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Urban Farming on the Rise: Your next salad could be grown indoors

23 August 2021

Urban farming in Singapore’s two square kilometres of arable land, a new solution for food security brought by innovation, technology, and lifestyle transformation.

The COVID-19 crisis has been a wake-up call. Most of us will remember those moments of anxiety when grocery store shelves were wiped out. Media reports told of farmers dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk, burying millions of pounds of onions, or even smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week. Crops worth billions of dollars were wasted, some rotting in the field, as restaurants and other food service businesses, disrupted by lockdowns, and stopped buying.

Nonetheless, the problem was short-lived – as the complex web of players that move food from farm to fork gradually came back to life. The food system did not break, but it flinched – and people noticed, experiencing for the first time, that we cannot take for granted what has always been readily available on the market shelves. Here at Maybank, we see the experience with COVID-19 as a kind of stress test for our global food system, highlighting its strengths as well as its weak points.

In that light, the pandemic has helped us focus on what truly needs to change to build a more resilient system moving forward. As a society, we are likely to need that resilience soon, as climate change makes floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events more common. Those challenges will require changes in where and how we grow food, and in the way society structures the supply chains that keep food, fertilizer and other commodities moving around the world.

The issue of food security is of particular concern to Singapore, which only has two square kilometres of arable land1 - 11 times less than Malaysia, our closest neighbor. Large-scale farming is next to impossible with a land area of just 724.2 square kilometres2, leaving the city-state to import almost 90 percent from more than 170 countries to meet its food and agricultural needs. And so, when the pandemic struck, food items experienced a surge in prices.

Fortunately, city authorities have been preparing for a crisis like COVID-19 for several years. The Singapore Food Authority (SFA) launched its ambitious “30 by 30” initiative in 2019, with the objective of producing 30 percent of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally by the year 2030. Supported by a mix of government grants and incentives, 30 by 30 calls for all Singaporeans to grow what they can by leveraging technology towards meeting this goal.

However, only 1% of Singapore’s land is currently being used for conventional farming, which poses a huge challenge in growing sufficient produce on scarce land. At last count in 2019, Singapore had 220 farms, but was only meeting 14 percent of its demand for leafy vegetables, 26 percent for eggs and 10 percent for fish. To address this, innovative initiatives for growing food in urban spaces including retrofitted building interiors, carpark rooftops and reused outdoor spaces have emerged:

  • Sustenir Agriculture created an indoor vertical farm that can retrofit into existing buildings. The company grows foods that cannot be produced locally, displacing imports and mitigating carbon emissions.
  • Citiponics, a company that "aims to build a community of people through education and food accessibility", runs a farm on the rooftop of a carpark in Ang Mo Kio using an Aqua Organic System (AOS). Surrounded by HDB blocks, Citiponics brings food production closer to the community.
  • Natsuki’s Garden is a greenhouse in the center of the city, occupying reused space in a former schoolyard. The greenhouse is designed for the tropical climate, enabling better air circulation. Yielding 60-80 kg of food per square meter, the greenhouse caters to a small local market.

Although these creative innovations are contributing towards an increase in food production, high production urban farms still face the question of long-term sustainability. Unlike other sectors in Singapore with long-term policy, infrastructure and other forms of support, agricultural initiatives could not afford to invest heavily in expensive and experimental technology. Moreover, short land leases make seeing a return on investments, which require a longer timeline, a significant obstacle.

Therefore, if Singapore is to be serious about urban farming going forward, seeing it not just as a possible economic engine but a sector with potential for innovation and lifestyle transformation, a more rounded development trajectory for the local agricultural industry is necessary. In addition to technology, Singaporeans themselves must begin to acquire the skills and knowledge required for making urban farming a part of their daily lives.

Perhaps the most important impact of COVID-19 on the world’s food system is having surfaced a strong impetus for reform, not only in government policies or business practices, but lifestyle choices as well. Ten years from now, we may look back and see that the pandemic had a short-term impact, but it may also accelerate us towards a more sustainable system. The biggest opportunity lies in people’s minds, since they are now more aware of the need to be better prepared for the future.

Whether the next food crisis comes from another pandemic or drought – one of the big lessons from the current pandemic is that we will need to work together to ensure that food supplies continue when times are bad. From farm to fork, our food systems must be repurposed to better produce and supply safe and nutritious food. Additionally, environmental damage due to food production and consumption also need to be addressed to ensure sustainable food systems.

Maybank has been actively playing its role in promoting and equipping local communities in Southeast Asia with the know-how in urban farming since even before the pandemic began. Back in 2016, we launched eMpowering Youths Across ASEAN, which included awareness building programmes for villages in Indonesia that emphasised the benefits of urban farming while helping them set up their own urban farming sites.

Meanwhile, our Maybank Academy learning hub located in Malaysia offers an “Urban Farming Programme”, which was established to nurture a sustainable mindset and entrepreneurial skills within our employees. Comprising innovative urban farming courses, the programme helps employees adopt a greener lifestyle that is easy on the pocket as well as the environment. It also offers opportunities for those with business acumen to turn urban farming into a commercially viable business venture.

Taking our learnings from these projects and around the region, and contributing to the communities we serve, Maybank Singapore will be launching an urban farming initiative specially for Singaporeans. We will be hosting an open gardening workshop for beginners interested in trying their hand at growing local produce. This initiative is aligned with Maybank’s mission to champion good at the heart of the community, introducing new ways to cater to changing needs, all #ForYou.



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