By Anna Simpson
Unlike its neighbors, Singapore does not consider itself an agricultural nation. Rightly so – for now, at least. Whereas Malaysia is self-sufficient in poultry, pork and eggs, cultivates fruit such as mango and papaya for domestic consumption, and exports cocoa, cereals and flour – Singapore depends on imports for 90 percent of its food. Too many people and not enough land has long been the situation, but are perceptions of what’s possible within limited resources about to change?
Michael Doherty thinks so. He’s the founder of a U.S.-based company called Bitponics that aims to simplify local growing, using sensors to measure pH levels, nutrients, temperature and humidity. In 2013 he came to Singapore for a residency with the Art-Science Museum, exploring local responses to ‘aquaponics’ – a closed-loop system to grow edible plants in nutrient-rich water. (The detritus in the water is eaten by little fish, whose excrement in turn nourishes the plants.) Doherty focused on the aesthetics of the system, looking to improve its cultural fit by working with local artisans and materials.
Since then, he’s been working with the startup Homegrw to turn the concept into a local reality – and it’s taking root. By the time Chinese New Year came around, the startup had rice and red fruit at the ready, grown at the People’s Park Complex in Chinatown. “Didn’t we say these systems produced culturally relevant food?” – the team boasted to hundreds of fans on Facebook.
The challenge, for Doherty, is familiarity. “There is a huge disconnection between food and how it is produced. I’ve worked with many students here. When they plant a seed and see it grow, and then in a few weeks have a head of lettuce, it’s like magic to them…”
One customer is Bjorn Shen, a Singaporean who trained as a chef in Australia, then came back to found the restaurant Artichoke – the first in the country to have a kitchen garden. He’s also expressed an interest in sourcing ingredients from Comcrop, another aquaponic vegetable and fish farm, occupying 6,000 square feet of roof space in the middle of the shopping district on Orchard Road. It will be a more pricey source than the supermarkets, but Shen says he is willing to pay a premium for a fresh harvest. “We believe in quality first ... as long as customers are willing to pay a bit more for something of great quality.”
Comcrop claims it can produce eight to 10 times more than traditional farms over the same area. But urban farming at significant scale will require a more mainstream change of mindset. Signs of one are emerging. Speaking at a food industry convention in October 2013, the Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, announced a further investment of SGD 10 million (c. $7.9 million) for research and development in local food farming technology, the production capability of local farms and food source diversification. He encouraged the industry to “leverage” this fund to “boost Singapore’s food supply resilience," particularly in chicken, pork, fish, eggs, leafy vegetables and rice.
Local production is a “core component of our food security roadmap," said Ms Tan Poh Hong, CEO of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which runs the national Food Fund. “Local farms can provide a buffer in times of sudden import disruptions, and serve as a platform to test-bed agricultural innovations to increase food supply. Having an active local farming sector also ensures that commercial farming skills and expertise within the country are not lost.” She also spoke of the need “to imagine what the future of farming would be like," asserting that “farmscrapers” are already being tested around the world. Plantagon, a Swedish company, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Nanyang Technological University to develop the first tropical prototype of their planting system for Singapore, she noted.
In major cities cross the world, authorities are exploring the possibility of urban farming at scale. Vancouver has allocated funding to increase city and neighbourhood food assets by 50 percent over 2010 levels by 2020, raising the number of urban farms from 17 to 35 by 2020, and the number of community garden plots from 3,640 to 5,000. Its goal is simply to develop a just and sustainable food system – and become the greenest city in the world.
By contrast, in Rosario, Argentina, urban farming is seen as a means to redevelop the economy, provide employment, empower women, and discourage squatting on vacant land. Here, the drive comes from the U.N.’s Urban Agriculture Program, which is working with local businesses and organizations, funded by the local authorities.
Whether the goal is food security, jobs and skills, empowering women or winning global renown, leaders expect more from their investment in urban food production than simply home-grown pak choi on demand. With new research, published in Nature Climate Change, to show that global warming of only 2°C will reduce yields in temperate and tropical regions from the 2030s, I suspect they’re right to do so.
At 33m below ground, they start with a constant temperature of 16°C. Banks of LED lights, switched on 18 hours a day, give off enough heat to raise this to 20°C, ideal for plant growth. The plants grow in trays, with nutrient-rich water fed hydroponically to their roots, on a 3cm substrate of hemp and recycled carpet. Post-harvest, they’ll recycle this again, locally, as biomass fuel.
Hydroponics, says Ballard, is 70 percent more water-efficient than conventional growing. Electricity needs, mainly to run the lights and electric delivery vehicles, are currently sourced from renewables through Good Energy, but a community-based solar project could take over in time. Nutrients are all organic. Air traps keep out pests. The produce from their tests has passed taste and freshness tests with flying colors. Distribution? One mile down the road to market at New Covent Garden, from where it could be eaten anywhere in London within a day.
Testing the concept took two years, Ballard explains, but interest surged as soon as they went public. With their pitch on crowdfunding site Crowdcube going strongly, he’s confident they’ll meet their first year’s £1 million funding target. Yearround production down on the farm is set to begin this autumn on 1000m2 of three-tier growing benches.
Their first tunnel site, leased for 25 years from Transport for London (TfL), should allow them space for a further six-fold expansion. And after that? TfL has seven more spare tunnels, says Ballard, but Zero Carbon Food has other urban growing ambitions too, such as vertical farming in converted high-rise blocks. Their key asset, it seems, is the ability to think laterally about land.