By Richard Hartung
Living amidst the urban jungle in Singapore, even the idea of farming here may seem a bit ludicrous. Surprisingly, though, Singapore produces nearly 10 percent of its own food. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said there were 194 vegetable, fish and egg farms here in 2018, with the 12,200 tons of leafy vegetables grown locally last year making up 13 percent of all leafy vegetables consumed in Singapore and 4,600 tons of locally produced fish, accounting for nine percent of the fish people eat.
This level of production is small compared to what will happen before long, though, as the agricultural sector is set to soar. Feeling that Singapore is exposed to volatility in the global food market, exemplified by Malaysia threatening to cut off egg imports recently, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Masagos Zulkifli, says the Singapore Food Agency has set a “30 by 30” target of producing 30 percent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030.
This new strategy doesn’t mean farms will suddenly be sprouting up in your neighborhood. Indeed, the government is shutting down many of the farms in the Kranji Countryside farm area to make way for the military and allowing just some of them to be leased as land for farming in Lim Chu Kang.
Instead of using more land, agriculture is shifting to focus on using agri-tech and innovation to produce more food in less space. As Zulkifli stated, “To get to the ‘30 by 30 vision’ will require our agri-food industry to adopt new solutions to raise productivity, apply R&D, strengthen climate resilience and overcome our resource constraints. We need new paradigms in the agri-food industry.”
Part of the impetus for innovation will come from the Singapore government. The government’s Research Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC), for instance, is allocating S$144 million for research related to food. Moreover, Enterprise Singapore is deploying its investment arm, Seeds Capital, to work with seven partners to coinvest more than S$90 million in Singapore-based agrifood startups that they expect will create disruptive food and agritech solutions.
Singapore has chosen two particular sectors in agritech, according to Future Food Asia Platform founder, Isabelle Decitre: aquaculture and indoor farming. Already, new ventures in those sectors are paving the way.
Sustenir, for example, provides locally-grown high-quality produce to outlets such as Cold Storage, Jason’s Marketplace and Redmart. It uses modern hydroponics and the latest technology to produce crops such as strawberries and kale.
Artisan Green also uses hydroponics in a controlled indoor environment to grow fresh greens in the heart of Singapore, with a target of harvesting two tons of spinach every two to three weeks. Crops are grown in trays on six tiers of vertical metal racks and the farming method saves about 95 percent of the water that would be used in traditional soil-based farming.
On the aquaculture side, Apollo Aquaculture has a three-story automated fish farming facility that provides quality, live seafood and it is building an eight-story facility to produce grouper and shrimp. You can have their seafood delivered, or even go to visit their facility in Seletar. Barramundi Asia, which was actually founded more than a decade ago, uses large sea cages and innovative technology to raise Asian seabass in the waters off Pulau Semakau.
Many of the high-tech farms may well end up in a new 18-hectare agri-food innovation park that is being built in Sungei Kadut as part of efforts to grow the food and agritech sector. Anecdotal evidence indicates that some of the innovation may also happen in what were once bio-medical research labs at One North, many of which have reportedly been converted to research labs for agriculture.
Beyond growing the types of food it produces now, Singapore is also looking at becoming a global hub of agritech innovation. According to Today, venture capital firms known more for betting on the next Alibaba or Grab, are starting to get in on the action and are investing in innovative agri-food tech startups. Venture capital firms, such as Decitre’s ID Capital, and accelerators, such as Yield Lab, which mentors agri-food startups, are just a few of the investors powering the sector.
One example of those innovators is Alchemy Foodtech, which created a low glycemic index (GI) fiber that can be added to rice, bread and noodles to lower the GI of the food product without compromising the taste. Another is Life3 Biotech, a food-tech startup that has developed a plant-based meat alternative called Veego.
Even though Singapore won’t have enough local food production to feed the entire population, as it did until the 1960s, there will be a lot more locally grown food available here soon. The vegetables and fish you buy in the store may actually be local and, in some cases, you can visit the farm where it was grown.