A False Sense of Food Security in High-tech Farming

Earlier this month, AVA announced that 10 parcels of vegetable farming land in Kranji will be awarded to 8 companies. These are all high-tech farming companies that use “productive  and  innovative  farming  systems, such  as  greenhouses  with  automation  and smart controls;  multi-tier  hydroponic systems  using  LED  lights  and  data  analytics  to  optimise  growing  conditions;  and multi-storey farms that use automated soilless cultivation system and robotics”.


Source: AVA website

On AVA’s website, the first thing listed under “What We Do” is ensuring food supply resilience. To me, food resilience and security is about meeting our entire population’s minimal nutritional needs with safe food during all situations. There are 3 reasons why I think leasing our agricultural land to these high-tech farms do not contribute to that.

1) Poor Calories

Calorie is key for food resilience. One can survive somewhat miserably on a pure rice diet. Change it to a pure chye sim diet and it’s a different story. These high-tech farms are definitely not growing rice. How about farming high-calorie vegetables that are full of carbohydrates to fill your stomach, like tapioca or sweet potato? After all, these were the kinds of food our grandparents and parents survived on during the Japanese occupation when there wasn’t enough to eat. Well, these companies are only allowed to grow leafy vegetables. Not root vegetables or even fruiting vegetables like long bean and eggplant.

AVA requires these farming companies to meet a production level so that they contribute to our food supply. However, this requirement is based on weight, not calories. A big chunk of the weight of leafy greens is water, which has zero calorie. And the proportion of water in these super-accelerated hydroponics-grown leafy greens is even higher. A kilogram of rice and a kilogram of chye sim is a world of difference during a food crisis when calories matter most.

One of the awarded companies grows “herbs for a niche fine-dining market” and now plans to also “produce leafy vegetables like lettuce for the mass market”. Another “plans to grow local tropical vegetables as well as value-added varieties such as butterhead lettuce and kale”. A tasty salad for sure but not what I would count on during lean times.

2) High Inputs

These high-tech farming methods rely on very high inputs. To construct one of these greenhouses would require a lot of capital, materials, and labour. Erecting a building, retrofitting a container, installing metal racks, air-conditioners, sensors, irrigation, computer analytics, etc. After the construction is done, maintenance needs include lots of specialized fertilizers (chemical or organic), growing substrate, electricity for LED lights and air-conditioning, water, etc. I made a similar low vs. high input comparison when I spoke at the FutureME conference back in 2016. It became quite awkward because many of the speakers were there to showcase their high-tech farming systems.

All these imported inputs are easily available now, during times of abundance. However, in times of food scarcity, it is also highly likely that these imported inputs (water, labour, fossil fuel, materials, etc) will also be in shortage. When it rains, it pours.

Globalized trade doesn’t work very well in times of instability. Imagine a souring relationship with our northern neighbor, causing a closure in the Causeway and consequently a shortage in food together with water, labour, and materials. What then will happen to these high-tech farms? “Going local” is increasingly being proposed as a solution to issues of the environment, ethics and community. However, in these situations, being local can actually be crucial for survival.

Some might think that water would not be an issue once we increase our desalination capacity. But the desalination process itself is very energy intensive, and energy prices might skyrocket during such times.

Another example of imported inputs: AVA is currently in the process of tendering farm land for food fish and livestock. The companies selected will probably be doing industrial farming. Layers (chickens primarily bred for egg laying) stacked in battery cages that will never, for their entire lives, feel the warmth of the sun, smell fresh air or scratch earth. Let’s not even talk about mating, or having offspring. In fact, the poor hens won’t even see a rooster ever. Nonetheless, AVA “safeguards the welfare of animals and prevents animal cruelty through regulation and education”. Livestock not included.


Source: AVA website

Ethical issues aside, these chickens will most likely be fed the usual dose of commercial feed coupled with medication like antibiotics and growth hormones. All imported. Likewise for fish farming. In this sense Singapore can be 100% self-sufficient in chickens, eggs, and fish by importing 100% of their feed. A false sense of security?

Instead of relying on large amounts of imported inputs, I think we are more secure if we rely on local inputs that we have more control over. The key is local and stable resources like sunshine, rain, soil, and the sea. Sunshine and rain we have an abundance of relative to most countries. We have the sea all around us that can yield ample food if we protect our marine ecosystems like mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass. Our soils cannot compare in fertility to volcanic countries like Indonesia or Philippines, but is something we can work with.

