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Farming In A Concrete Jungle: How Singapore Is Securing Its Future Food Sources

As the population grows and food sources become scarcer, Singapore is investing in food security through technology.

by Edoardo Liotta
14 August 2019, 5:56am

Left: VICE. Centre: Shiok Meets Dumplings. Right: Screenshot from Youtube.

One island, close to six million people, and no substantial local food sources: this is Singapore’s dilemma. Feeding the nation is becoming a growing concern, particularly in a world ridden by food insecurity, population growth and climate change.

Currently, Singapore imports 90% of its food requirements, which means it produces just 10% of its local food supply – far from enough for food security. So, by 2030, it aims to produce at least 30% of its food needs. But tripling food production in a concrete jungle isn’t easy, so how exactly will the country do this, given its limited space?

Earlier this year, the Singapore government announced it was investing $144 million into urban farming and cell-based meat technologies. With this money, the local agritech industry plans to give Singaporeans more lab-grown meat instead of from animal farms, and indoor hydroponics at sky heights instead of planted vegetables on land. It’s a smart solution, given that only 1% of the city-state’s land is available for agriculture.

Here are 5 things to know about vertical farming in Singapore:

1. It’s happening already

This isn’t part of a distant futuristic plan, but a reality in Singapore already. With over 30 existing hydroponic farms in the city-state, vegetables are being grown in skyscrapers, industrial buildings and car parks alike.

The technology behind hydroponics is equally fascinating. Controlled indoor environments with artificial lighting are optimised to grow fruits and vegetables. Technically, this means you could make a farm in your bedroom too. And with no pesticides or fertilisers necessary, the produce is inherently organic. This leverages Singapore’s vertical space to inject agriculture in the city's DNA. Currently, kale and strawberries are among the hydroponic produce on the market island-wide.

2. They’re farming fish too!

vertical fish farm singapore
Apollo Aquaculture Group's three-storey fish farm. Screenshot from Youtube.

Veggies aside, fish will be the next thing growing in office buildings. Singapore’s plan to increase local food production includes building vertical fisheries and lab-grown fish. One company, Apollo Aquaculture Group, is set to build an eight story vertical fish farm, which will be one of the biggest local suppliers of fish on the island.

fish from apollo
Fish grown at Apollo Aquaculture Group's farm. Screenshot from Youtube.

These fish farms not only help feed a growing local population, but address issues to do with sustainability. Current international methods used to grow and catch fish have come under scrutiny for damaging the environment and oceans. Up to 40% of global catch from fisheries is “bycatch,” or are unintentionally caught with target species. These include sharks, dolphins, whales and sea turtles, with a 66% discard rate. Another alarming statistic is that 46% of plastic found in the Great Ocean Plastic Patch is made up of fishing gear.

3. Singapore may be one of the first countries to sell lab-grown meat

lab grown shrimp
Dumplings made with Shiok Meats' cell-based shrimp. Photo courtesy of Shiok Meats.

In addition to vertical fish farms, cell-based meat, also called in vitro or cultured meat, may be an answer to these pressing issues. Cell-based means growing meat in a lab, without growing an entire animal. This drastically reduces waste and energy while being an ethical alternative.

The technology is not readily available on the market at present. Various associations have called for it to be banned over claims it is genetically modified food, and others because of the threat it poses to the jobs of traditional farmers. However, Singapore’s loose regulations is favouring the testing of this technology and will likely make it one of the first countries to sell clean meat.

Leading the way is Singaporean cell-based meat company Shiok Meats, which is making lab-grown shrimp, and hopes to start having their product served in restaurants by 2020. They are one of the companies that has received funding from Singapore’s investment in the future of food earlier this year.

Reducing meat intake in general is a necessary change for food security in Singapore. Currently, a small amount of vegetables, fish and eggs are produced by local farms, but this is not the case for meat. And with protein intake from animal products growing rapidly, Singapore is increasing its international imports for these products.

Plant-based meat patties however, such as the Impossible Burger, could be another alternative. They require 95% less land, a quarter of the water, and an eighth of greenhouse gases to produce as opposed to beef patties – perfect for a country with limited land and water supplies. Singaporean company Temasek Holdings was one of the largest investors in Impossible Foods. So in addition to clean meat technologies, Singapore is leading the path towards finding meat replacements altogether, whether from plants or science.

4. Not everyone’s happy about it

singapore egg farm
Singapore's largest egg farm. Screenshot from Youtube.

But not everyone on the island is happy with future food tech models. Traditional farms still exist in Singapore, and farmers don’t want to be forgotten. William Ho, a local egg farmer, told media that the government is investing too much in agri-tech without a track record: "Many of them have failed. That's why I'm always asking the government: why don't you invest in us old-timers? We are more practical."

So as the excitement for agri-tech is growing, these farmers are a reminder that homegrown food in Singapore is still largely sourced from traditional farms around the island’s peripheries. These include goat farms, egg farms, fisheries and frog farms among others.

5. Singapore’s landscape could look different

marina one singapore
Marina One combines living, working and natural spaces into one urban space, showing how Singapore's landscape is slowly becoming greener. Screenshot from Youtube.

Get ready for the incorporation of farming into daily city life. Currently, a secondary school is being transformed into an integrated space between a childcare centre, urban farm, nursing home and dialysis centre. This is just one example of what Singapore’s landscape could look like in a few years.

The collateral effects of integrating farming in daily life are also positive. Studies have proven that coexisting with wildlife, plants, and animals in urban cities is beneficial for stress and mental health.

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