Dr Koh at a hi-tech indoor farm in Japan. He led a study trip there in July 2016, where Singapore farmers and officials learned the various factors that make indoor farming commercially viable.
With land and labour constraints, and imminent climate change, the approach to food production needs to transform and be more creative. Farmers need to leverage on technology and innovation. Our future in food security lies in a modern and technologically-savvy farm sector that is fuelled by agricultural professionals, or ‘agri-technologists’ and ‘agri-specialists’.
“We should envision ‘Three National Food Baskets’,” said Dr Koh Poh Koon, Minister of State for National Development and Trade & Industry, said in his Parliament Budget Speech on 7 March 2017. These three baskets refer to (1) our diversified sources of import, (2) internationalisation – helping local farms and food companies venture abroad to seek opportunities, and (3) local production.
On local production, we must recognise that farming today is no longer just toiling on a field under the hot sun. Modern farming should use technology, science, engineering and R&D to improve yields and operations. “We envision farms of the future will make use of integrated vertical and indoor systems, automation and robotics. They will be highly intensive and productive, and operate on minimal manpower,” Dr Koh said in an earlier Parliament Committee of Supply Debate Speech in 2016.
In recent years, a new breed of progressive farmers has emerged. Through them, we can see our envisioned future taking shape.
“We envision farms will make use of integrated vertical and indoor systems, automation and robots.”
Dr Koh Poh Koon
Minister of State for National Development and Trade & Industry
At Sky Greens, leafy vegetables are grown vertically in 9-metre-tall towers.
Sky Greens, for example, has become the poster child for innovative farming.
Sky Greens’ vertical vegetable farming system is engineered to produce at least five times more leafy greens than conventional farms, with the ability to support farming on non-arable land. The system features tall aluminium frames that contain planting troughs, which are rotated by a water-pulley system. This technology was the result of a successful R&D collaboration with the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) of Singapore, a partnership that led to the realisation of Singapore’s first commercial vertical farm.
Sky Greens has also internationalised by setting up operations in China. Work is underway to deploy their vertical farming towers on more than 20 hectares of land on Hainan Island.
Panasonic Factory Solutions Asia Pacific
At Panasonic, indoor vertical farming makes climate control possible. Output is multiplied as the space and essential conditions for plant growth can be optimised. (Photo: Panasonic)
Panasonic, an unconventional addition to the local agriculture scene, takes vertical farming indoors. The Japanese electrical appliance maker now owns the first indoor farm licensed by AVA.
Panasonic uses artificial lighting to cultivate vegetables in a multi-tiered system that is housed in climate-controlled environments. This space-saving and weatherproof method naturally keeps pests out and allows temperate plants to be cultivated. AVA worked closely with Panasonic and supported them through co-funding, providing consultations on the import of fertilisers, seeds and soil, as well as sharing technical expertise on indoor cultivation systems.
Swee Chioh Fishery
The indoor farming concept and technology can also be extended to fish farming. Swee Chioh Fishery is one farm that has started indoor farming using the recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). AVA worked with the hatchery to set up the RAS and develop accompanying culture protocols for large-scale indoor seabass larviculture. As a result, a high level of bio-security can be maintained by reusing treated water. This is an improvement over traditional flow-through systems or outdoor pond cultures, which are susceptible to disease outbreaks and the vagaries of the weather. As a result, Swee Chioh Fishery was able to achieve consistent hatchery production with good farm management practices.
“Our modern farmers should be more appropriately called ‘agri-technologists’ or ‘agri-specialists’. We will need a generation of ‘agri-specialists’ with multi-disciplinary expertise... (Farming) will no longer just be about toiling in the sun doing manual labour but also about engineering, info-communications technology, entrepreneurship, and R&D.”
Dr Koh Poh Koon
Parliament Budget Speech (7 March 2017)
Metropolitan Fishery Group
Another example of a progressive farm is Metropolitan Fishery Group (MFG), which has incorporated cost-effective technology in its coastal fish farms. Equipped with a real-time water quality monitoring system powered by solar energy, MFG has seen a reduction in operation costs and increased productivity gains. In the event of impending poor water conditions, the system will automatically send out SMS alerts so that early precautions can be taken to safeguard fish stocks. Supported by AVA, MFG also embarked on an R&D project that successfully raised farming intensity by developing optimal feeding protocols, improving fish stocking density, and increasing fish survival rate.
Seng Choon Farm
Chicken egg producer Seng Choon also transformed and automated its processes to raise productivity. With AVA’s support, Seng Choon introduced a robot cleaner to automatically clean the chicken layer houses, which resulted in manpower savings. Seng Choon continued to employ mechanisation over the years. Now, even the egg collection and manure removal processes are automated with the help of conveyor belt systems. Automatic nipple drinkers also ensure adequate water supply at all times. Within a year, Seng Choon’s production rose by 10 per cent to 450,000 eggs per day.
With the robot cleaner, workers who were previously required to clean up manually can now be despatched to work in other areas of the farm.
AVA Will Walk the Transformation Journey with Farmers
These ‘agri-technologists’ are forerunners in Singapore’s agri-food production but it takes a concerted effort to bolster a nation’s food security. The industry needs to collectively embrace technology and break new grounds.
With the government and industry’s strong commitment to agricultural R&D, Singapore can carve a niche in urban food solutions by establishing itself as a living lab for food production technologies. AVA is committed to partnering farmers in adopting modern practices and embracing technology as a multiplier to do more with less. A few new initiatives have been rolled out.
AVA strongly urges farmers to tap into the Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF) to modernise, and invest in innovative technologies and advanced farming systems. From April 2017, the APF will disburse up to 30 percent of the approved funding quantum upfront, to facilitate the adoption of technology. This will complement our move to increase the tenure of farm lands to 20 year leases, from the previous 10 plus 10, based on industry feedback.
To enable our local farmers to play an active role in transforming our farming sector, we formed an Industry Consultation Panel (ICP) early this year. Practitioners, researchers, academics, and policy makers will work together to innovate, co-create, and transform our farming sector through technology.
Through discussions involving the ICP and farmers, we developed a Farm Transformation Map, to guide the transformation of our farming sector in four areas — physical space, innovation, people development, and the larger broad ecosystem.
AVA will also adopt a new ‘account management’ approach for our farms. Each farm will now have a dedicated account manager to advise them on business development, technology adoption, and financial assistance. AVA wants to help our farmers succeed. For farmers that are willing and able to transform, AVA will walk this journey with them.
While AVA works with local farmers to boost production and capability, we also encourage consumers to support the local farming industry by buying local produce. Doing so will support the business of our local farmers and spur them to raise their production levels to meet increased demand, thereby strengthening our food security.