I’m a huge fan of off-line shopping when it comes to fresh fruit and veg. Nothing beats seeing and feeling the produce at the wet market or supermarket, and just enjoying the extraordinary visual feast of fresh produce on display in Singapore. However, that delight is often tinged with sadness when I read the country of origin info, and see how far most of our fresh food has travelled to reach us. I have always loved the idea of growing my own veggies and fruit, but found the prospect completely daunting given my limited outdoor space and zero knowledge of gardening. So I've begrudgingly continued to pay over-the-odds, as we all do, for supplies that I'm baffled to understand why we cannot grow here in Singapore. According to the AVA, the majority of our fruit and veg have indeed made lengthy journeys, often from the farthest corners of the world, particularly South and North America, Europe and Australasia.
This gets me thinking about the multiple "processes" undertaken by farmers from California and Brazil to Portugal and Poland to preserve and transport these fruits and veg – the pesticides, the preservatives, the air miles, not to mention the cumulative and often exorbitant costs we pay for our much-loved staples. The sheer volume of imported fresh food is mind-boggling, and seems to go against the tide of best practice adopted by other small countries that have moved towards self-sufficient, sustainable food supplies, as opposed to Singapore that imports 90% of our food.
A meagre 8% of veggies sold here are actually grown in Singapore, so I wanted to understand why our little nation, with such an abundance of heat and rain, finds itself at the bottom of the league tables in home-produced fresh food. I got digging to understand why, where and what is being done to reverse this lamentable trend, and I'm so glad I did ... the picture is actually very bright!
I hope you'll enjoy this overview of the dynamic and innovative strategies playing out to empower big "farmers" and engaged citizens on The Little Red Dot to become more self sufficient by growing their own fruit and veg.
How We Got Here - The Big Picture
Before I share with you what's already happening right here on our doorsteps, let me provide a quick context on why Singapore is now so determined to reverse the import-focused trend of the last 50 years, and what makes this shift such a priority.
As a small island nation with a massive reliance on external markets to meet local food demand, securing our food supply is now a big issue. With increasing geo-political insecurity, climate change, rising oil prices and the ongoing risks of pandemics in mind, small nations like Singapore are particularly vulnerable.
Singapore's food security and production headaches are well summarised in last year's informative article in Today, titled The Big Read: Far from people's minds, but food security a looming issue. Prof. Paul Teng, a food security expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies sets the scene, saying, “Supermarkets are full of food … but Singapore becomes very vulnerable when there are major disturbances to the production of food ... it’s easy to get a false sense of food security. If there is a big pandemic tomorrow, nobody can move food around, how is Singapore going to react?”
Government policies have historically focused on food safety and diversifying import sources, rather than addressing or promoting a culture of indigenous farming. To kick-start home-grown agricultural and aqua-cultural food production, the government launched a series of initiatives in 2016 and 2017, providing for new long-lease plots of farmland to promote self-sufficient, innovation-led, high-tech agricultural production. Additional initiatives were also announced with the development of six agrotechnology parks that now house 217 farms, vast swathes of land growing fruit and veg, fish, livestock and orchids (supported by three AVA R&D centres providing technical assistance to the local farming industry). These programmes now form the backbone of funding, resources and expertise which are beginning to have a transformative impact, as you'll read further down.
Then And Now
This extraordinary photo was taken in the 1960s of a traditional farm ... just off Orchard Road! Agriculture was a major industry in the second part of the 20th century, with about 180,000 people engaged in farming, or indirectly dependent on farming and fishing; at that time, this number represented 9% of the population (think about that ... the population was just 2 million!).
With the astonishing urbanisation and industrialisation of Singapore in the latter part of the 20th century, traditional subsistence farms were swept away to make way for what we know today - endless office towers, factories, malls, schools, universities, HDBs and condos. The cultivation of fruit trees, tobacco and rubber trees, cattle farms, poultry and pig farms was stopped, save for a couple of key foods, notably eggs and fish. The few horticultural farms that survived this mass-modernisation of the Lion City were edged to the perimeters of the island, mostly around Kranji.
As the 21st century began to unfold, farmlands had already been sacrificed to vast industrial parks, commercial and residential developments to make way for the massive growth in population, currently estimated to be around 5.9 million. In the absence of space or skills to grow its own food supplies, Singapore became highly dependent on imported foods to meet the burgeoning demands of its increasingly affluent citizens and foreign workers.
And so to today, where the government policies outlined above are beginning to produce some meaningful results. This photo below represents a typical modern farm in today's Singapore, where a new generation of high-tech farmers has overcome the immovable obstacle of limited horizontal land availability, developing instead dozens of ultra-modern vertical farms around the island. With entrepreneurial minds and investor dollars supported by government policy, Singapore is on its way to becoming a potential leader in 22nd-century farming.
