Low Carbon Urban Farming in Singapore

Low Carbon Urban Farming in Singapore

Published: 2024.05.20
Accepted: 2024.05.01
26
Associate/Lecturer
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

ABSTRACT

For Singapore, low carbon urban farming connotes not only the availability of hard physical infrastructures set up for this purpose but also the software aspects of changing the mind-sets of growers, consumers and retailers. For the government, this means supporting the urban farming community, not to reach complete food self-sufficiency but to pare down dependence or overdependence on imported foods. To this end, the government has released more public rooftop spaces and created stickers for consumers to identify locally-grown foods easily. For the retailers, this means convincing them to buy local because locally-grown crops are fresher and have lower carbon footprints since, logistically, they do not have to travel for a long distance to reach their destinations. For consumers, this means supporting locally-grown food products but also opening up their mind-sets to consider natural alternative foods and alternative farm-grown foods outside the conventional sources of proteins and meats.  For the growers and urban farmers, high tech vertical farming solves many challenges together at once. It saves spaces, uses technologies for high yields and ensures food safety while energy and resource uses are kept low, resulting in lower carbon footprints as well. It is high yield but energy-efficient. Some of these contraptions and systems consumes as little power as that equivalent to one light bulb. Some examples of public-private collaborations are detailed in the writing. They are reflective of an all-of-government, all-of-society approach where the government works with urban farmers, varsities, individuals, trade unions, supermarkets, e-commerce food outfits, dining hall, etc. to bring about a low carbon outcome. Encouraging university students to have low carbon meals, reuse lunch boxes while bringing secondary school students on guided tours of low-carbon local urban farms can create awareness of the importance of low carbon consumption amongst the next generation of Singaporeans.

Keywords: low carbon, Singapore, urban farm, environment, tech, alternative

BACKGROUND: POLICY THINKING AND MIND-SET CHANGES

Singapore has long maintained that a mind-set change is needed for urban cities to implement low carbon urban farming to feed their people. Singapore Food Agency (SFA) under the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) banks on futuristic advanced technologies that promotes intensive resource-efficient farming, training the future agri-food workforce (especially amongst youngsters) while promoting the cultivation of fresh foods amongst the young and then educating them in a lifelong manner to better "appreciate our interdependence with nature and the relationship between nutrition and our own health" (Ludher and Tan, 2019).

Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) highlighted the connection between food security and environmental sustainability (including low carbon activities). She revealed that Singapore is trying to create a more resilient society, given that Singapore imports more than 90% of its food needs, exposing the country to climate change disruptions and other challenges, thus making it imperative to increase domestic food output and 'grow local' (Khor, 2020). The government's objective is to satisfy 30% of Singapore's nutritional needs with domestically-grown food by 2030 (emphasizing vegetables, eggs and fish supplies) in a policy known as the “30 by 30” target (Khor, 2020). Along with this goal, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has created stickers for Singaporean farmers and retailers to label these products with a “SG Fresh Produce” logo and SG brand mark stickers that can help consumers identify, pick out and acquire domestically grown agricultural products for use in both conventional supermarkets and online retailers like Redmart (Khor, 2020).

Lowering carbon footprints may not only be tackled from the perspective of producers and the government but also from consumers. To reduce carbon footprints (generated by the consumption of meats from cattle whose farts have contributed to carbon emissions), Singapore’s private sector is increasing awareness amongst consumers of alternative foods and increasing the diversity and spectrum of foods that we consume. In 2019, Impossible Foods’ “meat-free” beef made from vegetable proteins in Singapore is an example of the new-age “clean” or “ethical” meats being commercialized in the marketplace, as are other firms like JUST, Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats whose lab-produced “meats” are made from cultured or in-vitro cells to emulate the aesthetics, feel and taste of meat (Ludher and Tan, 2019). These “proteins of the future” and alternative foods are also being produced in Singapore, e.g. in April 2019, Big Idea Ventures supported by Temasek Holdings and meat conglomerate Tyson Foods established a US$50 million (S$68 million) fund to back up these ventures (Ludher and Tan, 2019).

