The future of agritech: Inside Singapore’s vision for food security

By Justin Tan

Melvin Chow, Senior Director, Food Infrastructure Development & Management Division, Singapore Food Agency, discusses the role of high-tech urban farms.

Early last year, Covid-19 restrictions led to hordes storming supermarkets. Eggs, butter, and even toilet paper were flying off the shelves.

As a small city-state with limited resources, Singapore is especially vulnerable to such disruptions. It imports over 90 per cent of its food from other countries, and only one per cent of its land is set aside for agricultural use. How can it ensure its food supply remains stable amid today’s volatile world?

Local farms are turning to tech to increase food production. Melvin Chow, Senior Director, Food Infrastructure Development & Management Division at Singapore Food Agency (SFA), shares how that’s bolstering the city-state’s food security.

Stacking production

Singapore aims to produce 30 per cent of local nutritional needs by 2030. To reach the goal, the country will increase local production of commonly consumed food such as fish, eggs and vegetables. These are also more perishable and vulnerable to supply disruptions, Chow says.

With limited land spaces and resources, the nation needs to optimise the limited land resources they have through “intensifying each unit area”, he adds.

A local farm, Sustenir Agriculture is using tech to optimise farming spaces. It uses LED lighting to grow vegetables indoors across multiple floors. Their system is designed to fit into existing multi-storey buildings such as industrial areas, eliminating the need for specialised new compounds to be built.

These indoor farms will be more “resilient to some of the impacts of climate change”, Chow says. Urban farmers can incorporate sensors which will help to ensure factors like air quality, light, and water are optimally balanced.

Apollo Aquaculture Group is another local innovator that is maximising production with eight floors of vertical fish farms.

Each floor will be equipped with a tank system that will purify, monitor and recirculate water within the farm. Only five per cent of the water will need to be replaced when contaminated by fish waste. That reduces water wastage compared to traditional farms that regularly clean out whole tanks, reported Smithsonian Magazine.

Such innovative farms help to produce up to 10 to 15 times more food product per hectare as compared to traditional farms, Chow says.

To overcome land constraints, SFA is also looking to use alternative spaces for farming. The rooftops of multi-storey car parks have been used to grow vegetables. Citiponics, one such farm in the Ang Mo Kio neighbourhood, sells pesticide-free vegetables and provides job and training opportunities for senior residents.

These community farms will help to raise public awareness and support for local produce, Chow told CNA.

Sustainable farming

To encourage more sustainable farming methods, the SFA recently launched a new agricultural standard for local farms. This will ensure farms are using resources efficiently and recycling waste. Non-edible crop waste, for instance, can be used for composting before it is disposed of.

Singapore currently incinerates up to 95 per cent of food waste, which is a “waste of resource”, Dr Per Christer Lund, Science and Technology Counsellor at Innovation Norway told GovInsider.

Food waste can be converted into animal feed - recycling nutrients back into the food production loop, Chow says. SFA is looking to improve the efficiency of tech that can convert food waste into animal feed, Chow says.

The National Environment Agency is moving to support this, as large restaurants and food factories will have to segregate their food waste for treatment from 2024.

Singapore is also hoping to encourage “green citizenry” that consumes and wastes less, Chow says. Singapore’s Green Plan 2030 - a nationwide agenda to advance sustainable development - plans to educate youths on sustainable living habits, reported CNA.

Support for the industry

SFA is providing funding for the adoption of innovative tech. Last year, the organisation launched a “30x30 Express” grant which offered SG$39.4 million (US$29.1 million) to nine high-tech farms to boost local food production.

One of the farms, I.F.F.I, will set up an indoor vegetable farm that uses AI to monitor the growth of produce. It will also set up a water treatment system that reduces the amount of bacteria and extends the shelf life of crops, reported The Straits Times.

SFA’s SG$60 million (US$44.4 million) Agri-Food Cluster Transformation fund also encourages farms to adopt tech-enabled and sustainable farming practices, Chow says.

As the farming industry transforms, the workforce will need to be trained. Young people must also be attracted to join the industry. “By 2030, we expect about 4,700 jobs to be created and upskilled in the agri and aqua-tech food industry,” Chow says.

On this, the agency is working with local farms and institutes of higher learning to roll out internship programmes and diploma courses. 20 students studying aquaculture at local polytechnics have been placed in internships at ten local fish farms, SFA reports.

Existing workers in the sector, or workers looking to make a switch can take the SkillsFuture Continuing Education and Training courses, Chow says. The courses include part-time diplomas in aquaculture and agriculture technology.

The turbulence of the past year has underscored the need for governments to bolster food security. Innovative and sustainable farms will help Singapore reduce its reliance on food imports.

Images by the Singapore Food Agency