Making Singapore a land of farmers

DECEMBER 13 — Singapore is known for its ambition. 

This tiny nation (just 700 square kilometres in area, 400 times smaller than Malaysia) is now one of the most competitive economies on Earth.  

And yet even by its own standards it has set a very lofty goal. 

By 2030, the government has announced that 30 per cent of food consumed locally will be locally grown under its “30 by 30” initiative.  

Presently, under 10 per cent of the things Singaporeans eat are grown in Singapore. This is extremely low by global standards but again Singapore has a resident population of almost six million, on a small island, with just 400 acres of true farmland in the entire country.  

Four hundred acres is the size of a single modest farm in places like the USA and even a mid-scale Malaysian plantation can be double the size.

Yet in Singapore this is the sum total of all our agricultural land so how on earth are we going to feed millions of people?

The answer is an unprecedented deployment of technology. Vertical farms, advanced hydroponics and growing techniques using nutrients, perfectly calibrated irrigation systems, robotics and 24/7 monitoring.  

The government is also going to work to utilise urban spaces — roof tops, balconies, alleys — on quite an unprecedented scale to achieve greater food self-sufficiency. 

While the investment will be high, Covid-19 has proved the benefits are likely to be worth it.  

The pandemic showed us that global supply chains can collapse and in times of disruption, governments will prioritise feeding their own populations. 

A country with no farmland and agriculture is completely at  the mercy of its suppliers. 

While Singapore has long been somewhat cognisant of this vulnerability — the government does hold strategic food reserves — this simply isn’t enough and some sort of local agricultural base is needed.  

Of course local sourcing doesn’t just improve our security, it also reduces our carbon footprint and can help ensure what is being consumed is of a very high standard.   

So more local farming seems like a clear win all round. 

But things are never quite so simple.   

As we ramp up our urban farming capacity, won’t we once again be shifting more power and capital to the same tech companies and multinationals that already control so much of our lives?  

Recently the government announced that well-known agri-tech company Bayer would launch a large-scale vertical farm in Singapore with a multimillion dollar investment.  

Surely it’s only a matter of time before we have Amazon and Tencent farms. They already supply our homes with all manner of goods, so why not farmed produce? Basically are we about to see another great leap forward in the dominance of big tech?  

Farming has long been the domain of a fairly diverse array of small- and medium-scale producers.  

A shift to local production under large-scale corporations will disadvantage many Indonesian and Malaysian farmers who currently supply Singapore. 

Previously our purchasing power helped the broader region as we paid high prices for our foodstuff.  

And, of course, what of the local population? If there is going to be a shift to local agriculture how can we ensure it creates opportunities for ordinary Singaporeans?

If giant corporations set up automated vertical farms, how will this create employment for us?  

The government is clearly aware of the issue and it has been working to increase the number of allotments (plots which give those with no access to a garden a small green space to grow their own fruits and vegetables).   

Local sourcing needs to engage local communities yet the resources needed to allow significant local agriculture in Singapore means ordinary citizens will struggle to participate meaningfully in this bid for self-sufficiency.   

To reach this 30 per cent target sustainably and in a way that benefits us all, we will all need to become urban farmers.  

Virtually every home would need a micro irrigation system, HDB (government housing) corridors would need to overflow with produce and bomb shelters and basements would need to be converted into little hydroponic farms on a staggering scale.  

It really could be transformative — bringing together an entire nation to achieve the objective of locally-sourced food. 

Working together to sustain the basis of our existence and a return to farming — something the ancestors of most Singaporeans left some time ago.  

But for this to happen, as much effort must go into investing in ordinary families and homes as in big corporations.  

I for one am already prepared; I’ve bought a few mushroom-growing packs and just acquired a small tomato plant so in a few weeks I look forward to my homegrown pasta sauce. 

And in the meantime I’ll keep waiting for the government to give me a grant to install a giant indoor hydroponic system.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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