Sustenir: A local indoor farm that leverages on technology to circumvent the constraints of space, climate, and labour. (Photo: Sustenir)
Land-scarce Singapore produces limited amounts of food for local consumption, with more than 90 percent of what we eat coming from abroad. The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore’s (AVA) efforts in diversifying food sources have continued to ensure a stable supply of imports. However, global developments such as a growing world population, vagaries of the weather, and the rise of emerging economies, will have an impact on our food supply.
According to the United Nations, the current world population of 7.6 billion people is expected to reach about nine billion in 30 years. This global population growth will lead to greater demand for food.
At the same time, traditional farming methods are challenged by climate change around the world. Also, farmlands are giving way to urbanisation in emerging economies. These put added pressure on food production, leading to concerns that supply may not keep up with demand.
New farmland tendering method focuses on productivity
To be less reliant on imports and to mitigate any disruptions to our food supply, it is important for Singapore to increase local production by leveraging on technology. Just as the factors affecting food production are rapidly changing, our farms too must transform. AVA has taken steps to steer the future of farming and nurture the next generation of farmers.
Starting in August 2017, the government has been progressively releasing 36 farm plots in Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah for tender on 20-year leases. This was the first time that AVA tendered out farmland using the ‘fixed price’ tender method, where the land price was set up-front and the bidders competed solely on concept. This method ensures that the agriculturalists with the best concept proposals win. It provides innovative and technologically savvy agri-specialists with the opportunity to transform their old systems, adopt new techniques, and play a part in shaping Singapore’s agricultural model.
On 9 February 2018, 10 vegetable farmland parcels were awarded to eight companies in the first tranche of farmland sales. These companies submitted proposals that incorporated productive and innovative farming systems. Examples include greenhouses with automation and smart controls; multi-tier hydroponic systems using LED lights and data analytics to optimise growing conditions; and multi-storey farms that use automated soilless cultivation system and robotics.
Nurturing a future generation of agri-talents
Beyond technologies and equipment, Singapore also needs to build a local pool of talents for farms of the future. Farming has to be seen as a viable career option so as to attract a future generation of locally bred agri-specialists.
To this end, AVA has begun working with farms and two polytechnics to develop structured internship programmes. The internship allows students to apply their knowledge and practical skills learned at school. Some 20 students from the aquaculture discipline in Temasek Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic have been placed in internships at 10 local fish farms.
Ms Felestine Chong (supervisor at Apollo Aquaculture Group) shows Mr Eddy Chew (student intern from Republic Polytechnic) how to use a probe to test water quality in the farm.
In addition, Temasek Polytechnic added a new aquaculture course to its list of SkillsFuture Earn and Learn work-study programme. It targets graduates from Institutes of Technical Education who wish to deepen their skills in the aquaculture industry. Under this 12-month course, farms receive up to $15,000 worth of incentives to defray the cost of training each course participant. Six of our food fish farms have already pledged their support for this programme. Participants also have the option to further take up the remaining modules required to obtain a Diploma in Applied Science (Aquaculture).
Enhancements to Agriculture Productivity Fund
To encourage more people to follow the footsteps of these progressive farms, the government has also been providing assistance and support in various forms, one of which is funding. The $63-million Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF) was launched in 2014 to help local farmers develop farm capabilities, improve productivity, and conduct R&D on innovative production technologies.
In April 2017, AVA updated the APF to disburse up to 30 percent of the approved funding quantum upfront (capped at $100,000) to help farms with their cash flows. And in March 2018, based on feedback from farmers, these additional enhancements were made:
- Funding cap of projects under the Productivity Enhancement (PE) scheme (Category 1) is raised from $700,000 to $2 million.
- PE scheme now includes a new test-bedding element, with a funding cap of $500,000 for Category 1 farms, and $100,000 for Category 2 farms.
- Farm categories are streamlined from three to two.
Sharing AVA’s R&D expertise
AVA’s scientists and technologists are constantly researching on and developing agri-tech solutions that suit local farms. For example, in recent years, AVA has helped local fish farms reduce their reliance on imported fish fry, by successfully breeding the Crimson Red Snapper, Sea Bass, Cobia and Jade Perch. Through AVA’s technical assistance and workshops, some farms have already developed the capability to produce their own fish fry. This helps to mitigate their susceptibility to overseas supply fluctuations.
Trials on indoor multi-tier planting systems being conducted at AVA’s Sembawang Research Station.
In terms of vegetable farming, AVA has developed indoor multi-tier planting systems for the production of xiao bai cai, gai lan, and nai bai. Grown in a multi-tiered shelf that uses low-cost fluorescent lighting, productivity increased by up to fivefold. In addition, time taken for transplanting and usage of water were reduced by at least 20 percent and 90 percent, respectively. Efforts are underway to test the use of energy-efficient LED lights in this system. At the same time, the indoor multi-tier planting system is being test-bedded at local farms, along with studies on the use of greenhouses and automation.
We also regularly keep local farmers up-to-date with these developments and match them to potential solution-providers. On 6 March 2018, an aquaculture technology-matching session was organised to enable fish farmers to explore new and emerging innovations that they can adopt.
Garnering support from the community
As our farmers strive to produce more, they will need greater support from consumers. Through efforts like road shows, supermarket promotions, and outreach at schools and work places, AVA educates the public on the merits of choosing local farm produce.
In February, the second SG Farmers’ Market event brought 26 farmers together at the Singapore Turf Club, where farmers, chefs, AVA officers, and radio deejays reached out to the public. The event was organised in partnership with the Singapore Agro-Food Enterprises Federation (SAFEF). (Read more about the SG Farmers’ Market).
Minister for National Development Mr Lawrence Wong (3rd left) and AVA CEO Mr Lim Kok Thai (far right) with founding members of SAFEF
Formed in October 2017, the industry-led, non-profit SAFEF represents agri-food enterprises in Singapore. AVA supports the formation of this federation in its collective effort in addressing common challenges. Initiatives to overcome these challenges will cover the areas of: setting standards and guidelines; raising productivity and lowering costs; developing manpower and capabilities; as well as promoting local produce.
In his Budget speech on 6 March 2018, Senior Minister of State for National Development & Trade and Industry Dr Koh Poh Koon said these efforts will strengthen the ecosystem and the operating environment for our farms. Now is the time for Singapore’s agritechnologists to shape the future of our food security, by embarking on innovation and automation.