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COMMENT: Can 1% of Singapore's land feed its population?

·6-min read
This photograph taken on September 7, 2020 shows the general view of a rooftop garden used for urban farming to grow edible plants above the Raffles City mall in Singapore. - On the rooftop of a Singapore shopping mall, a sprawling patch of eggplants, rosemary, bananas and papayas stand in colourful contrast to the grey skyscrapers of the city-state's business district. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) / TO GO WITH Singapore-environment-agriculture, FOCUS by Martin Abbugao (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
From fish farms bobbing in the Straits of Johor to industrial warehouses and the rooftops of hotels downtown, urban farming is all the rage in Singapore. (PHOTO: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

(Bloomberg Opinion) — From fish farms bobbing in the Straits of Johor to industrial warehouses and the rooftops of hotels downtown, urban farming is all the rage in Singapore. Covid-19 has given the country, which produces only a tiny fraction of what its people eat, a big scare. Dependence on neighbours for sustenance is a huge vulnerability the government says it's determined to rectify.

Developing agriculture almost from scratch doesn't come easy. Obstacles include a shortage of labor, competition from lower-cost economies elsewhere in Asia and a chronic scarcity of space. How the nation addresses these hurdles will say a lot about whether food self-sufficiency is a fad or a smart deployment of state muscle. 

The Singapore Food Agency is dispensing millions of dollars to solve this existential challenge. While food supplies have held up during the pandemic, some shelves were emptied of staples like rice and instant noodles in the early days. A few months ago, truckloads of chickens from Malaysia perished while drivers waited for hours at Covid checkpoints.

“Nobody contemplated the Causeway shutting down or air freight becoming more difficult,” said Benjamin Swan, co-founder and chief executive officer of Sustenir Group, referring to one of two road links to Malaysia. His company, whose backers include sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings Pte., grows vegetables vertically in a warehouse in Singapore's northern suburbs. “We got lucky this time. Next pandemic, who knows?”

All farming in Singapore is urban. One of the most densely populated countries, you can drive across it in about half an hour. At independence in 1965, roughly a quarter of the city-state’s land was devoted to agriculture. Now it's closer to 1%. In the decades between, mile after mile was cleared for high-rise public housing, malls, schools and highways. 

The population has also swollen to 5.7 million from about 2 million as the republic grew from a backwater to a commercial hub. Gross domestic product per capita is about US$65,000, among the highest in the world. For all that success, Singapore is heavily reliant on suppliers overseas for the basics of modern life: food, electricity, water and labor. 

The government has been working quietly for years to reduce this reliance on neighbours, with whom relations have oscillated. (Indonesia violently opposed the creation of Malaysia in 1963, of which Singapore was briefly part.)

The nation’s food goal is nominally modest: source 30% of nutrition needs locally by the end of the decade, up from about 10% now. But after years of prioritising finance, aviation, shipping, petrochemicals and tourism, it's a significant shift of emphasis. “For years, Singapore didn't have to think about providing its own food,” said Farshad Shishehchian, chief executive officer of Blue Aqua International Pte., which rears shrimp and fish in vast tanks. “The view was: ‘I have money, I can buy it.’ Now there is a realisation, especially after Covid hit, that food is more essential than anything.”

The government’s focus is on eggs, vegetables and marine fare. (For now, those famous chicken rice dishes at the local hawker center will still rely on foreign birds.) With global food demand projected to climb by more than half by 2050, the republic needs to put meals on the table while trying to figure out how much land to reclaim for its existing population. Climate change is a particularly grave threat for a small island nation. While Singapore’s drive to secure the food chain preceded the pandemic, the government is now urging producers to “ grow more and grow faster.”

From his farm on the northern tip of Singapore — my cell phone told me I was in Malaysia — Shishehchian produces about 120 tons of shrimp a year, a drop in the bucket compared with the roughly 30,000 tons imported. His edge isn't price — shoppers can buy frozen shrimp from Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand for far less. But his inventory is fresh: Every day at about 6 a.m., trucks leave his farm for supermarkets across the city-state. And he’s planning additional facilities, which should boost production to 450 tons of fish for consumption and 320 tons of shrimp a year. Blue Aqua has received S$1.2 million ($900,000) from the Singapore Food Agency since 2019.

Like farmers in Sussex or South Dakota, Singaporeans tending the land and water wish that office dwellers had a better appreciation for what they are up against. Some gently grumble about shortages of labor, and the cost of power and water. There are huge risks, explained Ong Jong Yang, owner of Smith Marine, whose farm rearing seabass, grouper and snapper sits in the narrow waters separating Singapore from Malaysia. These include tidal surges, pollution and changes in water temperature. Toxic algae blooms wiped out 500 tons of fish in scores of coastal fish farms in 2015, according to the Straits Times.

Still, thanks to all the buzz, everyone wants to be in agriculture these days, Ong grouses. Many won't make it, despite generous grants from the government, he says from the shed of the outboard motor business he also runs. “Grants can be helpful, but also a burden if people can't get the job done,” said Ong, who received about S$30,000. He didn't want to attract attention by turning one down. “I don't want to look special.”

It's great to have fish protein that can rumble down the Central Expressway to supermarkets. But fish don't just appear from thin-air. The fingerlings from Ong's operation come from Malaysia. Blue Aqua's brooding stock travels all the way from Florida and Hawaii. So what will food self-sufficiency ultimately mean?

The idea isn’t to replace overseas suppliers entirely — that isn’t realistic — but to have a buffer for a couple of months if required, said William Chen, a professor of food science at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In that light, the idea of “30 by 30” — that is, 30% of nutrition sourced locally by 2030 — is a realistic goal. Chen reckons S$144 million has been allocated by the Singapore Food Agency to related projects, including urban farming, alternative protein and other innovation.

At Sustenir, the vertical farm, going inside the plant requires donning white plastic overalls, hair nets and gloves, not unlike visiting a clean room in a semiconductor factory. As I drove home, buildings that spoke to Singapore's industrial history, emblazoned with signs for 3M Co. and Seagate Technology Plc, whizzed past — symbols of the era of manufacturing globalisation. One of the founding ideas of the country's development was to focus on economies of scale and what it could do best, while outsourcing the rest. Singapore’s big investment targeting modest results turns this model upside down. But that’s all the more reason it can succeed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.