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Singapore and other cities have to think outside the box in food production

As competition for space becomes even more acute, how can we think outside the box to integrate food production in our cities? A good starting point is to examine how technology is creating new spaces to produce vegetables, meat and even milk in urban spaces.

Students touring a low-carbon, hydraulic-driven vertical farming system by Singapore firm Sky Greens.

Students touring a low-carbon, hydraulic-driven vertical farming system by Singapore firm Sky Greens.

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By 2050, two in three persons in the world will be urbanites. Yet today, only 5 to 10 per cent of food is grown in cities. With climate change projected to decrease global food yields by 25 per cent, cities will need to step up to produce food.

As competition for space becomes even more acute, how can we think outside the box to integrate food production in our cities?

A good starting point is to examine how technology is creating new spaces to produce vegetables, meat and even milk in urban spaces.

While some farms are on designated agri-land in cities, new farms are being installed within residential, industrial and commercial spaces, thanks to technologies that replicate the natural conditions needed for growth.

Warehouses and factories have been converted for commercial indoor farming, while dead or underutilised spaces such as viaducts and land available for interim or short-term use can be converted into moveable container farms too.

Such farms can produce crops like tomatoes, leafy greens and microgreens throughout the year even in temperate climes, if growing spaces are set up with technology such as LED lights, atmospheric control, substrate mimicry, hydroponic systems and sensors.

Alesca Life, a Beijing-based start-up, refits shipping containers with hydroponic systems, lighting and integrated software to maximise productivity.

Such containers can be stacked up to expand the farm. In London, food is even being farmed underground.

Yields are generally higher in indoor farms. This is in part due to stacking, but also better control of light, seeds, water and carbon dioxide levels, and reduced exposure to pests or extreme weather.

In the United States, large indoor farms can produce up to 26.6 kg per sqm of greens annually, compared to only 3.4 kg per sqm from conventional farms.

Urban farms are not limited to vegetables. In Rotterdam, the world’s first floating dairy farm is being built: it is expected to produce approximately 800 litres of milk a day.

In Kamperland, on the outskirts of Rotterdam, Netherlands Seafarm BV uses a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) to farm fish indoors in multi-storey layers.

The process — from feeding, harvesting to packing — is fully automated and requires only one operator. In Singapore, Apollo Marine uses RAS to grow 12 popular food fish in an eight-tier system.


Another way of increasing food supply is to expand the kind of foods we eat.

The recent introduction of Impossible Foods’ “meat-free” beef made of vegetable proteins in Singapore has attracted much interest.

It is one of the new “clean” or “ethical” meats entering the market. Other companies such as JUST, Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats use lab-grown “meats” developed from cells (cultured or in-vitro) to replicate the look, texture and taste of meat.

Some of these “proteins of the future” could well have Singapore roots.

In April, Big Idea Ventures, backed by Temasek Holdings and meat-giant Tyson Foods, launched a US$50 million (S$68 million) fund to support these lab-made proteins.

If one prefers natural alternatives, there are always insects and algae.

Crickets, locusts, ants, and grubs offer high-quality protein, amino acids and vitamins. Edible insects have been part of the diets of some Asian, African and South American cultures for centuries.

More than 300 entomophagy (insects for human food) companies worldwide are now taking this food mainstream, producing protein bars, pasta, cookies, snacks, shakes and more.

Farming insects is more sustainable.

It needs less space than typical livestock, requires less feed to produce compared to fish, chicken or other meats, emits lower levels of greenhouse gases and grows faster.

It is thus suitable to farm even in large cities. Insects are also useful for animal feeds: Enterra Feed farms black soldier flies in a warehouse outside of Vancouver.

Algae is also becoming popular as an alternative food: both as macroalgae, such as seaweed, and microalgae, such as spirulina and chlorella.

While most large algae farms are located in deserts, some are finding their way into cities. EnerGaia has set up farms on rooftops in Bangkok to produce high quality, unadulterated spirulina for health bars, restaurants and nutrition stores.

In Singapore, food start-up Sun and Earth has started producing spirulina powder. Besides having no smell, algae has the benefit of absorbing carbon dioxide from the environment for photosynthesis and producing oxygen when it is grown.

Scaling up urban food production — be it plants, livestock or insects or algae — will require sound policies by government, as well as the support of industry, banks, insurers and consumers.  

One city that has done well in this respect is Chicago.

Through its “Growing for Chicago”, and more recently the “Farmer’s for Chicago” initiative, it has amended zoning ordinances and introduced economic incentives to encourage the establishment of urban farms all over the city.

Its commercial farms, such as Farmed Here and Gotham Greens, intensively produce food for local markets and double as catalysts for urban regeneration.

In Singapore, the city-state produces less than 10 per cent of its food. Earlier this year, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) announced an ambitious “30 by 30” goal to produce 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutrition needs by 2030.

Ten per cent will be from proteins and the other 20 per cent from fruits and vegetables.

Aside from unlocking new land and sea space for farming, SFA will leverage technology to encourage intensive yet resource-efficient farming, and develop the future agri-food workforce.

In Hollywood futuristic sci-fi movies, food often comes out of a vacuum-sealed ration pack. If we don’t make space for food production in our cities, close to people, that may very well be our future.

This concept of growing fresh food needs to be taught from a young age, and nurtured throughout our lives so that we appreciate our interdependence with nature and the relationship between nutrition and our own health.

Major cities around the world, including London, New York, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo, are working towards this.

In Singapore, too, urban food production not only means convenience, but will also boost national resilience, sustainability and economic diversity.



Elyssa Ludher is an adjunct researcher and Tan Poh Hong is a Fellow at the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), Ministry of National Development (MND). This article is adapted from an essay which first appeared inin CLC’s Urban Solutions magazine on the theme “Food Secure Cities”.  

Related topics

food production urban farming food supply

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