By Dr. Hermann Klein-Hessling, AVF Member
(Agribusiness and Consultancy Pte. Ltd., 126839 Singapore)
Christine Zimmermann-Loessl, AVF
With a population of about 5.7 million people crammed on a landmass of just 715 square kilometres the tiny Republic of Singapore has been forced to expand upwards, building high-rise residential complexes to house the country’s many inhabitants. However, that’s not all. In recent years, Singapore has become a global leader in applying the vertical model to urban agriculture – experimenting with rooftop gardens and vertical farms in order to feed its many residents and achieving some degree of food security. This desire was further highlighted most recently by the many logistically challenges endured during the early stages of the global Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Currently less than 10% of Singapore’s food is grown locally. The country imports most of its fresh vegetables and fruits daily from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and the China.
AVA (Agriculture and Veterinary Authority) aims to achieve varying levels of self-sufficiency in the three key food items – eggs (30 per cent), fish (15 per cent) and leafy vegetables (10 per cent).
Currently, production levels are at 25 per cent for eggs, 8 per cent for fish and 7 per cent for leafy vegetables.
According to Statista in 2019, “the population of Singapore consumed around 16 kilograms of leafy vegetables per person. The Health Promotion Board of Singapore recommends eating two servings of fruits and two servings of vegetables a day as part of a healthy diet. One serving of vegetable was given as 100 grams of either cooked or raw vegetables. In that same year, the per capita total vegetable consumption in Singapore was 95 kilograms.”
For leafy vegetables, if consuming population in 2030 is 6.34 million, the projected demand is estimated at 101,500 tons, at 16 kg per capita consumption. This is 11,200 tons more than in 2017.
If a 30 per cent leafy vegetable self-production target is set, it would be equivalent to producing 30,400 tonnes. Singapore is already producing 11,800 tonnes, which is 13 per cent of consumption.
That would ask from moving from the current 13 per cent to a higher 30 per cent level requires an additional 18,600 tonnes produced locally.
Other more distant suppliers are regional trading partners like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa but also countries like Israel, EU and nations as far away as from North-, Central- and Brazil in South America.
In recent years, an influx of immigrants has resulted in a rapid growth and crowding of Singapore’s skyline as more and more towering apartment buildings have shoot up. Not surprisingly, what little land was available for farming has been disappearing at a very rapid rate. This created a looming food supply challenge.
The solution to the problem came in the form of a public-private partnership in 2010, with the launch of what has been hailed as the “world’s first low-carbon, water-driven, rotating, vertical farm” for growing tropical vegetables in an urban environment. The result of a collaborative agreement between the then so-called Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA; since April 2019 called SFA = Singapore Food Agency) and Mr. Jack Ng, inventor and founder of a local firm called “Sky Greens” which started commercial operations in 2012. He then presented his vertical farming system also at the “World Cities Summit 2012” under the slogan “Liveable and Sustainable Solutions”.
Later, in October 2014, Sky Green became the proud recipient of the Singapore Sustainability Award presented by the SG Business Federation. One year later, Sky Green’s vertical farming system was then also included in the 2015 “Sustainia 100” ranking which features the most forefront looking companies in innovative sustainability. Ever since, together with many other VF companies, Sky Greens has aimed to popularise and improve urban, vertical farming techniques that are environmentally friendly, truly sustainable and good in producing nutritious, healthy food for the nearby, local communities.
Current Popular Press Media Coverage on Vertical, Urban Farming in Singapore
Since 2020, the rooftops of nine multi-story car parks managed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) have been made available for urban farmers to rent the space and grow crops according to the Singapore Food Agency (SFA).
These are car parks located in housing estates such as Chua Chu Kang, Tampines, Sembawang and Jurong West. In a news release the agency said it is doing this as part of its strategy to achieve Singapore’s “30-by-30” goal – to produce 30 per cent of the country’s nutritional needs domestically by 2030. Launching the nine sites for rental by public tender, the agency said these will add to the various alternative sites in land-constrained Singapore that are marked out for commercial farming. Furthermore, the agency ruled that these rooftop spaces are also in line with HDB’s Green Towns Program to “intensify greening” in public housing estates. “The sites shall be used to farm vegetables and other food crops, as well as for other related purposes, such as the packing or storage of green produce,” SFA said. The allotted rooftop areas range in size between 1,810 to 3,300 sqm and are scattered across the Singapore island.
This month’s announcement comes slightly over a year after the Citiponics urban vertical farm launched its pilot rooftop plot in February of last year.
While previously the SFA did not state what crops have to be grown at rooftop farms, this will be amended in the future. Citiponics has grown popular veggies such as nai ai (baby bok choy), kai lan (Chinese kale) and cai xin (Chinese flowering cabbage).
Mr. Melvin Chow, senior director of SFA’s Food Supply Resilience Division said that he was “heartened by the growing interest” from both the industry and the public towards urban farming in community spaces following the launch of the Citiponics farm. “Residents in the area have been able to enjoy fresh produce from the farm at nearby supermarkets and can witness first-hand the hard work involved in bringing our food from farm-to-fork,” he said. “We hope that consumers will continue to show their appreciation for our local farms by buying their produce.” Urban farmers interviewed by the Singapore newspaper TODAY said that they are looking forward to having more opportunities to cultivate crops in the future.
