The future of local farming: Balancing technology and nature
SINGAPORE: Imagine a future where all of Singapore’s vegetables are grown in a completely controlled environment, and where every stage of a plant’s growth can be calibrated – from its soil composition to the amount of air and light it gets.
Such farm factories are fast becoming a reality indoors, located in warehouses and industrial buildings.
Hothousing them in this way allows for a faster and smarter way of growing greens, thanks to agrotechnology – such as the use of artificial LED light, computer-controlled watering and fertilising, and genome editing of crops. At the same time, such vertical farms have a smaller physical and energy footprint.
There has been rising interest around the world in indoor farms, said Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup from the Department of Biological Science at the National University of Singapore. “Not only (are we seeing) large-scale production which is under controlled conditions, but it is also now comparable to what people can get from outdoor cultivation.”
Currently, there are around 200 food farms in Singapore producing fish, eggs and vegetables – 15 of which are indoor farms.
PRODUCTIVITY THE NEW BUZZWORD
“We realised that manpower is getting more and more difficult to hire and it’s getting more expensive,” said its business development manager Dave Huang. “At the same time, the Government is giving out grants to offset all the machinery that you buy for the company. So that’s why we decided to adopt technology.”
Since then, Mr Huang said that the farm has seen “better consistency” in its output, with the technology providing more consistent irrigation to its crops.
More young urban farmers are also exploring how to harmonise both the hardware and “heartware” of farming – such as Citizen Farm, a first-of-its-kind closed loop urban farming system.
The 8,000-sq-m farm, located in Queenstown, makes use of insect farming to turn food waste into fertiliser, which is then supplied to its food crops.
“We incorporate natural elements in the modern technology we use today,” said its head farmer Darren Ho. “We looked around in the cities and we realised what is in abundance is food waste. We use insect farming to turn this food waste into fertiliser, which is then transferred onto our growing systems, which then produces high-quality food. And then it goes back into our consumers which then generates food waste again.
“So this is part of this circular economy approach, as opposed to a linear approach, whereby you put inputs and expect outputs.”
The farm grows its greens – such as microgreens, lettuce and tomatoes – in both indoor and outdoor spaces. It also has a mushroom farm and aquaponics farm rearing fish, with nutrients from its waste being absorbed by vegetables in its indoor farm.
Apart from conducting corporate farm tours, it has also tasked itself with a social mission, by employing people with autism and Down’s syndrome. It also plans to start an urban farming school in October.
“I think that the advancement of technology should not come at the expense of human capital,” said Mr Ho. “We have to look at what our society is made up of first, look at what’s needed … and what we value around us, before we get too ahead of ourselves with technology.
“Same thing with our farm – we do want to see robotics and technology for agriculture advance, but never at the expense of human capital or our workforce,” he said, citing an example of giving more dangerous jobs to robots instead of workers.
As more farmers find ways to balance the value of both technology and nature, the future of local farming looks bright.
Ms Wan is optimistic. “I hope to see children being able to see farms as how they’re supposed to be – animals that can see the light and breathe outdoor air, and also appreciate technology to increase productivity and automise land space,” she said.
“If they’re able to see both sides, they can better decide for themselves how to merge the two.”