I was in a taxi heading home from Changi Airport a few weeks ago, returning from a sourcing trip to Australia. As I fired up my phone, I was so thrilled to read this headline about the innovative Singapore farm, Sky Green.
“Vertical farm receives the world's first urban farm certification for organic vegetables”.
For Singapore, this headline means far more than an announcement about a local business launch; it signifies the start of an ambitious new government-led strategy which will allow us to buy local, sustainably-grown food, right here on our doorstep. Last week, I was interviewed by MoneyFM for a general chat about sustainability and we talked about the changes we can expect. For us as consumer, I'm so pleased to say that it means the days of buying expensive, long-haul barramundi or Korean strawberries are set to become a thing of the past!
Driving this change is the newly launched Singapore Food Agency, a new statutory body replacing the AVA, which will write the next chapter of Singapore's food story. Beyond securing and ensuring a supply of safe food for those living on the Little Red Dot, the SFA aims to transform Singapore into a significant regional high-tech agri-food hub.
IT'S A SUSTAINABLE FARM!!
What I find amazing about these large scale farms is the fact that they're located in high-rises and purpose-built complexes, nestled in designated farm hubs mostly to the north of the island. And the farmers? Well, they are technologically-savvy, agricultural professionals, or ‘agri-technologists’, a new breed of professional whose unique sector is exploding with opportunity right now.
But Singapore Doesn't Produce Food - What's Changed?
To explain why this shift to home-grown is finally happening, allow me for a moment stretch your imagination a little.
Imagine if you will there's a significant political or military conflict taking place in the region, for example in Thailand, China or Malaysia, just three of the the regional countries on whom we rely heavily for food. Or a disease outbreak that decimates crops in Indonesia or infects cattle in Australia. Add in the unknowns of climate change, global water shortages and population growth; all very serious matters...but what's that got to do with us?
I read in Asean Today that at the time of independence in 1965, "Singapore produced 60% of its domestic vegetable demand, 80% of poultry and 100% of eggs. Punggol had pig farms that not only met domestic demands but also allowed the country to export pork. In fact, five decades ago, nearly 10% of Singapore's population was actively engaged in agricultural activities.." We had farms and fishing, fruit orchards and vegetable gardens in every kampong. There was enough produce to feed the relatively small population. The push for rapid economic growth industrialisation took precedence, and the farms disappeared as the population exploded.
My mind boggles when I learn we now have 5.6 million people living in an area that’s just over half the size of New York City. In fact, Singapore is the third most densely populated country in the world (after Macau and Monaco). Today, we only home produce 10% of our food requirements with just 1% of land used by the tiny agri-food sector. If there was ever a regional or international crisis, little old Singapore becomes a sitting duck for food and water shortages, given we rely on other nations for 90% of what we eat.
The potential for disruption doesn't bear thinking about but explains the government's strategy to give the new SFA the responsibility to create the conditions, the funding, the training and the education to provide us with long-term food security and safety.
When I wrote about this a year ago, the "plan' hadn't really been defined and it certainly wasn't visible to us in any meaningful way. However, the target is now to have Singapore producing 30% of our food by 2030. Evidence that the Government means business can be seen in the rapid appearance of high-tech, sustainable and environmentally positive local farms, fisheries and home-grown producers. It's known as the '30 by 30' plan, and I'm thrilled to say it's unfolding at great speed.
However, many others offer walk-in access which allows consumers to buy direct; Citizen Farm (which supplies dozens of top local restaurants), Comcrop and Qual Fa Organic Farm Bollywood Veggies and Green Circle Farm are just some of the urban farms you can find sustainable produce from today. If you fancy starting your own urban garden, be that on your balcony or your back garden, there are plenty of farms like Nong offering workshops and all the starter gear you'll need to get going.
Urban Farming By The People (36,000 and counting!)
Despite the mind-boggling speed of change, we're actually in the midst of an extraordinary grass-roots return to those bygone days when allotment gardens and small neighbourhood farms sat at the heart of every community.
