With global panic buying, some countries moving towards food protectionism and more nations going into lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, food security has been thrust into the spotlight.
Singapore, which saw several bouts of panic buying after the move to orange in the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition alert last month, is working closely with six nations to tackle disruptions to trade and supply chains that could impede the delivery of vital goods, including food and medicine.
In his Resilience Budget speech last Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat reassured Singaporeans that there is an “adequate supply of safe food” and the Government is “strengthening our food resilience for the long term”.
One way is through the “30 by 30” goal to produce 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally – a figure that currently stands at less than 10 per cent – by 2030.
This vision may have become more urgent in recent times.
According to the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the 77 leafy vegetable farms here, including 25 indoors and two on rooftops, accounted for 14 per cent of total consumption last year.
Three hen-shell egg farms made up 26 per cent of total consumption, while 122 fish farms (110 coastal fish farms and 12 land-based ones) contributed 10 per cent.
Local farms, as well as the authorities, are working to ramp up production. Many already have their produce on online grocery platforms and at selected supermarkets and wet markets.
Since 2017, the SFA has been awarding agriculture land to agri-food companies and is working with farms this year to transform the Lim Chu Kang area into an agri-food cluster. Its plans for Lim Chu Kang complement the development of the Agri-Food Innovation Park, a high-tech agri-food cluster in Sungei Kadut.
Farmers can also tap the SFA’s $63-million Agriculture Productivity Fund to modernise and harness innovative, sustainable technologies and advanced farming systems.
On the importance of local production, an SFA spokesman tells The Sunday Times: “It helps mitigate our reliance on imports and serves as a buffer during supply disruptions to import sources, which contributes to our food security.”
The “30 by 30” vision requires the agri-food industry to transform into one that is “highly productive and employs climate-resilient and sustainable technologies that will enable us to overcome our land, water, energy and manpower constraints”, adds the spokesman.
For global urban and infrastructure development consultancy Surbana Jurong, supporting agri-food projects has become a key focus.
Its director of architecture Tan Yok Joo, who has been working with local fish farm Apollo Aquaculture Group on its upcoming eight-storey vertical farm for the past five years, says that previously, “farms were not cool”.
With the changing agri-food scene, she lends her expertise to ensure that the building is sustainable and scalable, and explores components for self-sustaining systems, such as waste recovery.
She says: “The challenge today is when you require high-density and -intensity production. We work on solutions to bring farming into cities and to replicate farms in an urban setting.”
When Apollo’s new farm in Neo Tiew Crescent opens in June, it will boost fish production by more than eight times, says the group’s chief executive Eric Ng.
Egg farm Chew’s Agriculture, which is in the midst of moving to its new farm in Neo Tiew Road, will scale up production to at least 800,000 eggs daily. It currently produces 500,000 eggs a day, says director Edvin Lim.
For home-grown vegetable producer Meod, the first phase of its new farm is slated to be ready by the end of the year, allowing it to increase the volume and variety of crops.
Meod’s director, Mr Ong Kai Hian, 36, hopes Singaporeans will support local producers like himself to ensure the industry’s sustainability.
He says: “It’s essential that our nation has the capability to produce our own food. In times like these, there will be an additional channel to provide necessities for Singaporeans. When future crises arise, we will be better prepared.”
Chef-owner Han Liguang, from one-Michelin-starred modern Singaporean restaurant Labyrinth at the Esplanade Mall, is glad the spotlight is on home-grown farms. Since 2018, he has been working closely with local producers for 90 per cent of his menu.
He says: “I wanted to start my definition of Singapore cuisine with what grows here, along with heritage and history, to offer authentically Singaporean food. There is soul in what the farmers are doing. I felt their passion.
“Even if we don’t hit the ’30 by 30′ target, the attention and support for local farms is good enough.”
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New vegetables hit shelves
Spinach, lettuce and salad mixes from Sustenir Agriculture – better known for its popular Kinky Kale and Toscano Kale range – are some of the new products to hit shelves this year.
In line with its zero-food waste policy, the home-grown brand will also add new juices and dips to the current range, says Mr Benjamin Swan, the company’s chief executive.
Two years ago, it launched Splendid Strawberries, locally grown in a controlled hydroponic environment.
Mr Swan has noted an increase in sales as consumers look for healthier options in the coronavirus climate. He says: “The outbreak has heightened local consumers’ awareness of food safety and where their products come from.”
Diversifying produce was also a way for Pacific Agro Farm to keep up with competition.
With Singapore importing cheaper produce from neighbouring countries, farm manager Jamie Rim says they had to grow more than just tomatoes – the key crop when the farm started in 1977.
