The need to secure food during a crisis and preserve land for a livable climate is changing the focus of farming from rural areas to cities. At the forefront of this shift is Singapore, a city-sized country that aims to produce 30% of its own food by 2030. But with 90% of Singapore’s food coming from abroad, the challenge is a tall order. The plan calls for everyone in the city to grow what they can, with government grants going to those who can use technology to yield greater amounts.
“This target took into consideration the land available for agri-food production and the potential advances in technologies and innovation,” said Goh Wee Hou, the director of the Food Supply Strategies Department at the Singapore Food Agency. “Local food production currently accounts for less than 10% of our nutritional needs.”
The food items with potential for increased domestic production include vegetables, eggs, and fish. According to the Singapore Food Agency, these three types of goods are commonly consumed but are perishable and more susceptible to supply disruptions. Alternative proteins such as plant-based and lab-grown meats could also contribute to the “30 by 30” goal. In 2020, there were 238 licensed farms in Singapore.
Only 1% of Singapore’s land is being used for conventional farming. That created the constraint of growing more with less. The government has put its hopes in technology, stating that multi-story LED vegetable farms and recirculating aquaculture systems can produce 10 to 15 times more vegetables and fish than conventional farms.
Since 2017, land has been leased in two districts on the edge of the city—Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah—to large-scale commercial farm projects. While the optimization of these farms to produce at maximum capacity is being determined, the idea of growing food in the more urban spaces of Singapore has emerged: from carpark rooftops to reused outdoor spaces and retrofitted building interiors.
Urban farms in Singapore
1. Urban farms using hydroponics on parking structure roofs
Citiponics is one of Singapore’s first rooftop farms. The farm is on top of a carpark, a structure that services almost every neighborhood in Singapore.
2. Installing urban farms into existing buildings
Sustenir Agriculture has created an indoor vertical farm that can retrofit into existing buildings (including office buildings). The company grows foods that can’t be produced locally, displacing imports and cutting carbon emissions.
3. Building a better greenhouse for urban farms in tropical climates
Natsuki’s Garden is a greenhouse in the center of the city, occupying reused space in a former schoolyard. The greenhouse is custom designed for the tropical climate to allow for better air circulation. Yielding 60-80 kg of food per square meter, the greenhouse caters to a small local market.
High production urban farms still need to be sustainable
Open to applications later this year, a new $60 million government fund will provide funding for more agritech businesses. According to the Singapore Food Agency, the fund will assist with start-up costs catering to large-scale commercial farms, no matter the location.
But as Singapore tries to advance, there are some left behind. The traditional farms that do exist in Singapore are being displaced, their knowledge no longer valued because they are not seen as hi-tech, according to Lionel Wong, the founding director at Upgrown Farming Company, a consultancy that helps equip new farming business owners across Singapore. “While we are trying to increase production, the net result could actually be reduced production because the traditional growers are being removed from the equation in the long term.”
In the long-run, high production of food within Singapore will need a sustainable market of consumers, to Wong that market isn’t completely clear at the moment. “‘30 by 30’ is really just a vision. The Food Agency deserves a lot of credit in terms of what they’re trying to push, but there’s a lot of room for improvement.” Wong continued, “productivity doesn’t necessarily equate to sustainability or profitability.”
Whether Singapore is able to produce its own food sustainably for the long-run remains to be seen. But the endeavor is certainly an exciting moment for entrepreneurs pushing the boundaries of what farming and cities can be.