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Hi-tech farms energise Singapore’s agri sector

Undertaking large-scale farming is near to impossible in a country like Singapore with a land area of just 724.2 square kilometres (279.6 square metres). According to Singapore Food Agency, only two square kilometres of the country’s land is available for farming, which is much lesser when compared with Malaysia, which uses more than 11 times the land for farming. This explains why over 90% of the food items in the island nation is imported.

Additonally, traditional farming methods are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Coupled with the rising population, farmers often heavily rely on nitrogen-based fertilisers to increase the yield, which inadvertently leads to nitrous oxide emissions, which further exacerbates climate change.

To take this problem head-on, an agri-tech company in Singapore uses methods like controlled environment agriculture, vertical farming, and hydroponics to grow their produce. These methods rely on a more efficient and sustainable way of farming.

Initially, the tech developer began to grow kale in the basement of a swimming pool at over 42 degrees, which was hitherto unheard of, as the item generally grows at a temperature of 18 to 20 degrees. After 18 months of heavy research, he launched a vertical farm that sells its products in stores.

The tech group uses methods like controlled environment agriculture (CEA), vertical farming and hydroponics to grow 52 varieties of microgreens, along with plants like strawberries, kale, lettuce, and spinach. The indoor farming facility has sensors operating 24 hours to provide the company with data on the health and status of all its plants. The parameters used include humidity, temperature, and light.  After receiving data from the sensors, its system adjusts the environment for each plant accordingly.

While most farmers use pesticides to manipulate the physical appearances of fruits and vegetables, the tech group does not use any. They stated that their product is 100% clean, meaning they go beyond organic as organic products still use pesticides, albeit lesser harmful ones. The group also made sure that haze/pollution do not penetrate the room where they harvest their crops.

While traditional farming is a highly laborious occupation with hours spent toiling under the parched sun, the farming experience for employees at the tech group is far different. Instead of someone working day and night, what happens is that everything inside the indoor farm is pre-scheduled. So, their team knows when a plant needs to move and be harvested because they can control exactly how much solar radiation goes to the plant.

In the future, the tech group plans on leveraging both indoor and outdoor farming methods. As of now, there are products not possible to grow on an indoor farm. That is why they believe that it is necessary for them to still leverage outdoor technology and improve it somewhat, so they can become more efficient with their products that are going out on land. Because the reality with indoor farming is that they can only grow limited products with it.

Last year, the tech group expanded into Hong Kong and Malaysia. They just got their third market under their belt with big ambitions to build across Southeast Asia and North Asia in the coming years. Although the hi-tech farm is cash-flow positive, the developer said that the company is more focused on growth rather than profits.

Such novel solutions developed by agrifood tech companies not only address Singapore’s food security challenges but could help other countries as well, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing. He added that having a portfolio of different agri-tech technologies that address various challenges in the country – such as systems that make more efficient use of water or energy, or those that allow alternative crops to be grown – would allow Singapore to use them to scale up local production when needed.

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