Mr. Veera Sekaran, founder of the urban and vertical-greenery firm Greenology said that it is ideal to make use of any vacant spaces in Singapore for urban farming. “HDB car parks are usually vacant at the top because many people don’t want to park their cars in the sun,” he said. Turning them into commercial spaces is a viable way for “serious players” to make a business out of urban farming, he added. Mr. Veera, who is considering bidding for one of the newly launched sites, said that he foresees rooftop farms to be high-tech in nature -though it could also involve older residents who have a “passion” for gardening and are looking for part-time work.
Mr. Bjorn Low co-founder of urban farming social enterprise Edible Garden City who has experience running gardens on rooftop buildings said that aside from being under-utilized, car park rooftops have the added benefit of being able to withstand heavy loads. This is unlike older buildings, which would need to have their structures reinforced in order to accommodate soil and “big bodies of water” on the rooftop, he said. Both men agreed that having more space for urban farms would go a long way to ensure Singapore’s food security. Apart from producing food, these farms offer other benefits such as providing work within the community for people in need and serving as a community space for educational purposes. “I think this is a step in the right direction.”
The SFA agency is currently working with the HDB authority to launch more rooftop sites for urban farming by public tender in March of 2021.
High-Tech Vertical Farms to Begin Operations in 2021 and to Bring Fresher, Leafy Greens to Singaporean Plates
(Adapted from: LOW YOUJIN, Published NOVEMBER 17, 2020)
Among eight companies that have accepted Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA’s) so-called 30 x 30 Express Grant for vertical farming are German-based &ever, as well as 2 Singaporean firms called Indoor Farm Factory Innovation (IFFI) and Genesis One Tech Farm (GOTF). The grant will help these companies to accelerate in Singapore’s efforts to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030. Representatives from the three companies said produce prices will be competitive and they will offer Singaporeans fresher and higher quality product.
From 2021 onwards, Singaporeans can expect more of their favorite Asian vegetables to reach their plates quicker and fresher. This is thanks to a slew of high-tech urban farms that are set to begin operations.
For vertical farming company &ever, it can even sell its vegetables “while they are still living”, said the firm’s chief executive officer.
“You don’t need to refrigerate it down to 4°C (to keep it fresh),” he said. “You can actually have it at room temperature when you buy it at the supermarket, and it continues to grow at home. It stays fresh for at least a week.” While having a fully operational indoor farm using the same technology as in Kuwait its Singapore outfit will be capable to grow 1.25 tons/day starting from Oct. 2021.
Importantly, part of the new grant requirements to receive funding nowadays is to grow at least 50% so-called “Asian Greens” like xiao bai cai or kangkong. This may necessitate special seeds, skills and potentially equipment adaptations to successfully cultivate these crops.
Automation and robotics are essential not only to reduce manpower needs, operational cost and to make the work process more efficient but to facilitate scaling up future production. For example, his machines will have the ability to analyze the condition of the plants such as when they will be ready for harvest. Noteworthy is also that IFFI will be using an indoor farming methodology of soil-based cultivation in special type of containers which allows them to have greater flexibility in the variety of crops that they can grow and, thus, better customize depending on market demands. Moreover, it reduces the risk of cross contamination between plants by utilizing a special water treatment system to reduce bacteria.
GOTF is part of the TSL Group which itself is an investment holding and managing company. They use a proprietary, custom-designed hybrid Nutrient Film Technology coupled with 5G energy-saving LED lighting. This is supposed to improve productivity and growth cycle efficiency. The system enables GOTF to recycle more of the water volume commonly associated with operating a hydroponic system. Consequently, further environmental benefits are imminent and realized. The article has a good basic educational value. GOTF explains that vertical farms are taking up far less space compared to a traditional open-air farm. The vertical indoor farms are also not at the mercy of the weather. Moreover, growing conditions such as temperature, humidity and lightning conditions can be replicated so that plants that do not normally thrive in the tropics can be grown indoors instead. Price-wise, the produce will be competitive but not cheaper than the vegetables imported from Malaysia or other nearby countries. However, they will definitely be fresher and of higher quality. It also offers a better alternative compared to imports from far away countries. The company hopes to provide jobs for Singaporeans as well. It is exploring hiring residents living around the area on a part-time basis and is also in discussions with an institution supporting the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. Furthermore, GOTF is contemplating the idea for customers to buy directly from their growing facility.
To summaries, the Covid-19 pandemic has reinvigorated the interest and commitment into vertical farming of the local government and authorities in Singapore. The aim is to achieve a self-sufficiency of 30% by 2030. All forms of urban, vertical farming are receiving strong support from the governments as well as the general public. The image and reputation of the vertical farming industry and their contribution towards nutritious, healthy and sustainable production for fresh letters and vegetables is generally very favorable and promising.
The fresh produce market opportunity in Singapore
Recent trends have shown Singaporean retailers sourcing more agriculture products beyond the region to meet the 5.5 percent annual increase demand of the local markets. Products range from generic to high-end organic foods.
Other interesting details:
- Singapore’s retail food sector is among the most advanced in the world.
- The mature nature of its mass grocery retail sector means retailers must be highly innovative to remain competitive.
- Singapore has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, presenting a high level of consumer purchasing power.