Recently, the Impossible Foods has experienced challenges from market and business developments. It potentially suffers from an image issue as Peter McGuinness (CEO of Impossible Foods) explained: “There was a wokeness to it, there was a bicoastalness to it, there was an academia to it… and there was an elitism to it – and that pissed most of America off... We don’t eat technology. [All this] narrowed the aperture and made the category smaller than it needs to be. The way to get meat-eaters to actually buy your product is not to piss them off, vilify them, insult them and judge them. We need to go from insulting to inviting, which is a hell of a journey. We’re trying to reach meat eaters – not vegans, vegetarians or those already eating sustainable diets. That’s why we focus on making products that appeal to actual meat eaters,” they explained, adding: “Our goal is not to compete with fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods, but to offer meat eaters products that are better for them and the planet.” (Mridul, 2021).

Therefore, the challenge now is for the company to shed its perceived “wokeness” image by focusing on the cost (to counter inflation that compel consumers to look at more affordable products), texture and taste of their products (to win over meat eaters and flexitarians without being confrontational with the big meat lobby) in addition to dissociate itself with any “climate warriors” political agenda (Mridul, 2021). McGuinness and Impossible’s chief marketing officer Leslie Sims want to focus on emphasizing alternative meat’s high protein content, zero cholesterol while having only 50% of the saturated fat found in actual meat to highlight a healthy image with its lean Beef Lite certified by the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check Food Certification Program while increasing household awareness about its brand/products (Mridul, 2021).

Natural alternative foods offer the option of low carbon footprint but high-quality protein (along with amino acids and vitamins) consumption by processing insects, algae, crickets, locusts, ants, grubs, black soldier flies and other edible insects that have been a component of Asian, African and South American diets for centuries (Ludher and Tan, 2019). More than 300 entomophagy (insects suitable for human consumption) firms all over the globe are farming insects sustainably and mainstreaming their processed products in the form of protein bars, pasta, cookies, snacks, shakes etc. (Ludher and Tan, 2019). Farming insects uses less space than conventional livestock, less feed than aquatic food fishes, chicken or other conventional meats and releases lower levels of greenhouse gases while the alternative food products can grow more quickly (Ludher and Tan, 2019). Other advantages are that it saves space in big urbanized, crowded and densely-populated cities and megacities as they can be farmed in warehouses, rooftops, underground, arid areas or other urban spaces while some of these alternative food products can also be used as livestock feeds (Ludher and Tan, 2019).

LOW CARBON HIGH TECH URBAN FARMING

In terms of low carbon high tech urban insect farming, Singapore is actively looking into insects as an alternative source of protein by breeding them in insect farming, e.g. Asia Insect Farm Solutions is a Singaporean start-up that converts crickets into a nutritious flour-texture ingredient to take over the place of conventional flour (Mok, 2020, p. 164). Crickets have lower carbon footprint compared to conventional livestock, needing less water and land space compared to poultry, more efficient in transforming feed into muscle mass as poikilothermic (they do not use energy from the feed to maintain their body temperature (Mok, 2020, p. 164). Insects can reduce food wastage by transforming them to other products, e.g. Japanese insectta black soldier fly farm founded in 2018 consume about 500 kg of food waste from food suppliers, residences and food stalls and turn them into plant fertilizers and fish/animal feed using only 100 kg of black soldier fly larvae (Mok, 2020, p. 164).  Singapore’s first urban insect farm, Insectta, is a biotechnology start-up deriving useful biomaterials from the black soldier fly to combat climate change, a vision for Chua Kai-Ning (Insectta Singaporean co-founder) to convert food waste into biomaterials for industrial applications such as water-soluble melanin (Anwar, 2021). Such biomaterials are useful for electronics, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, like chitosan and melanin.

