Benjamin Swan, co-founder and CEO of Sustenir Agriculture, is an Australian living in Singapore who wanted to find a way to grow produce for his own salads. “I’d buy a bag of [imported] lettuce and within 24 hours you could literally watch the produce melt in the bag. It was just because of the time it took to get to us.” The exorbitant carbon footprint it takes to import food from abroad pushed Swan to consider indoor farming. “We have this centralized farming system, which is based on geographic constraints. One kilo of lettuce imported from Australia generates 7.2 kg of carbon. We can focus on these imports, displace that carbon emission and waste.” According to Swan, one kilo of lettuce can be produced at Sustenir Agriculture with one-twelfth of the carbon emissions it takes to import lettuce from Australia.
Starting with experiments in a basement in Singapore, Swan and his business partner experimented with techniques he learned from traveling to Japan and the Netherlands. “We started doing some pretty crazy stuff like chilling the water and growing arugula at 42 degrees and 100% humidity. We kind of had that eureka moment that we could grow impossible products that would otherwise not grow in Singapore, that it could be commercially viable.”
Swan credits his engineering background as the reason he was able to think outside of the box. “A lot of farmers would look at it as: ‘This is how we do it outdoors, and then if we just stack it, then this is how it would work.’ Whereas I was looking at it as we need to pack X number of plants into a cubic meter. Then I reverse engineered the design from that actual footprint.”
Retrofitting buildings with vertical, urban farms
The Sustenir Agriculture system is designed to retrofit into any building in Singapore and beyond. “Retrofitting an existing building, rather than building a brand new superstructure has a far smaller carbon footprint,” said Swan. “If we’ve got these dilapidated buildings that you can’t use right now, but they can still stand for another 20 years, let’s occupy that space and see that asset all the way through.” Swan claims Sustenir Agriculture can convert one standard office space with a ceiling to slab clearance of three meters into an indoor farm 178 times the efficiency of an outdoor farm.
Designing vertical farms to complement traditional agriculture
But the goal isn’t to displace outdoor farms. It’s to complement them. “We’re not here to grow bok choy because that competes with local farmers,” Swan explained. “We believe that the indoor farms of the future will be part of a complementary system where both indoor and outdoor farming will specifically service their community.”
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Indoor farming requires creating a controlled environment, with completely different methods from outdoor farming. Controlling air quality, light, and plant nutrients is a sensitive balancing act. “Being able to control the environment in its totality and understanding that every single part of an ecosystem is working and functioning correctly on a daily basis is really critical to success,” said Swan.
Disrupting grocery imports with urban farming
Sustenir Agriculture now sells its produce in multiple grocery stores at 30% the cost of imported produce, displacing those brands that were initial competitors. “It’s hard to get people to subscribe to sustainability because it’s either more expensive, the quality is really bad, or it’s inaccessible. You have to make this a no-brainer for people, otherwise they won’t subscribe to it.”