Today, its produce includes white bittergourd, baby Japanese cucumber, herbs, sweet potato leaves and other leafy vegetables. This year, it rolled out peppermint to online supermarkets such as OpenTaste.
Locally grown vegetables have been gaining traction in Singapore as farms adopt modern methods and technology, and grow organic and pesticide-free produce.
Last year, Sky Greens, an urban farm in Lim Chu Kang, was awarded the world’s first national standard for organic vegetables grown in urban environments.
The Singapore Standard 632 certification was developed to address key challenges including high operating costs and limited land.
Expect more urban farming spaces to sprout, as the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has been working with the Housing Board (HDB) and Singapore Land Authority to tap vacant interim spaces.
In the coming months, the SFA will tender 16 rooftop spaces on HDB multi-storey car parks islandwide, totalling more than 30,000 sq m.
Egg farms go high-tech
Locally produced eggs from three hen-shell egg farms made up 26 per cent of total consumption here last year. Singapore also imports eggs from accredited farms in countries such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
The numbers for local production are set to increase, with farms such as Chew’s Agriculture boosting output.
It is in the midst of moving to its new farm in Neo Tiew Road, which has the capacity to produce at least 800,000 eggs a day.
On harnessing modern technology to increase productivity, director Edvin Lim says: “In view of climate change, heat isolation wall panels are installed in the poultry houses. We also use a computerised egg conveyor system for egg counting, as well as a high-tech egg grader machine to automatically sort, grade, perform quality checks, disinfect and package eggs.”
Another egg farm, N & N Agriculture, has a fully automated system for crate washing, egg packing and wrapping of egg trays.
The farm, which tapped the Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA) Agriculture Productivity Fund, achieved manpower savings of 57,600 man-hours and water savings of $35,700 in 2017, according to an SFA spokesman.
Eggs, like poultry and milk, have been flying off supermarket shelves as consumers stock up on food in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Supermarket chain FairPrice has imposed purchasing limits on eggs and poultry, among other essential items – each customer can buy $30 worth of fresh, frozen and processed poultry, and three packs of 10 eggs each or a tray of 30 eggs.
Eggs are also sold at Japanese discount chain Don Don Donki and gourmet grocers such as Culina at Como Dempsey, which just started stocking certified organic Frenz eggs from New Zealand.
Home-grown poultry producer Toh Thye San – best known for its gourmet chicken GG French Poulet – also produces cage-free eggs.
For milk, local producers include goat farm Hay Dairies and Dairy Folks, which also produces its own ice cream made with milk from its Holstein Friesian cows.
A fish farm takes to the sky
With 110 coastal fish farms in Singapore, one land-locked vertical farm is looking to change the game.
In June, local fish farm Apollo Aquaculture Group will start operations at its new eight-storey space in Neo Tiew Crescent.
It is part of the 3.8ha Cube 2 – a subsidiary of Apollo, which specialises in aquaculture engineering.
Its chief executive Eric Ng, 47, is looking to boost food fish production by more than eight times.
This has been in the making for a decade – from doing a full study on water dynamics to gaining the right expertise to the equipment – in order to form a “circular economy” within a climate-controlled environment.
Waste from the fish becomes secondary feed for crustaceans, while the nutrient-filled sludge can be used to grow cockles.
Next year, Mr Ng will also open a processing and manufacturing plant in Cube 2, which will save on logistics and labour for transportation.
In the future, Cube 2 will also house a restaurant, “to complete the full experience for consumers”, as well as a weekend farmers’ market.
At Apollo’s current farm in Seletar, Mr Ng has been retailing seafood under his Apollo Marine brand, along with imported options, for the past two years to slowly gain consumer confidence in his produce.
He is also working with older farmers in the area to ensure the longevity of Singapore’s fish farms.
Like Apollo, many of them started as ornamental fish farms – a market which has lost its shine over the years.
Says Mr Ng: “Food will never be enough, we will never produce enough. But we ensure continuity of business and for younger people to join the industry too. We need consumer support for local farms.”
Also working on boosting production are other farms that operate sustainable and climate-resilient systems.
Eco-Ark, a floating farm off the coast of Pulau Ubin, uses closed-containment aquaculture technologies that treat sea water used to cultivate fish. Such technologies reduce the effects of pollution and algae blooms.
The farm’s first batch of produce amounted to 24 tonnes of sea bass, weighing 800g to 1kg each.
Barramundi Asia in Jurong, known for its ocean-farmed barramundi under the Kuhlbarra brand, scaled up its operations last year with a $2-million extension to its nursery. It is expected to take the farm’s annual yield to 6,000 tonnes of fish.