Today, more than 36,000 Singaporeans living in HDBs are part of a huge government initiative called the Community in Bloom program, tending to 1,400 gardens in housing estates, on rooftops, schools and old car parks like this one in Ang Mo Kio which produces 4000kgs of veggies every month. How amazing is that!
I feel this is a sort of antidote to the technology, the isolation and stress many of us struggle with like this gentleman says, connecting with nature, our neighbours, growing things - it's all pretty therapeutic, and it's obviously hit a chord with the public.
Singapore's public allotments are fully subscribed, with more planned, according to Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Garden City, a social enterprise that designs such gardens in underutilized spaces. “Allotment gardens and community gardens give the public the ability to become more food independent. It is important to engage the community to help Singapore become more food secure”.
Out Of The Sea and Into The Farm - Local Sustainable Fish Has Arrived
My purpose in setting up Sasha's Fine Foods was to provide customers with healthy products they could trust, that had been very carefully sourced from the "right" kinds of farmers, at a time when practically no retailer in Singapore, large or small, could tell me anything about the quality of their chicken, beef, pork or fish i.e. where it came from, how it was raised etc.
8 years on, this landscape has changed beyond recognition, and I'm not just talking about fruit and veg. We now have fabulous local, sustainable fish! The Government's strategy to hit the '30 by 30' target incorporates a massive plan to see Singapore become a regional aqua-hub. This week, the Government launched the Aquaculture Innovation Centre at Temasek Polytechnic to help the next generation of tech-driven fish farmers help realise our food sustainability goals.
Like the vertical farms, the strategy is to grow and harvest fish from high-tech, eco-friendly, sustainable fish farms now dotting our coast. BluCurrent is one such brand. Its parent company is Singapore Aquaculture Technologies, and these scientists-cum-fishermen are producing the best, sustainable barramundi and red snapper I've ever tasted at their farm near Pulau Ubin. I launched their products a month ago and they've become one of our fastest selling fresh products ever. Why? Because they taste amazing, they are sustainable, they are "clean" and they are local!
Aquaculture is now driving as much innovation as we're seeing in the large scale veggie farms I write about above. Employment opportunities are huge, inward investment is flowing and like all things in Singapore, we're finding unique ways to tackle our biggest problems. It's so brilliant to see these changes in our tiny island nation.
Historically, there's no denying fish farms have had bad press, and in many cases, rightly so. Today's fish farms are a different story, and I have no hesitation in recommending and buying from many (though not all) of them. I feel the old debate over sustainably farmed fish versus wild-caught fish is becoming obsolete as consumer confidence grows with high quality farmed fish like BluCurrent now on the market. We now understand the environmental devastation caused by demand for fresh fish, and I believe passionately in the quality we're seeing from the new-gen fish farms, especially these amazing enterprises around us locally.
I feel I could write for much longer about these head-spinning changes happening right now. There is no end to what local producers are bringing to the market. We even have local lab-grown meat being developed in Singapore, although in my sampling experience, this one has a long way to go! I haven't mentioned the countless other goodies being made by small food producers who are putting their hearts and souls into making beautiful products. I'm thinking about Ramya of OhMyGoodness making her extraordinary cakes and the guys behind The Singapore Coconut Company, to mention just a few of the emerging local entrepreneurs I fully support in my store who are carving out their space in the home-grown market. Small companies, but contributing towards the ultimate goal of less imports and more island-made goodness. I hope you'll join me and consider lending your support to these businesses.
As for Sasha's Fine Foods, it's taken me 8 years to be in the position of sourcing local products. It's early days and product offerings are still limited, but it is happening, finally. The sight of local, sustainable fish on my website symbolises the enormous cultural and educational change taking place in Singapore and momentum is strong. The government is doing a fantastic job in following its '30 by 30' strategy, and I cannot wait for the day when I am swapping out imported for foods with the "Made in Singapore" label.