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In vast contrast to the grey skyscrapers of Singapore’s business district, atop a shopping mall, a vibrant patch of aubergine, rosemary, papayas, and bananas stand out in a 10,000 sq. ft site that is one of a growing number of rooftop farms in a country that is short of space.
As the world looks to a post-COVID future, and how we can engineer cities to be greener, and nations to be less reliant on food imports, Singapore is one of many cities and counties providing a model for self-sustainability.
The city-state is heavily reliant on imports, and the government has championed the drive to produce more food locally especially amid climate change concerns, reduced global crop yields, trade tensions, and now especially the coronavirus pandemic.
One of several companies operating urban farms is Edible Garden City, which has 80 rooftop sites, as well as creating food gardens in places such as a former prison, shipping containers, and high-rise apartment balconies, and the mentioned shopping mall site.
Samuell Ang, chief executive of Edible Garden City, said: “The common misconception is that there’s no space for farming in Singapore because we are land scarce. We want to change the narrative. We want to advocate that you really do not need large parcels of land”
The firm grows over 50 varieties of food, from aubergines, red okra, and passion fruit, to leafy vegetables, edible flowers, and ‘microgreens’, vegetables harvested while still young.
It also uses modern high-tech farming methods. The firm is currently testing a specialised system of hydroponics developed by a Japanese company. The system features sensors the continually monitor the conditions inside the shipping container, and strict hygiene rules mean that the crops are grown without the need for pesticides.
Edible Garden City’s produce is harvested, packed, and the delivered all on the same day, usually to restaurants, but they also provide a regular delivery box of fruit and vegetables subscription service to online customers.
Sales to restaurants slowed when Singapore shut down businesses to contain the coronavirus from April to June, but Ang said household clients grew three-fold in the same period.
Government authorities said in 2019 they were aiming to source 30 per cent of the population’s nutritional needs locally by 2030, and also want to increase the production of fish and eggs as well as vegetables.
As the pandemic continues to disrupt global supply chains, the Singapore government has increased its efforts, announcing the rooftops of nine car parks would become urban farms and releasing Sg$30 million ($22 million) to boost local food production.
William Chen, director of the food, science and technology programme at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said developing city farms was a ‘way to buffer the shock of supply chain breakdowns’, and that the concept of rooftop gardening in the city was a ‘bright option’.
However, there are still limits on what a small, but packed country can achieve, and it would still be reliant on the imports of other staples, such as meat and rice, lacking the land required for animal farms and grains.
The country also has a skills shortage in agriculture, and those with an interest in farming do not have the relevant experience.
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