SINGAPORE (Sept 16): On the roof of the recently opened Funan Mall is a budding urban farm. After climbing five flights of metal stairs onto the roof, one almost immediately encounters a row of chilli padi, the quintessential Asian spice, and an arch of blooming butterfly pea creeper, whose flowers are valued as an antioxidant these days. Elsewhere, multi-storey rows of Okinawan spinach and a bed of dragon fruit plants; a small aquaculture facility with some tilapia in a tank, another small room with microgreens, and a “mushroom fruiting chamber” fill up the 5,000 sq ft of space.

“Everything is grown lovingly and responsibly — hand-tended, pesticide-free and with minimal waste,” reads an information plaque.

The farm by Edible Garden City, the urban farming social enterprise that is also behind local farming collective Citizen Farm, is one of several initiatives in Singapore aimed at turning agriculture into a hot new growth sector. Indeed, urban farming and high-tech farming methods are set to play a big role in Singapore’s vision of producing 30% of its food needs locally by the year 2030. Food security is becoming an issue in an increasingly populated world, and the city state, which imports 90% of its food, is getting nervous.

But our story in this week’s issue looks at how the local farming industry seems ill-equipped, or ill-prepared, to achieve that goal. Roughly 13% of vegetables, 9% of fish and 24% of eggs consumed annually are produced locally. Clearly, the farming industry has to take major steps in order to hit the 30% target.

To be sure, there are already several high-tech firms and start-ups operating in the industry. They include Sustenir Agriculture, which has been in the news for growing kale and strawberries — typically temperate crops — in tropical Singapore. According to the Singapore Food Agency, there were 34 vertical, tech-based farms here, from 29 in 2017 and just 12 in 2016. The government is seeking to attract and nurture more of these agri-tech firms with grants and other infrastructure support, as we report this week. Such farms claim to be able to yield 10 to 15 times more vegetables or even fish per hectare than traditional, land-based farms.

Indeed, traditional farmers seem to be left out in the cold. Our reporter spoke to several farmers here who unanimously agree that the costs of farming have spiralled out of control and the business is fast becoming unsustainable for them. Converting their farms into tech-based enterprises will cost millions of dollars, and the grants available would barely make a dent in that.

One vegetable farm gets the bulk of its revenue from reselling vegetables from wholesalers at higher prices to hotels and restaurants, and organising tours of its farm. A dairy farmer we spoke to earns more hiring out his cows for religious ceremonies than for the milk they produce. Meanwhile, a fish farmer quit to become a despatch rider when it was no longer viable for him to continue.

Farmers leaving the industry means farming would lose significant domain expertise and experience that took decades to build up. The new crop of farmers seems to be mainly businessmen and bankers.

Still, the tech-based farms are projecting bountiful harvests that would ostensibly contribute substantially towards Singapore’s “30 by 30” vision.

The poster child for tech-enabled farming is fish farm Barramundi Asia. It has a sophisticated feeding system to evenly distribute the fish food, which are pellets with carefully calibrated nutritional content, and are traceable to help identify problems quickly. The fish are vaccinated and the company has in-house labs to test for viruses or bacteria that cause disease. The farm’s local facilities currently produce 800 tonnes of fish a year. But it is expecting a production of 6,000 tonnes a year by 2026.

Yet, these projections, as with the targets set by the other high-tech farms here, are just that — projections. Some experts have cautioned that it takes time for technology to yield results; one wondered if some projections were too ambitious in the first place, and aimed at getting funding.

Some of these high-tech farms have yet to make money, as our story shows. Edible Garden City recorded losses of more than $200,000 for FY2018, while Barramundi Asia, which was backed by Commonwealth Capital and recently unveiled a $2 million nursery expansion, recorded losses of $6.14 million in FY2017. However, Sustenir’s co-founder and CEO Benjamin Swan told CNBC earlier this year the company had just broken even, and had raised $22 million for its expansion here and into Hong Kong.

Bollywood Veggies farm founder Ivy Singh-Lim, well-known for speaking her mind, wonders if Singapore’s farms should really just be places for recreation, where people can bond with nature.

After all, it is hard to imagine how the delicate microgreens and strawberries grown in these farms would come to the rescue of Singaporeans in the event of a food shortage. 

This story first appeared in The Edge Singapore (Issue 899, week of Sept 16) which is on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here