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Back to the future: 21st-century farming comes to Singapore

IT'S pretty obvious why news last week that Singapore will be freeing up land for farming struck many as intriguing - agriculture hardly figures in the tiny city state, one of the world's most urbanised and densely populated countries, that imports over 90 per cent of its food.

But the decision to parcel out about 60 hectares of land from August for producing crops and other food items is also highly significant for a few other factors: It will be the first time in more than two decades that the government is tendering out acreage for agriculture - and specifically high-tech farming - and the move to raise local food produce is a bid to secure Singapore's food security against overseas supply disruptions. If (or when) developed to its full potential, the foray into farming could spell a new industry with spinoffs that span not only increased local food supply but also R&D capabilities in modern production technology and farming know-how that could even be exported. There would also be the bonus of a greater supply of organically cultivated greens, poultry and fish at cheaper prices.

It may be hard to imagine it now in the metropolis today, but farming and fishing had in fact been the livelihoods for many Singaporeans back in the 1960s, when there were some 20,000 farms spread over more than 14,000 hectares of land. The modern farmer - possibly a university graduate, perhaps armed also with agri-tech qualifications - however, will unlikely be toiling under the sun. The concept of 21st century farming around the world makes a lot of sense particularly in places such as resource-scarce Singapore - crops are grown stacked up in layers in indoor premises under UV light; unlike in traditional farming, high-tech, high-yield vertical farming requires fewer hands and much less land. Indeed, in a Parliament speech in March on transforming the agricultural sector, Senior Minister of State for National Development, Koh Poh Koon, said: "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." He also urged aspiring farmers - who these days should be called "agri-technologists" or "agri-specialists", he said - to tap the recently revised Agriculture Productivity Fund to invest in innovative technologies and advanced farming systems.

To be sure, the new focus on agriculture is unlikely to significantly change overnight Singapore's economic structure or reliance on imported produce. But the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) has set local production targets for key food items - 10 per cent for vegetables, 30 per cent for hen eggs and 15 per cent for food fish - and the new breed of farms and farmers should go some way to boosting local sources and strengthening the supply security. A small cluster of progressive "pioneer" high-tech farms has in fact emerged in recent years - one, Sky Greens, which engages in innovative hydraulic-driven vertical vegetable farming, has even ventured overseas to China, while many Singaporeans would be familiar with Seng Choon eggs.

The government has declared its commitment to partner farmers in adopting modern practices and embracing technology - and must walk the talk with both funding support and an enlightened approach to red tape. More Singaporeans - whether out of interest, passion or an adventurous streak - could well be drawn into the profession.