climate change, disease outbreaks, geopolitical uncertainties.
War in Ukraine, one of the world’s major sources of wheat and cooking oil, has piled yet more pressure on supply chains and global food prices, which surged to record highs in 2022.
It’s a terrible time to have to rely on food imports. We’ve had a wave of protectionist measures over recent years. Those measures began with the Covid-19 pandemic. Now everything has gotten a hell of a lot worse due to the conflict in Ukraine.
Singapore has guaranteed trade agreements and a range of options to source food from more than 170 countries. But around $105mn has been set aside to help expand business opportunities, including urban farming, alternative proteins, and food safety.
I think the realisation is that even though we can afford to buy food, afford the import, either 90 per cent or 70 per cent of food, we need to have some-level of self production here to help us to buffer the period when the disruptions occur. The government policy is not 30 per cent of production, but 30 per cent of our nutrition needs. And this explains why one of the focus areas is alternative proteins because proteins are very nutritious, contribute more than their weight in nutrition value.
Singapore signalled its support for alternative proteins when it became the first country to approve a lab-grown meat product for sale in 2020. And in March, US alternative protein company Eat Just broke ground on a 2.7 hectare, $120mn production facility there. But whatever the food, producing it locally can be expensive.
We would typically be charging a premium over imported crops, just for the fact that the different cost factors are a lot higher in that sense. We’re very much in a perfect storm right now – high costs of energy, high material costs, high manpower labour costs.
Such costs make local indoor produce up to four times more expensive than conventionally-grown imports. But that could change eventually.
With more innovation, more technology adoption, farms getting more efficient, that’s going to be that consolidation of farms across Singapore. And prices will start to balance out as well.
Singapore’s plans are ambitious. And there is no guarantee of success.
Singapore’s efforts, to my mind at least, these sound very innovative. And with you always have a risk that some things pay off, but others don’t. And with Singapore being a rich country, I think there will be a desire if things don’t work to just rely on food imports instead to plug the gap.
But then again, Singapore is no stranger to reinvention. From the 1960s, driven by the power afforded to its quasi-authoritarian government, it transformed from an island colony with virtually no natural resources to a prosperous city-state dubbed the Monaco of the East. If successful, its plan to transform from import reliant consumer to leader in urban and high tech food production could qualify as another economic miracle.