Meet Martin Lavoo and Ben Swan of Sustenir Agriculture who farm their crops of kale, spinach, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs in a 7,000-square-foot vertical farm in Admiralty that would easily pass as a furniture storage unit or an office block. I met these guys a couple of years ago when they invited me to tour the farm. I was thrilled that I could finally get exquisite, completely organic, home-grown kale (which I still sell), but the state-of-the-art 'farm' itself just blew me away. There are many more high-tech farms like Sustenir thriving around Singapore, grabbing attention for their highly innovative approach to meeting the needs of a large, space-starved population.
It's not just brave entrepreneurs who are seizing the opportunities, huge global companies are zoning in too. Panasonic, the Japanese electronics giant, is venturing into indoor agriculture, with the opening of the Panasonic Farm on Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim.
This 4,000-square-foot farm is about the size of 12 soccer fields and produces about 40 crop varieties with plenty of capacity for further growth. Panasonic currently grows 81 tons of greens per year, but ultimately aims to produce 5% of all produce grown in Singapore.
(Sustenir and Panasonic greens are widely available in grocery stores around Singapore - the latter markets salad bowls under the Veggie Life brand.)
Latest figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) show that last year, 11,300 tonnes of vegetables were locally produced, which accounts for 12% of the total vegetable supply. Slow and steady improvements!
A quick Google search will provide you with much more info on the many large-scale, high-tech farms around Singapore, some of which are happy to sell directly to consumers.
A Look At The Future
I don't know if or when we'll see this on our waterfront, but the ground-breaking Spanish architect Javier Ponce believes it may not be too long until we see this structure in Singapore. His prototype concept for Floating Responsive Agriculture (FRA) basically consists of huge structures housing cultivable plots, and Ponce believes that if a city like Singapore is condemned to develop residential and office space vertically, why not do the same with crops? Given the city's world standing in breaking architectural barriers, I can easily see this type of farm rising from our landscape if the red-hot focus on high-tech farming continues to gain traction.
Fancy A Spot Of Urban Gardening?
So, what about the average family or consumer? What and where can we access all the wonderful fruits and veggies now being produced right here at home? Start scanning the shelves and you'll begin to see a number of greens and fruits grown at home - not many, but the shift is taking place. As industrialised high-tech farms find their legs, we can expect more and better with many producers set to deliver increased volumes throughout this year.
I've had many chats with friends and customers about growing fruit and veg at home. Most of us are, frankly, in the dark on where to begin, or pretty clueless on what's actually possible (I can barely keep my tiny little shop-bought basil plant alive!). Some are lucky to have gardens, but as I write, I'm looking at my modest balcony as I'm a condo-dweller. However, there are some brilliant less-institutionalised alternatives to buying and growing your own organic fruit and veg right here on our doorstep.
Whether it's a one-day workshop or a more extensive course you're after, all options are now easily available and affordable right on your doorstep. To get you started, take a look at this handy guide from The Straits Times, where you'll find no less than six organisations that will teach you all you need to know about urban farming, from the very basics of growing from seed to the more advanced, dizzy heights of aquaponics and soil nutrition.
I particularly love the huge array of programmes at The Centre for Nature Literacy and Enterprise (CNLE) (if the testimonials are anything to go by, this looks like a brilliant place to start).
Gardens With Purpose is another group that stands out for me. These folks focus on learning to grow organic veg and herbs, and their courses run all the time (plenty in April).
I also love this bang-up-to-date urban farming feature in Honeycombers who always have their finger on the pulse. There's a great selection here, including programmes for kids with disabilities, farm visits, on-farm yoga classes ... very comprehensive.
Grow Your Own
Many of you will have heard of Aerospring, whose simple motto, "Edible Gardening, one balcony at a time", captures their exact purpose in providing even the smallest of homes with flexible indoor/outdoor growing systems. These are unique no soil/no mess systems that allow you to be your own domestic farmer. The Aerospring works in any space producing perfect greens that you can nurture and pick in your own living room (or balcony or office!).
And There's Always A Go-To Facebook Group!
I also want to mention a superb Facebook group I have found called Urban Farmers (Singapore). This group describes itself as, "Urban Farmers, Farm Enthusiast, Farming for Hobby, Farming for Food ... We welcome you to join us for interest, information and exchange of ideas!".
I started this blog writing about government policy, which I appreciate is fairly heavy duty, so I want to finish on a more tangible, positive and forward-thinking note.
You've read about the massive strides taking place on the island to encourage a return to growing our own, whether that's at an industrial, community or personal level. This is to be truly applauded. A highlight of my research was reading this fantastic Channel News Asia report on the launch of The Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises (LUSH), a brilliant programme recently announced which will see an exponential increase in the number of rooftop and urban gardens around the island. LUSH aims to replace greenery lost during a building’s development or redevelopment, enhancing both the quality and quantity of urban greenery in our communities. I can't wait to see more of these appear.
In the meantime, here's to more innovation, more R&D and lots more citizen power to allow us all enjoy our own, home-grown goodness!