Singapore, a city of skyscrapers and little land, turns to farming

Date: 2020.12.10

In this skyscraper-studded nation of nearly six million people, all the farmland combined adds up to about 500 acres—an area roughly the size of a single American farm.

That explains why more than 90% of the city-state’s food comes from abroad, a feat of globalization that plays out every day as beef is brought from New Zealand, eggs from Poland and vegetables trucked in from Malaysia.

But recent developments—from Covid-19-related border closures to international trade fights—have shown that near-total dependence on the outside world may not be the best strategy in a shifting global environment. “Countries increasingly look inward, prioritizing their needs over international trade," says Singapore’s Food Agency, the body in charge of supply.

The Asian financial hub long focused on growing investment is turning to growing food.

It can’t be done the traditional way, however. Land is so scarce in Singapore that the government continually reclaims territory from the sea to build new urban infrastructure.

Instead, businesses are trying to reinvent agriculture. Industrial buildings are being converted into vertical farms with climate-controlled grow rooms. Rows of lettuce and kale are nourished not by soil, but via automated drips of nutrient-infused water. LED lights substitute for the sun.

More than a dozen such high-tech farms have sprung up in recent years, some in the midst of semiconductor factories and car dealerships. One company converted the rooftop of a parking garage into a greenhouse where lettuce, basil, and a popular leafy green called choy sum are grown for supermarkets. Another plans to expand fishery operations after online orders for Asian sea bass surged.

The government’s goal is to have 30% of the island’s nutritional requirements produced in Singapore by 2030, up from less than 10% today—a target some say would be a heavy lift. Earlier this year, it shipped 400,000 seed packets to households to encourage home cultivation of leafy greens, cucumbers and tomatoes. In September, it announced about $40 million in grants to expand high-tech farms.

Read more here.

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