High-tech farming 'toolbox' can help Singapore weather future food supply challenges: Chan Chun Sing

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, with Sky Greens founder Jack Ng, during a visit to the Sky Greens vertical vegetable farm.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, with Sky Greens founder Jack Ng, during a visit to the Sky Greens vertical vegetable farm.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Developing a "toolbox" of high-tech farming solutions in Singapore will equip the country with the capabilities it needs to scale up local production when the need arises, even if such strategies are not be deployed immediately, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said Tuesday (March 16).

"Once we build such capabilities, then when the conditions necessitate it, we can scale up our capacity (for local production)," he told reporters during a visit to the Sky Greens vertical vegetable farm in Lim Chu Kang, where a new micro-farming system combining aquaculture, vertical vegetable farming and other spaces for recreation or storage was launched.

For instance, if demand for locally produced food goes up because of natural causes, another outbreak of an infectious disease, or because of export restrictions that disrupt supply chains, Singapore will have the know-how to increase production, Mr Chan said.

The global food system is facing multiple challenges, he added, pointing to the need to grow more affordable, high-quality food to feed a growing global population in a sustainable way. Ensuring the resilience of supply chains is also crucial, he adds.

These are perennial issues which were spotlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.

The Republic now banks on three strategies to safeguard its food supply - importing from a diversity of countries and jurisdictions, boosting local production, and stockpiling.

The contribution of each strategy to overall food supply depends on Singapore's security needs at that point, as well as the associated costs and opportunities of each, he said.

For instance, during peacetime, Singapore is able to count on its multiple sources of foreign imports. But even then, the country will still invest in developing its local agri-tech capabilities , said Mr Chan.

"We will still develop them, but we may not scale them up, because we have more competitive resources. But if things suddenly take a turn for the worse, and overseas supplies are unable to provide the diversity we need, then we are able to up local capacities," he explained.

This approach of building up a portfolio of different technologies will also allow Singapore to find the most appropriate solution to scale up capacity when needed, Mr Chan added.

For instance, while Singapore does not produce carbohydrates during normal times due to there being cheaper alternatives, farms in Singapore could convert their systems to produce crops like sweet potatoes in times of need.

"That is a source of carbohydrates in times of need, but we don't need to produce that in normal times because we have other sources, and it's cheaper to do so and so forth," said Mr Chan. "But having the capabilities is important - capabilities can help to scale our capacity (to produce more)."

Mr Chan's comments come amid a governmental push to get farmers here to harness technology in local food production.

In 2019, Singapore set a "30 by 30" goal to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs with local food by 2030. Currently, more than 90 per cent of the nation's food is imported.

Many farmers in Singapore are already embracing technology to boost yields.

Sky Greens, for instance, uses a multi-tiered vertical farming system that is equipped with solar panels to grow vegetables.

The Straits Times also reported in February that home-grown fish farm Apollo Aquaculture's eight-storey fish farm - the tallest in Singapore and the region - is slated to start operations in the first quarter of this year. When fully operational in 2023, the total output capacity would be 2,700 tonnes a year, about half of the 4,707 tonnes of fish produced locally in 2019.

Meanwhile, another local farming company, Universal Aquaculture, is rearing vannamei prawns in a modular farming system it developed in an industrial building in Tuas. Its chief executive, Mr Jeremy Ong, told ST previously that this modular system will enable the firm to expand relatively easily.

The firm aims to increase their yield from 1 tonne of prawns a week to 1 tonne a day when their second farming site opens on another industrial site next year.