SINGAPORE (Nov 12): In 2010, electrical engineer David Tan made his way from Singapore to a remote village in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He worked with the villagers, who mostly farm rice and corn, to fix some irrigation problems at a children’s home. The community gained better access to water, while Lin gained an appreciation for the farming community. He eventually decided to start a farming cooperative in Singapore called CrowdFarmX, which aims to train Southeast Asian farmers to adopt better farming practices and technologies to raise yield. And Tan knows that by helping farmers improve their businesses, he is playing a small part to bolster regional food security.

Apart from Tan, a number of start-ups and other companies in Singapore have also started ventures in farming, urban or otherwise. And they have weighty reasons for getting involved.

Last year, Singapore imported 1.45 billion eggs, 525,686 tonnes of vegetables and 182,822 tonnes of chicken. All of that comes from 180 other countries. Malaysia is one of our largest food sources, accounting for a third of chicken and 76% of eggs. Thailand supplies eggs, sugar, milk, fruits, vegetable, rice and fish to us.

However, farmland in the region is depleting and has become susceptible to erratic and often devastating weather events such as Typhoon Mangkhut in the Philippines. Natural disasters cost the Asian agricultural sector US$48 billion in damage between 2005 and 2015, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This has hurt food supply, and as the population in Asia grows, it is increasingly a worry.

As Singapore companies venture to help secure food supply in the region, they are made aware of the multiple challenges the agricultural industry faces. For one, Asia is home to the largest number of smallholder farmers in the world and these farmers are responsible for a significant part of the world’s supply chain. However, they are also the least productive compared to farmers in other regions because of outmoded farming methods, as well as a lack of capital and know-how to acquire updated technologies.

In addition, the public sector in some of these farming countries are also unlikely, or unable, to invest in improving the agricultural industry because of domestic or political struggles. As a result, many of these farms are unprofitable, held hostage to the vagaries of climate changes, as well as low-value crops and predatory middlemen.

In recent years, large corporations have entered the picture, seizing the opportunity to tap the world’s largest market of smallholder farmers. As we report inside, the companies offer the farmers a myriad of services, from drones to sensors and hybrid seeds. Leading the charge are companies such as Bayer Crop Science and Corteva Agriscience. Both claim to have alleviated some of the productivity issues that farmers face and narrowed the gap between food demand and yield.

But while the corporations’ innovations and improvements may be welcome, the co-existence can be an uneasy alliance. Farmers worry about the monopoly on seed prices and agrochemicals that they have become dependent on, for instance. As such, regulations and guidelines are needed to ensure fair practices from the farm to the table.

In Singapore, there is yet another set of challenges, not least the limited amount of arable land. Last year, there were 126 fish farms, 78 vegetable farms and 20 other assorted farms in the mix, according to data from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) of Singapore. Collectively, they produced 10% of fish, 13% of vegetables and 27% of eggs consumed locally last year. This was produced on less than 1% of the total land area in Singapore.

Farmland in Singapore is leased and farmers have complained that uncertain lease tenures as well as competition from cheaper Malaysian food imports are major obstacles to their upgrading their farms. Some worry they may not be able to recoup investments made in high-tech farming machinery because of the short land tenure. And, according to official data, farming area has shrunk from 823.83ha in 2012, to 764.6ha in 2016.

But that is changing. AVA is focused on growing the agro-technology sector, such as vertical farms and other technology-driven intensive farming methods. It tendered out 15 plots of land for vegetable and food-fish farming on 20-year leases, instead of the 10-year leases offered in previous exercises. The move was in part to promote high-tech farming with minimal manpower. In February this year, 10 plots were awarded to eight companies. There is also an agriculture productivity fund of $63 million to help farmers pay for modern technologies and farming systems.

Still, many traditional farmers will find themselves eased out of the market if they cannot transform their farms quick enough. After all, there are many hopeful entrepreneurs, armed with sensors and data and controlled environments, who are hoping to change Singapore’s agricultural sector for the better.  

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 856, week of Nov 12) which is on sale now. Subscribe here