Conventional urban farms may not be optimally energy efficient and may increase energy costs but Singapore is keen on more breakthroughs and improvements in energy use so, in the 2021 budget, Singapore allocated S$60 million Singapore dollars (approximately US$45.2 million) to motivate farmers to utilize technology, with the Agri-Food Cluster Transformation Fund formed in February 2021 to assist farmers better implement technology for food production (Anwar, 2021). More than S$23 million (approximately US$17 million) from the Sustainable Urban Food Production grant have been used to finance approximately 12 R&D projects (Anwar 2021).

Other than insect farming, natural alternative foods also include the humble algae. Algae, macroalgae, seaweed, microalgae, spirulina (unadulterated and processed versions) and chlorella are also promising alternative foods that can be served at hipster joints like health bars, fine restaurants and nutrition shops (Ludher and Tan, 2019) before mainstreaming them for the general public. In the case of Singapore, start-up Sun and Earth manufactures spirulina powder with no odor and, on top of that, the cultivated algae absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for photosynthesis while outputs oxygen (Ludher and Tan, 2019). This contributes to the low carbon drive that the global community can benefit from.

With a population size of more than five million residing on 715 square km of land, Singapore is relying on the vertical model of expansion for urban agriculture through rooftop gardens and vertical farms to provide food for its population and to increase beyond 7% of food currently cultivated domestically (Seneviratne, 2012). They have been advocating low-carbon urban farming as well. A public-private partnership [between the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and the Singaporean company Sky Greens] characterized as the “world’s first low-carbon, water-driven, rotating, vertical farm” for cultivating tropical veggies in an urban setting (Seneviratne, 2012).

A professional engineer and Sky Greens Director Jack Ng created the vertical farming system known as the ‘A Go-Grow’ system made up of aluminium towers (up to 9 m tall, individually compartmentalized with 38 tiers and equipped with vegetable troughs) (Seneviratne, 2012). Highlighting environmental sustainability, the water used to power the rotating towers is recycled within the system and it hydrates the vegetables with each individual tower using up merely 60 watts of power every day which is the same power expenditure as one light bulb (Seneviratne, 2012). The multi-storeyed vegetable tower turns at very slow pace taking 8 hours to make a complete cycle, where the cultivated plants bask in sunlight when it reaches the top and then retreats into a tray where it is hydrated by a hydraulic system that rotates the tower and, most importantly, the closed cycle system has light maintenance and does not emit any exhaust (Seneviratne, 2012). Thus, they are low-carbon instruments. 

Sky Greens towers cultivates 3 kinds of vegetables (nai bai, xiao bai cai and Chinese cabbage) that are highly saleable and harvestable every 28 days, providing NTUC FairPrice (Singapore’s biggest grocery retailer with more than 230 outlets and supermarkets) to the tune of two tons of veggies daily (Seneviratne, 2012). The lower-carbon urban-farmed vegetables are priced at about 20 cents more per kg than the imported counterparts although NTUC group’s purchasing manager Tng Ah Yiam argued that the urban-farmed veggies have “[quality, locally-grown vegetables] that are fresher because they travel a shorter distance from farm to shelf” (Seneviratne, 2012). [NTUC stands for the National Trades Union Congress which amalgamates 58 trade unions, seven trade associations, 12 social enterprises, and other partners to formulate better lives for Singaporean workers (NTUC, 2024).] Given the modest success of Sky Greens, the facility has opened itself to educational visits and study tours by young Singaporeans. Students tour the low-carbon, hydraulic-driven vertical farming system by Singapore firm Sky Greens (Ludher and Tan, 2019). Such practices can socialize and influence the mind-sets of future generations of Singaporeans to low-carbon high-tech farming to accept such foods from the gazes and lens of urban farming enthusiasts, producers or consumers.

The next section similarly touches on Singaporean varsities’ attempt at creating such public awareness.

