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How tech-enabled urban farms can work for Singapore

Get around the challenges of agricultural technology to reap its benefits

Singapore needs to deepen its interests in food production, not just consumption, with strategic partners such as Australia.

One approach is redirecting some of its strategies and sharing intellectual property to scale up smart food zones based on technology-enabled farming.

Agricultural technology, or agtech, has become a billion-dollar industry. Last year, even with some investment pullback, agtech startups globally drew more than US$3 billion ($4.2 billion) in funding.

Data by Agfunder showed that investment grew in four categories - agricultural biotech (150 per cent), farm management software (3.7 per cent), supply chain technologies (3 per cent) and novel farming systems (63 per cent).

Singapore has housed agtech research & developments champions such as Sky Greens and Panasonic - companies that have developed technologies to make urban farming productive.

Improved production capacities of at least 10-fold, less use of input materials and at least 90 per cent less use of water resources are just some headline benefits these technologies have produced.

A common opposing view to urban farms is the high capital investment and energy requirement.

But, the price of light-emitting diode equipment has fallen almost 80 per cent over the past seven years and is set to drop further.

Arguably, the investment, technology and operating costs show promise. But what about the consumer market?

Also, with Singapore's land constraints, how would an urban farm here commercialise and scale up?

Consumer data collected by researchers at Murdoch Singapore from markets such as Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia showed that consumption of high-value leafy and non-leafy vegetables and fruits by these urban populations is on the rise and likely to grow by over 20 per cent in the future.

Plus, some of these markets were found to be not price sensitive. Instead, they are more focused on getting nutritious, safe and certified products.

Singapore currently imports over 500,000 tonnes of horticulture products.

Most of the eggs and chicken consumed here come from a handful of source countries.

With a small portion of its domestic demand being home-grown, Singapore needs to consider deeper production ties.

Where do smart urban farms feature? For urban technology-enabled farming to be successful, the market-product-technology elements have to be in sync, which seems to be the case now.

How should Singapore gear up to be an agtech leader in the region?

Similar to the ethos that saw the Sino-Singapore Jilin Food Zone take shape, an agtech partnership for smart urban farms can be created.

A major requirement for such a partnership is scale-up capacity.

For example, Western Australia recently announced its foray into agtech with the 28,000ha Peel Food Zone - almost four times the size of Jilin Food Zone.

With favourable political conditions, a reputation for producing quality products, geographical proximity and a deepening comprehensive strategic partnership, it is not difficult to see a future where the Peel Food Zone delivers a significant portion of Singapore's food demand.

Mobilisation of this zone with proof-of-concept farms that showcase Singapore's agtech providers can be a logical start.

This partnership can further propel Singapore's status as a logistics and trading hub - this time in agri-food, deepening its tentacles into Asia.

Paul Teng is adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Christopher Vas is director of Murdoch University's first offshore R&D centre, the Singapore Centre for Research in Innovation, Productivity and Technology. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.

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