Industries in Depth

3 ways Singapore's urban farms are improving food security

Organic vegetables are seen on growing towers that are primarily made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes at Citiponics' urban farm on the rooftop of a multi-storey carpark in a public housing estate in western Singapore April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018.

Urban farming is an excellent way to use space for agriculture. Image: Reuters/Loriene Perera

Clarisa Diaz
Multimedia Reporter, Quartz
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  • Singapore is aiming to produce 30% of its own food by 2030, a number that is currently closer to 10%.
  • To achieve this, emphasis has been put on citizens to help grow what they can.
  • Growing food in urban farms on carpark rooftops to reused outdoor spaces and retrofitted building interiors is also key to the '30 by 30' goal.

Securing food during a crisis and preserving 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.”

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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.

All the licensed farms in Singapore
There are 109 coastal farms in Singapore. Image: Singapore Food Agency

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

Urban farms in Singapore
Current urban farms in Singapore. Image: Singapore Public Data

1. Urban farms using hydroponics on parking structure roofs

Views of the carpark where Citiponics is located from the ground and rooftop.
Citiponics is located on top of a carpark on Ang Mo Kio Image: Quartz, Google Street View, Citiponics

Citiponics is one of Singapore’s first rooftop farms. The hydroponic farm is on top of a carpark, a structure that services almost every neighborhood in Singapore.

Urban farms using hydroponics on parking structure roofs.
The Citiponics vertical rooftop system yields up to 4 times more than conventional farming. Image: Citiponics

2. Installing urban farms into existing buildings

Installing urban farms into existing buildings
Outside and inside the building where Sustenir’s indoor vertical farm is located. Image: Quartz, Google Street View, Sustenir Agriculture

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.

 Installing urban farms into existing buildings
Sustenir Agriculture sells its produce at 30% the cost of comparable imports. Image: Sustenir Agriculture/Clarisa Diaz

3. Building a better greenhouse for urban farms in tropical climates

Building a better greenhouse for urban farms in tropical climates.
Natsuki’s Garden in the former schoolyard, now filled with greenhouses. Image: Courtesy Ben Ang, Natsuki’s Garden

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.

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. Image: Clarisa Diaz, Ben Ang, Natsuki’s Garden

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.

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