Agri Tech 4.0 is the new buzzword in agriculture, says food security expert

Genetic technology is used to rear jumbo-sized Tiger shrimp that fit the length of a hand in just more than 90 days. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MATTHEW TAN

SINGAPORE - Smart farming on the other side of the world includes drones buzzing over a 300km stretch of farmland in Chile, checking for pests as well as for sick or parched crops.

In Singapore, plastic sheets covering greenhouses and nurseries were painted with anti-thermal coating to cool them by 70 per cent and coax crops to increase their yield. The coating was trialled in Oh Chin Huat Hydrophonic Farm a few years ago.

These are examples of what Associate Professor Matthew Tan calls Agri Tech 4.0 - disruptive innovation in the agriculture sector that is accelerating mid food supply crises fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prof Tan is the Singapore representative for the private sector to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) policy partnership on food security.

Agri Tech 4.0 - which he described as a "sunrise industry" - was the crux of his keynote address on Friday (Sept 17) at the 2021 Global Food Security and Sustainability Virtual Summit.

The summit virtually brought together global food security experts from governments, the private sector, and non-governmental organisations. It was organised by event management company The Pinnacle Group International in partnership with Apec and the United Nations Development Programme.

Prof Tan reiterated that many of today's commercial farms have a large carbon footprint, cripple the environment, use chemicals and antibiotics, and are no longer sustainable.

He added that such farms almost suffered "death sentences" during the pandemic lockdowns everywhere.

"There were no workers to harvest the vegetables. They were simply left to rot in the field... Fish were left to die in the pond."

Therefore, there is a need globally for more farms to shift to agritech - urban farms within cities that use a smaller land space, fewer workers, more technology, and intensive production to raise yield in a shorter time span.

Prof Tan said there are three components that make up an Agri Tech 4.0 farm: applying big data, using Internet of Things, and switching to highly disruptive and sustainable farming technologies.

Elaborating on the first, he said: "Big data will become an indispensable tool for farmers... (They can) use the data to produce the right product, at the right price and time."

On the use of disruptive technology, he cited selective genetic breeding to produce high-quality fish and seafood - fast-growing and free of diseases.

Prof Tan cites selective genetic breeding to produce high-quality fish and seafood - fast-growing and free of diseases. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MATTHEW TAN

Prof Tan owns a project farm in Malaysia, where he uses genetic technology to rear jumbo-sized tiger shrimp that fit the length of his hand. It takes just more than 90 days for the shrimps to fully grow.

Fifteen years ago, a shrimp of that size would have taken nine months to mature, he said.

But he cautioned that Agri Tech 4.0 will favour machines to humans, with robots expected to take over more than five million jobs in the next five years.

"Farm workers (if they don't upgrade their operation and skillset) will be competing with machines for jobs and possibly left behind," he warned.

In a pre-recorded speech at the virtual summit, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu outlined some ways Singapore has been boosting its local food production by leveraging high-tech farms.

In April this year, the Government launched the $60 million Agri-Food Cluster Transformation Fund to support local farms that adopt technology and improve their farming systems.

There have been 36 applications for the fund so far.

Ms Fu added that the Singapore Food Agency has awarded over $23 million in funding to 12 projects under the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme grant call.

The grants will address challenges facing tropical aquaculture and urban agriculture.

On Covid-19's dark shadow over food supply, Ms Fu said: "Singapore too felt the effects despite our efforts to diversify our food import sources over the years."

The temporary closure of the Jurong Fishery Port in July after a cluster of infections there caused anxiety among shoppers, who rushed to wet markets fearing there would be a shortage of chilled seafood.

Major supermarket chains had to ramp up their stocks as well.

Ms Fu also touched on food safety, especially for alternative proteins and novel foods such as cell-based meat that will be more widespread here in the coming years.

She cited the new food safety hub that was opened in the Nanyang Technological University in April.

Among the hub's roles is to be a developer of new ways to study the food safety risks of novel foods.

"The Future Ready Food Safety Hub will support the food innovation ecosystem by enabling the launch of safe, 'first-in-market' food products in Singapore," she added.

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