CONCLUDING REMARKS: INSTILLING A LOW CARBON MINDSET AMONGST THE YOUNGER GENERATION

While constructing low carbon farming facilities were important, Singapore tries to change the future generation’s mind-sets about food production and consumption. Some high tech low carbon urban farms in Singapore were created with inspiring Singapore youngsters in low carbon food supply and consumption in mind. For example, Sky Greens, one of the most recognized urban farms, is the world’s first low carbon, hydraulic driven vertical farm (Rodrigues, 2023). When Sky Greens (and its holding company Sky Urban Solutions) founder Jack Ng won the INDEX Award on 27 August 2015 in Helsingor Denmark with the attendance of HRH The Crown Prince Princess of Denmark, Ng said: “By design, we are part of a very fragile and dynamic eco-system and the process of perfecting our system to meet ever-changing circumstances is never-ending. We’ve never stopped. I will not stop, and I hope that this recognition will inspire others, the young designers, architects, engineers and entrepreneurs to continue on this intriguing and deeply satisfying journey to make this world a better place, by design.” (Sky Greens, Undated).

The INDEX: Award is the globe’s largest and leading design prize (with 1,300 leading minds of the design sector as stakeholders of the Award) and it dispensed Ng’s company with the top €100,000 prize for their low-carbon urban farming solution (Sky Greens, Undated), with the soft power of the Award influencing youngsters to take up the path of becoming low carbon footprint urban farmers. The company has always held to low carbon farming as its core value. Sky Urban Solutions/Sky Greens, evolved from a humble start-up in 2009, to a global urban solutions firm serving international cities to mitigate rapid urbanization (Sky Greens, Undated). Young Singaporeans, who are more environmentally-conscious, may express comfort at learning that their foods are produced sustainably with zero-waste, utilizing energy-conservation, with the Singaporean government’s Singapore Food Agency (SFA) declaring that: “Having food production within the city or heartland [also] brings food closer to the consumers as it cuts transport costs and carbon emissions, and may improve environmental sustainability.” (Rodrigues, undated)

Besides inspiration through success stories, another way reaches out to youngsters when it comes to campus activities. For example, the National University of Singapore organized a low carbon project in the food sector. Approximately 2,000 National University of Singapore (NUS) hostelites started dining at a fresh “farm-to-table” dinner in September 2020 using foods farmed/grown in Singapore with a low carbon footprint (NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and NUS Cinnamon College, 2020). The National University of Singapore (NUS)'s utilization of domestically-grown food ingredients in the inaugural "We go Local and Low-carbon Themed Dinner" translate to lower carbon footprints as local foods does not need to travel far and over a longer duration before reaching the consumers (Khor, 2020).

The WeLL (We go Local and Low-Carbon) Themed Dinner was a collaboration with the Singapore Food Story campaign by the Singapore Food Agency and organized by the University in conjunction with Climate Action Week 2020 to highlight the significance of having resilient and secure food supply chain (NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and NUS Cinnamon College, 2020). This is a project by the 3P (People, Private and Public) partners of the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment to construct public awareness of major issues related to sustainability and climate change (NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and NUS Cinnamon College, 2020). Given that the National University of Singapore (NUS) is a leading tertiary institution in Singapore that produces the next generation of leaders in Singaporean society, encouraging ‘going local’ for food requirements and having a low carbon dinner can create sustainability awareness amongst the youngsters.

Even longer-term than the dinner event itself are sustainable low-carbon practices implemented by the NUS hostels. For example, Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, is encouraged by the fact that more Singaporean youngsters are enthusiastic about environmental issues while more organisations have sustainable practices, e.g. NUS supplies its hostelites with reusable lunch boxes to cut down on use of disposables and carbon footprints (Khor, 2020). She noted that the economy of scale in reusing lunchboxes when practiced across the university hostels and beyond can have a multiplier effect and also inculcate "life-long habits that gather momentum across future generations" (Khor, 2020).

The 2,000 students consumed their WeLL Themed Dinner on 21 August 2020 held by the NUS Office of Housing Services and the NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES) at three dining facilities in NUS’ Residential Colleges (NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and NUS Cinnamon College, 2020). While the NUS hostelites were dining, the students were exposed to an online talk on "Sustainable Urban Farming – Reimagining food production in Singapore" hosted by OES and the NUS Office of Alumni Relations as a component of the Kent Ridge Alumni Family Day on 15 August 2020.

