$10 million centre launched to solve urban farming challenges, boost food security

Dr Darren Sim (left) and Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup are working on developing sustainable agricultural management practices using microbes. PHOTO: NUS

SINGAPORE - Work has begun on altering the genetics of important crops like leafy greens to boost their nutritional value and make them more suitable for indoor farming.

This is among the research projects which will be helmed by scientists at the National University of Singapore (NUS) at its new $10 million Research Centre on Sustainable Urban Farming (Surf).

The centre will also tackle some of the complex challenges associated with urban farming.

Launched on Friday (Aug 5), the facility will bring together scientists across the university - from engineering to biological sciences - to develop novel and high-tech solutions for urban farming, said its director Prakash Kumar.

Singapore Food Agency's chief executive Lim Kok Thai, who was a guest of honour at the event, said such advanced breeding strategies could enhance the efficacy of urban farming and eventually the Republic's food security.

"With less than 1 per cent of our land available for food production, it is important that our farms adopt technology and innovation to grow food in a productive, climate resilient and resource efficient way," he added.

NUS president Tan Eng Chye said at the launch that 10 projects have garnered around $11 million in external grants so far, with many professors linking up with other research institutes like the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and industrial players.

To ensure that the leafy greens are suitable for indoor farm environments, one project involves advanced breeding techniques like genome editing - modifying the plant's DNA to carry certain traits to improve yield and quality.

Other traits such as taste, shelf life and nutritional value can also be incorporated to breed new plant varieties.

Associate Professor Chew Fook Tim from NUS' Department of Biological Sciences, who is co-leading the research project, said the team is looking to boost the yield of important crops like choy sum and kale for indoor growing.

He told The Straits Times that the team eventually hopes to develop a seed innovation hub which will carry the best versions of these key crops that can be distributed to urban farmers.

"That way, this would allow them to produce nutrient-packed crops as well as improve yield to help Singapore meet its goal of producing 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030," he added.


The team also hopes to breed new variations of fruits like strawberries and key crops for the production of alternative proteins like mung beans.

Another project, led by Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup from NUS' Department of Biological Sciences, will also look into crop production and resilience, by harnessing the use of good microbes found in the natural environment.

To improve the food safety and shelf life of these vegetables, Assistant Professor Li Dan from the NUS Department of Food Science and Technology is working on a project involving LED light illumination.

Plants being stored under LED light illumination to prolong their shelf life. PHOTO: NUS

The research centre started operations in June this year, with a new 200 sq m research facility set to be completed by early next year, said Prof Kumar.

It will boast state-of-the-art technology to facilitate research projects, such as plant growth rooms and a precision growth room where parameters such as the spectrum of light and temperature can be manipulated.

Professor William Chen, director of the Nanyang Technological University's food science and technology programme, said while Surf addresses the bulk of challenges faced by urban farms here, the high cost of operations and the need for energy efficiency should also be taken into consideration.

Highlighting the importance of developing science and tech capabilities for local urban farms, he added: "Just like how NUS is integrating expertise from various disciplines into Surf, we should take a similar approach at the national level with complementary contribution from different institutes of higher learning, such that each can leverage on their strength and provide a diversity of solutions."

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