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Local firms set to reap harvests of high-tech farming

The Straits Times by AW CHENG WEI

A Singapore firm is using advanced technology to grow vegetables in clean rooms, housed in the country's largest indoor farming facility.

Called VertiVegies, the 2ha vertical farm in Lim Chu Kang can produce up to six tonnes of greens a day when it is fully operational by early next year.

Another home-grown high-tech company in the agritech industry is Netatech.

It has created digital platform CrowdFarmX that uses blockchain technology to connect farmers directly to the global market, doing away with the need for a middleman.

These two businesses are among an emerging group of companies giving a boost to Singapore's agritech industry and, in turn, its food security.

It is significant as local farms produce only 8 per cent of vegetables consumed here.

On average, a Singaporean ate 95kg of leafy vegetables in 2011, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority website.

FOOD SECURITY

We are going to be growing a lot of local and temperate vegetables. We are mindful that we need to feed the local population.

MR VEERA SEKARAN, a director of VertiVegies, which applies artificial intelligence and data analytics to grow vegetables.

VertiVegies, in a tie-up with Chinese farming company SananBio, applies artificial intelligence and data analytics to grow local favourites such as xiao bai cai, nai bai and cabbage.

Said Mr Veera Sekaran, one of its two directors: "We are going to be growing a lot of local and temperate vegetables.

"We are mindful that we need to feed the local population."

The vegetables will be grown with the hydroponic method, using mostly recycled water and no soil, he said.

Support for agritech farming was underlined last month when Economic Development Board managing director Chng Kai Fong said advances in technology have made agriculture viable in Singapore.

Earlier this month, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said at an agritech conference that Singapore has the "right ingredients" to become the urban agriculture hub in the region, as it has a climate for innovation, a strong talent base and a strategic location.

With data analytics and engineering, VertiVegies has developed computer programs that can set parameters, such as how much light and nutrients plants receive, and clean rooms' temperatures. Said Mr Veera: "We can grow more than 100 varieties of vegetables."

SMART FARMING

The aim of CrowdFarmX is to use less energy, less water, less manpower and less land to produce more. As more people learn how to run high-tech farms and have access to the market, hopefully the farmers' lives can improve.

MR DAVID TAN, who runs digital platform CrowdFarmX.

Food security is uppermost in the mind of Mr David Tan, who runs CrowdFarmX.

The twin trends of more people, including farmers and their children, moving to cities, and the growing global population mean food shortages are fast becoming a reality, he said.

Using cloud technology, CrowdFarmX lets farmers monitor their farms anywhere in the world with their smartphones.

Through smart contracts built on blockchain technology, they can sell their products in the market without a middleman.

Mr Tan also brings farmers from South-east Asian countries here, where they team up with locals to learn how to run a high-tech farm.

"With technology, yields can go up as much as 10 times," he said.

He has a 1ha model farm in Neo Tiew Lane, in Lim Chu Kang.

There, Mr Tan shows the farmers how to use technology to improve their farming methods and processes.

"The aim of CrowdFarmX is to use less energy, less water, less manpower and less land to produce more," he said.

He has trained about 10 farmers at no cost, but each of them has to pass on the knowledge to three others.

"As more people learn how to run high-tech farms and have access to the market, hopefully the farmers' lives can improve," he added.

Aw Cheng Wei