Singapore opening up land and opportunities for agri-tech ventures

Mr Joseph Phua made the switch from pig farming in the 1980s to vegetable farming, and grows pesticide-free crops in greenhouses at his farm, Orchidville, in Sungei Tengah.

Singapore wants a bite of the $5 trillion global food and agri-tech pie, and is putting its money where its mouth is. It is opening up land, giving out grants and increasing education opportunities for those who want to join the sector.

And farmers here will not be the workers of old toiling under the sun, but highly trained individuals who use technology to do the work and to maximise harvests in a limited space.

Just like Mr Joseph Phua, who made the switch from pig farming in the 1980s to vegetable farming, and grows pesticide-free crops in greenhouses at his farm, Orchidville, in Sungei Tengah.

He has even created his own hybrid aquaponic farm to rear fish and grow vegetables. Here, vegetables are grown stacked above fish tanks to cool them, while water used for the fish is filtered and pumped back into the system to water the vegetables.

More farmers like Mr Phua are needed.

Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, said in Parliament yesterday: "Our good innovation climate, strong talent base, reputation for food safety and strategic location position us very well to capture a slice of this industry, particularly here in Asia."

The goal is for Singapore to be a leading urban agriculture and aquaculture technology hub with a food production model that can be exported to the region.

To this end, he is leading a multi-agency team looking at how to better support the agri-tech industry in the areas of industry and enterprise development, research and development (R&D), manpower and regulations.

The push into agri-tech will not only help make Singapore more self-sufficient in producing its own food, but will also create new job opportunities as well as the chance to supply high-value solutions for urban farming to other countries.

Yesterday, Dr Koh announced a new 18ha Agri-Food Innovation Park at Sungei Kadut, which will bring together high-tech farming and R&D activities, including indoor plant factories, insect farms and animal feed production facilities. The first phase of the park will be ready in 2021, with potential for future expansion.

Farmers can also draw on funding. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, for instance, helps local farmers through the $63 million Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF) to boost production capa-bilities, and appoints to each farm an account manager from AVA to advise farmers on technology adoption and areas such as business development.

Institutes of higher learning, too, have a key role in training farmers of the future.

Republic Polytechnic, for one, has launched a Diploma in Urban Agricultural Technology.

And Temasek Polytechnic will be launching a Centre of Innovation in Aquaculture, which will pull together resources, intellectual property, infrastructure and expertise which companies and practitioners can tap to deepen their capabilities.

Dr Lee Chee Wee, technology adviser at Temasek Polytechnic, has been leading researchers in solving issues faced by intensive aquaculture for the past eight years.

Some of the innovations under his watch include nutritious feed to help fish thrive in super-intensive farming, and oral vaccines to keep diseases at bay.

"We are talking about a whole new industry here, and we are in a very good position to create something to benefit the world," he said.

"We have already got a head start in areas such as water tech, and this can be applied to make fish farming more efficient."

Dr Lee noted that Singapore is well placed to tackle the problems of lack of space, lack of labour and lack of water.

"All the technology that we develop to address these solutions can be exported to other countries as well," he said. "These are problems which all countries are facing or will face."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2019, with the headline Singapore opening up land and opportunities for agri-tech ventures. Subscribe