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Bolstering Singapore’s Food Security Through Agritech

Bolstering Singapore’s Food Security Through AgritechAgriculture 4.0 may soon roll off our lips as easily as Industry 4.0. Not only is the technology available and is now more affordable, the need is more pressing as the world’s population continues its inexorable rise to 10 billion by 2050 while vital resource like water and energy is becoming increasingly scarce. By drawing on modern-day toolkit including drones, robots, sensors, satellite imagery and data analytics, much like Industry 4.0, today’s farmers can improve crop yields at reduced cost with less waste to feed the world’s growing population.

While Singapore may not have vast tracts of land for agriculture, it is also leveraging technology to raise domestic food production to achieve a quantum leap in productivity and efficiency to realise the vision it has established. Under the 30 by 30 vision, Singapore plans to boost local farm output to 30 percent of requirements from under 10 percent today, working within the limitations facing this island nation.

As Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli noted, “Given our lack of natural resources such as land and water, the future of farming in Singapore has to be one that is technology and R&D driven, climate resilient and resource efficient with high productivity.”

High-tech, high-yield farming
With only 1 percent of Singapore’s 724 sq. km, land area devoted to agriculture, the pressure is on new urban farmers to grow more with less. Rather than expanding sideways to increase farming acreage, Singapore farms are going up to optimise land use and moving indoors for improved management. From just one in 2012, there are now over 30 vertical farms producing vegetables and fish. By using high-tech and high-yield methods, they are overcoming the challenges of traditional farming.

The vegetables are grown in cleanroom-like conditions, where every aspect of the cultivation environment can be controlled, from lighting and nutrients to temperature and humidity, insulating them from the increasingly unpredictable weather. LED lights replace natural sunlight, sensors provide growers with real time insights on farming conditions, enabling smart data on irrigation, fertiliser application and harvest.

“Combining intelligent sensors with machine learning and artificial intelligence, today’s growers are better able to tackle problems before they imperil a harvest, and to identify environmental conditions that improve yields,” wrote Ms Kee Ai Nah, Executive Director, Lifestyle & Consumer Cluster, Enterprise Singapore in Indoor Ag-con, the knowledge-sharing and networking platform for the indoor agriculture industry.

Using A-shaped aluminium towers, extending up to nine metres high, Sky Greens grows tropical organic vegetables, including cai xin, jie lan and Chinese cabbage in tiered troughs. A water pulley system rotates the troughs to ensure every plant has an even distribution of natural sunlight, doing away with the need for LED lights commonly used in urban farms.

The company produces mini-vegetables, which it harvests between 21 and 24 days old, about half the time taken for normal-sized vegetables, doing away with the need for pesticides. It produces some 500 kg of vegetables a day, 10 times higher than traditional farms on the same land area.

By growing in controlled environment Sustenir Agriculture has successfully cultivated fruits and vegetables not commonly associated with tropical Singapore, like kale, arugula, basil, lettuce, cherry tomatoes and strawberries, which it supplies to the domestic market.

While most of Singapore’s vertical farms focus on vegetables, Apollo Aquaculture Group (AAG) has shown that it works equally well for fish. In 2012, AAG built a to three-storey facility in Lim Chu Kang to house six ponds – two on each level – with each 135-sq. metre pond accommodating 22,000 fish fry. By farming indoors instead of sea cages offshore which its inherent unpredictability, AAG enjoys better yields and control. At the farm everything is automated, from water conditions to feeding.

Armed with the success, AAG is going higher. At its new farm also in Lim Chu Kang, the company is going eight tier raising its yield almost 20-fold to about 2,000 tonnes. “It will be fully automated... we can monitor the entire farming system remotely. Before, we relied on experience, but now we depend more on technology,” said AAG’s chief executive officer Eric Ng, citing problems with algae blooms in recent years that have wiped out farmers’ fish stocks.

Developing alternative protein
In view of environmental costs and food security concerns surrounding animal agriculture, Singapore has joined the race to develop lab grown food. Clean with a low carbon footprint, it is being promoted as the alternative protein of the future. Under the Government’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan, S$144 million has been allocated to fund food-related research, including sustainable urban food production, future foods and food safety science and innovation.

At the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)’s Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI) trials have begun on culturing meat leveraging on its existing technology in bioproduction and stem cell bioengineering. To make meat, stem cells are extracted from animals, in BTI’s case Chinese hamster ovary cells. The cells are first stored in sterile flasks and fed liquid nutrients before being transferred to bioreactors to multiply.

The cells are then harvested which are then mixed with other ingredients to create “minced meat” products such as patties, sausages and dumpling filling, which has nutritional value similar with the real McCoy. Tissue engineering is required to create whole meat cuts.

“Cultured meat products like minced meat or meat fillings are easier to develop than a slice of beef steak or chicken fillet, which would require additional technology to create the texture, mouth-feel and taste that consumers are looking for,” Dr Kelvin Ng, head of strategic innovation at BTI, told The Straits Times.

Unlike the meatless meat made from yellow peas and fava beans popularised by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, Dr Ng said the lab grown meat is real meat. By end 2019, BTI plans to start making chicken meat in the lab using cells extracted from live chickens sourced locally.

For Singapore start-up Shiok Meats, the focus is on shrimps. At its lab in Biopolis, two stem cell biologists Dr Sandhya Sriram and Dr Ling Ka Yi, who met as A*STAR colleagues, have isolated stem cells from locally farmed, antibiotic-free shrimps. Likewise, they have grown the cells in a liquid nutrient media before transferring them into a bioreactor to grow in numbers and form muscle fibres. The liquid nutrient mix is then removed leaving behind the solid scrimp meat.

At the Second Disruption in Food and Sustainability Summit on 29 March 2019, Shiok Meats gave Singapore its first taste test with three of its first eight prawn dumplings. Response to the scrimps has been generally positive. Said Dr Sriram, “When we opened the steamer, everyone got a whiff and said that they smelt like the ocean. The taste (sweetness) is exactly what regular shrimp tastes like. We have to do a bit of tinkering on texture for sure, and are already working on it.”

Even while researchers tweak the texture, taste and visual appeal of their lab grown products to ensure market acceptance, they are redoubling efforts to bring their cost down. For Shiok Meats, the first eight dumplings cost S$5,000 each. As the high cost of culture media is a key contributor, researchers are looking for alternatives. By developing its own inhouse culture media, Shiok Meats hopes to reduce its scrimp cost to S$50 per kg by end 2020.

More can be expected as Singapore ramps up its effort to leverage science, technology and innovation to overcome its resource constraints and combat climate change. Ongoing research include the development of supercrops that can survive drought and withstand high temperatures as well as superfish, premium tilapia which are disease-resistant and rich in Omega-3.

Development is also underway to build a new Agri-Food Innovation Park at Sungei Kadut to catalyse innovation in the agritech ecosystem. Spread over 18 hectares, it will accommodate high-tech urban indoor farming and associated R&D activities, including indoor plant factories, insect farms and animal feed production facilities. The park is located within the Greater Sungei Kadut area, forming part of a larger Northern Agri-Tech and Food Corridor with food-related industries. The first phase will be ready from the second quarter of 2021, with potential for future expansion.

With little arable land, Singapore is an unlikely place for a farming revolution. But by its ability to leverage its deep R&D and expertise in engineering and manufacturing, it may well be the next great place for urban agriculture and agritech.

Bolstering Singapore’s Food Security Through Agritech