Prawn farm scales new heights with high-tech vertical system

Up to 200kg of crustacean will be produced daily; firm may tap new govt fund as it looks to expand

Universal Aquaculture chief executive Jeremy Ong (left), 46, and chief financial officer Clifford Loh, 44, at the firm's Tuas South Link facility. There are plans to open another site in the third quarter of next year.
Universal Aquaculture chief executive Jeremy Ong (left), 46, and chief financial officer Clifford Loh, 44, at the firm's Tuas South Link facility. There are plans to open another site in the third quarter of next year. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Fish and vegetable farming has already gone high-rise in land-scarce Singapore. Now, another type of farming has gone vertical.

When the first harvest from Universal Aquaculture's Tuas South Link facility is ready come June, the sweet, juicy flesh of live vannamei prawns will be much easier to get hold of.

For a start, the farm will be able to produce between 150kg and 200kg a day of the crustacean - also known as Pacific white shrimp, white-legged shrimp, king prawn, or bai xia.

But as the high-tech system is modular and can be easily deployed at a larger industrial plot, chief executive Jeremy Ong said some 1,000kg of the prawns can be produced per day when the firm opens an additional site some time in the third quarter of next year.

Universal Aquaculture is among the farms here that can benefit from the new $60 million Agri-Food Cluster Transformation Fund, the details of which were released last week during the debate over the budget of the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment. It replaces the Agriculture Productivity Fund.

Under the new fund, farmers looking to set up new sites or retrofit indoor spaces at industrial sites can also receive co-funding of up to $1.5 million to cover infrastructure and building costs, said the Singapore Food Agency, a unit under the ministry. This was not available previously.

The new fund will also feature an expanded co-funding scope so farmers can use the money not just to boost yield but also, for instance, to bring in technology to reduce pollution and waste.

It will also cover farms' expenses related to the upcoming Clean and Green Standard to be launched later this year, such as the purchase of equipment and certification-related fees.

Mr Ong said: "We are happy that the grant scope has expanded and are grateful for the opportunity to apply."

He said transformation is key to Singapore meeting its "30 by 30" goal, which is to produce 30 per cent of the country's nutritional needs by 2030. Currently, the nation produces less than 10 per cent of its own food.

"It is painfully clear that we will not likely meet our 30 by 30 targets by using traditional farming methods," said Mr Ong.

He added that the technology-upscaling component of the fund - which will provide co-funding support for the purchase of advanced farming technology solutions - is something his firm will consider.

But he noted that the co-funding offer of 50 per cent of costs - or up to $700,000 - still "falls far short of what we need to build the next farm".

At Universal Aquaculture's current facility in Tuas South Link, prawns are reared in a six-tier system. The controlled environment means the farm does not have to use antibiotics on the creatures, which are also not exposed to pollutants such as microplastics or mercury.

To reduce the energy requirements of a filtration system that relies on pumps to cleanse the water, Universal Aquaculture developed its own "hybrid biological recirculation system" - so the water can be reused in an energy-efficient way.

This system harnesses the natural purifying abilities of beneficial bacteria and other aquatic plants, such as sea grapes that the firm can also sell.

Professor William Chen, the Michael Fam chair professor in food science and technology at Nanyang Technological University, said it is "excellent" for farmers to be developing their own farming systems.

"This is important as not all commercial technology can be directly adopted without retrofitting for our local context," he said.

Continued research and development may be helpful to improve the farming system, especially for novel technologies, he said.

Singapore Food Agency chief executive Lim Kok Thai said the new fund will support farms as they shift towards making the most of technology to overcome the country's land and resource constraints.

"Not only will this contribute towards our food security, it will create good jobs such as agriculture and aquaculture specialist roles for our people," he added.

Sources: FAO, Universal Aquaculture ST PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID STRAITS TIMES GRAPHICS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2021, with the headline 'Prawn farm scales new heights with high-tech vertical system'. Subscribe