The talk was conducted by NUS alumna Danielle Chan from the NUS Arts and Social Sciences Class of 2018 and co-founder of Citiponics (Singapore’s inaugural urban vertical farm situated in the Singaporean heartlands) and she spoke on how Citiponics' sustainable, zero-waste farming tech converted under-used public car park rooftops into pesticide-free urban farms, articulating: “This allows us to bring our farms to the locals’ backyard, and connecting the locals to their food source.” (NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and NUS Cinnamon College, 2020)

From 2019, Citiponics' Housing Development Board (HDB) multi-storey car park in Ang Mo Kio rooftop urban farm was designed to be highly sustainable and productive by using the proprietary vertical growing tech known as the Aqua Organic System (AOS) which cuts down water consumption substantially by retaining every single drop of water a closed loop (Khor, 2020). The government’s Singapore Food Agency (SFA) released nine HDB multi-storey carpark rooftop urban farming spaces in 2020 (Khor, 2020). [‘HDB flats’ are public housing units in Singapore whose residents can live in them for a leasehold duration of 99 years. They are generally regarded as the most successful example of public housing in the world.]

Chan noted that a direct farm-to-table logistical route will cut down on food miles, carbon footprints while having the benefits of serving fresh foods, given that Citiponics’ farming system uses only 1% of the water consumed in conventional farming and 10% of the water resources for hydroponics while outputs 7 times more crops than conventional farming (NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and NUS Cinnamon College, 2020). Dr. Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment highlighted at the NUS event that Singapore intends to grow innovative high-tech farming products that are "sustainable, resource-efficient, and productive" (NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and NUS Cinnamon College, 2020).

REFERENCES

Khor, Amy. Speech at the "Sustainable Urban Farming - Reimagining Food Production in Singapore" Online Talk and "We Go Local and Low-Carbon Themed Dinner" for NUS Residential College Students - Dr Amy Khor. Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment 21 August 2020. Retrieved from https://www.mse.gov.sg/resource-room/category/2020-08-21-speech-at-the-s...

Ludher, Elyssa and Tan Poh Hong. Singapore and other cities have to think outside the box in food production. Todayonline 7 June 2019. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/singapore-and-other-cities-have-t...

Mok, Wai Kit, Yong Xing Tan and Wei Ning Chen. Technology innovations for food security in Singapore: A case study of future food systems for an increasingly natural resource-scarce world. 19 June 2020, pp. 155-168.

Mridul, Anay. ‘Stop Pissing Americans Off’: Impossible Foods CEO Plans ‘Inclusive’ Rebrand to Shed ‘Woke’ Reputation. 12 December 2023. Green Queen. Retrieved from https://www.greenqueen.com.hk/impossible-foods-ceo-peter-mcguinness-rebr...

National University of Singapore (NUS) Office of Environmental Sustainability and National University of Singapore (NUS) Cinnamon College. To raise awareness of local produce, a taste of Singapore’s own.

NUS News 10 September 2020. Retrieved from https://news.nus.edu.sg/to-raise-awareness-of-local-produce-a-taste-of-s...

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). About us. NTUC website 2024. Retrieved from https://www.ntuc.org.sg/uportal/about-us

Rodrigues, Stacey. Raising the roof: Cultivating Singapore’s urban farming scene.23 September 2023. CNA. Retrieved from https://cnaluxury.channelnewsasia.com/experiences/urban-farming-singapor...

Seneviratne, Kalinga. Farming in the Sky in Singapore. United Nations University (UNU) 12 December 2012. Retrieved from https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/farming-in-the-sky-in-singapore Sky Greens. Singaporean company – Sky Urban Solutions wins INDEX: Award 2015, the world’s biggest design award. Undated. Sky Greens. Retrieved from https://www.skygreens.com/singaporean-company-sky-urban-solutions-wins-i...

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