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Feeding Cities of the Future with Agricultural Technology

  Published: 13 November 2018
  Theme: Future Economy

With advanced technological expertise and reliable infrastructure, cities such as Singapore are aiming to grow food very differently from the traditional rural farming approach. As opposed to taking up huge tracts of land and requiring large amounts of water and manpower, agriculture technology (agritech) companies are harnessing technology to grow more food with fewer resources — in line with the high-density demands of urban development.

Today, land- and resource-scarce Singapore produces only a small amount of food for its 5.6 million population, leaving the country vulnerable to disruptions in the global food supply chain. However, by leveraging on innovative farming technologies, the agriculture sector could help to boost local food production and move Singapore towards greater self-sufficiency.

Agritech: State of Play in Singapore

High-yield agriculture may be key to feeding a high-density city. Currently, vertical outdoor farms and indoor farm factories constitute Singapore’s main high-tech farming typologies. Vertical outdoor farms intensify vegetable production by growing crops in successive, rotating layers that facilitate maximum light absorption and optimise land use. Indoor farm factories use novel technologies to grow food in a controlled environment, reducing the risk of harm from environmental factors such as floods, droughts and sun damage.

Leveraging on the rise of new technologies, this shift from labour- to capital-intensive agricultural production techniques has seen a new breed of farmers entering the industry. Equipped with knowledge and experience in various fields including engineering, design and information systems, these new industry players are accelerating the sector’s application of high-tech farming typologies.

For example, agritech companies such as Archisen are currently testing these innovations at the prototype stage, while institutes and consultancy firms like the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory and Netatech are pushing ahead to turn their research into mass market products and scalable solutions to meet the demands of a growing population.

Sustenir Agriculture is another example of a local industry player operating within an indoor farm environment where climactic variables are tightly controlled. The farm grows 72 tonnes of kale and lettuce a year in a 340-square-metre space1. It is also able to cultivate temperate produce such as kale, strawberries and cherry tomatoes in half the amount of time it would take to grow them under normal conditions, and is already selling its produce to various restaurant chains2.

What Agritech Facilities Can Yield

Faced with limited availability of land, certain agritech companies, like Archisen, are also exploring facilities that improve crop yield with less space.

Located within a light industrial building in central Singapore, Archisen’s 185.8-square-metre (2,000-square-foot) “demo farm” is an example of such a facility that is currently in the testbed stage.

Archisen Indoor Farm 

Archisen's indoor demo farm occupies less than 200 square metres, but can produce up to 43 tonnes of lettuce per year. (Photo: Archisen)

“A traditional outdoor farm can only produce 1,200 heads for [that] footprint, and only up to four cycles a year,” says Archisen’s co-founder Sven Yeo. In contrast, he suggests that Archisen’s technology can produce up to 24,000 heads of lettuce per cycle, up to 15 cycles a year at that scale — a total of about 43 tonnes.

At Sky Urban’s vertical outdoor farm, a series of growing towers — some of which reach nine metres in height — are similarly productive. A combined 800 towers of over 10,000 square metres (107,639 square feet, or roughly one-and-a-half football fields) can produce 839 tonnes of leafy vegetables per year. With the current rate of technological advancement, 2,000 towers may be able to produce more than three times more leafy vegetables per year — over just 36,500 square metres (more than 392,882 square feet).

Although more land-intensive than indoor farm factories per tonne of yield, vertical outdoor farms tend to be less energy-intensive as they use natural sunlight instead of artificial lighting in the form of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Sky Urban 

Today, Sky Urban's towers are six times more productive than the median local farm, paving the way forward for a food-resilient future Singapore.

Innovations Empowering Urban Farming

Innovations in two areas are empowering the rise of urban farming.

Firstly, the ability to control climactic variables in order to facilitate crop growth has reduced dependency on external climate conditions. The precise control of variables in an indoor environment ensures a steady supply of fresher, pesticide-free produce, while reducing the reliance of crop growth on changes in soil conditions, external temperature and humidity levels, rainfall and light intensity.

The advent of big data analytics present the opportunity to further optimize the composition of resource inputs and climatic variables with the goal of creating higher yields. For example, sensors at Archisen’s indoor demo farm constantly monitor data on growing conditions that affect the plant from stem upwards. Collected data on ambient temperature, relative humidity, light energy (from the LEDs) and carbon dioxide levels is then uploaded to a cloud data bank, which can be analysed to compute optimal crop-growing algorithms.

Vertical Farming

A conceptual illustration of Sky Urban's hydraulic-driven, vertical farm.

Secondly, innovative hardware solutions are aiding in farms becoming more land-intensive while still being productive. For example, Sky Urban’s Lim Chu Kang facility employs an innovative mechanical system of vertical farming. Creating a self-regulating system, vegetable troughs attached to the growing towers are rotated by a hydraulic water-driven system to ensure even exposure to sunlight. The vegetables troughs are also dipped into a dipping pond at the base of each tower, to ensure sufficient supply of water and nutrients. These innovations help the farm to productively yield vegetable produce despite the conventional challenges associated with vertical farming.

While agritech companies have been demonstrating the various benefits of the innovative technologies behind urban farming, there are still challenges to existing high-tech farming typologies typologies. For example, a vertical outdoor farm in Singapore may leave crops vulnerable to changes in weather and climate3. On the other hand, indoor farm factories are not limited by natural elements, as light, temperature and humidity levels can be controlled and adjusted to optimal levels. However, indoor systems often depend entirely on artificial lights, which incur significant environmental and financial cost in the long run.

These difficulties raise the need for continuous in-depth research into and development of innovative agritech methods that may provide viable solutions to increasing and sustaining crop yield in urban spaces.

Netatech 

New technologies that will enable high-density planting and zero run-off in urban environments. (Photo: Netatech)

A Collaborative Approach for Further Gains

The existence of urban farming prototypes and typologies is proof that the farming industry in Singapore is flourishing. Moving forward, a focus on research can accelerate the development of new innovations in the agritech field, which is crucial to meeting the demands of a growing urban population in a city with limited space and resources.

To this end, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge University, ETH Zurich and Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory are researching and developing ways to use sensors to detect chemical changes and track the health of crops in real time. The aim of this study, as reported in The Straits Times, is to minimise food waste by reducing the amount of unhealthy produce thrown out by farmers. The team will also be working closely with Greenphyto, a local developer of automated vertical farming systems4, to see how this innovation can be implemented in a commercial setting5.

Adopting a holistic, research-centric and collaborative approach towards agriculture is a strategic move that promises to yield positive outcomes for food production in dense cities. As more research is ploughed into urban farming solutions and more capital is pumped into developing agricultural technologies, cities like Singapore can gradually move closer towards making the switch from resource consumers to self-sufficient and sustainable producers.

References

  1. https://www.ava.gov.sg/files/AVAVision/Issue1_2018/farming-in-unusual-spaces.html
  2. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/new-crop-farms-harvest-rich-pickings
  3. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15487733.2017.1394054
  4. https://smart.mit.edu/news-events/news/poised-for-impact-on-urban-farming-and-overcoming-antimicrobial-resistance-
  5. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/new-research-programmes-and-governing-council-established-to-address-the-challenges
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