Unfortunately these high-tech farms will be destroying soils on our agricultural land by clearing the topsoil, right before concreting over it. In this video, you can watch the destruction of a 2 year old food forest that my natural farming friend started. Warning: not for the faint-hearted or soil lovers. To think this is land zoned for agriculture…

Aside from relying on high amounts of imported inputs, are these high-tech farms productive? AVA says that the awarded companies use “productive  and  innovative  farming  systems”. The mathematical definition for productivity is simple: output per unit of input. However, the actual measurement can be subjective. Are we calculating output based on calories, weight, or dollars? There is a multitude of inputs: land, labour, water, electricity, fertilizers, materials, etc. To add to the complexity, the productivity of a farm can be very different during times of abundance versus times of scarcity. For example, a productive farm that relies heavily on electricity will become very unproductive, due to rising input costs, when there is a shortage in fossil fuel and the price of energy shoots up. In determining productivity for food resilience, output ought to be calculated based on calories and inputs calculated using skyrocketing prices during crisis scenarios like a war, an embargo, etc.

3) Not Robust

Lastly, these high-tech farming systems are fragile. They fail too easily. A short blackout, water rationing, lack of imported fertilizers, a few days of sick leave, or clog in the pump can destroy their entire crop. Compare this to a banana plant grown outdoors. You can neglect it, forget to water it, and let the weeds run wild. It might not be as productive, but at least it’s still alive and yields a little food. Tapioca is another superstar: highly drought resistant and yields carbohydrates in poor soil without fertilizers.

Diversity in food types can also help to reduce the risk of food shortage. Certain plants yield more than one kind of food. Other than the ripe bananas we are familiar with, unripe green bananas are a source of starch once cooked. Its stem and inflorescence can be eaten as vegetables. While not terribly fancy, you can still dish up a somewhat nutritious two-course meal with sweet potato tubers and sweet potato leaves, or taro tubers with taro stems, or tapioca tubers with tapioca shoots.

Food resilience is not just about the growing process; the entire food supply chain from the farm to your dining table must not be fragile. That’s why ease of storage needs to be considered too. These annual leafy greens (plants that grow and die within a short season) need to be harvested within a tight window before they grow old and wilt. They might stay viable for a couple more weeks in the fridge, or until the next blackout. Compare that to perennials (plants which have a longer life span) like sweet potato and tapioca. The tubers can be stored without refrigeration for a couple of weeks. Their leaves harvested whenever you want to eat them. Even better, pull out the tubers from the soil only when you need them and you gain a few more months of storage without electricity.

There is wisdom in why traditional subsistence farmers in the tropics rely their lives on certain plants.

What then?

I am not against technology per se. I just think that it should be used appropriately. We are a nation of technocrats and I think we sometimes use technology just for the sake of technology. Our government gives big grants for technology in farming hoping that it would improve food security. However, these grants sometimes become subsidies for businesses to throw money at far-stretched technologies, without the prudence had the money been taken from your own wallet.

Some technologies that can improve food resilience would be those that build soil fertility. As you are reading this, so much fertility is being thrown away. Our population of over 5 million humans eat one of the richest diets in the world and excrete so much “humanure” every day. We treat it as waste and flush it into the sea, and not before mixing it with lots of potable water. Why not use technology to turn it into safe and rich compost for farming. Instead of heading to the landfills, our food waste can also be better utilized to return fertility to our soils. We have already partnered with a school to use their food waste in their food garden, using a simple and lazy composting method. My friends in Johor started FOLO, a small family-run organic farm that composts over 3 tons of food waste a day. One small lorry and some determined individuals. Imagine the possibilities with serious government backing.

Furthermore, AVA’s mandates of ensuring food security while promoting agribusiness and agrotechnology can sometimes clash. These high-tech farming companies are simply doing what private companies do – making a profit. It’s not fair to force them to grow low-value vegetables like tapioca or taro. To rely on capitalism to solve food security saves the government money, but the costs are high. Imagine outsourcing our military to private companies. We have already witnessed the problems of outsourcing public transport.

It might be asking too much of these agribusinesses to play a role in food security and also maintain business viability. Imagine asking our army to be financially profitable. There might be less conflict if vegetable lands are allocated for either food security or agribusiness. Not both. Land for agribusiness would be tendered based on price and they are free to grow what they want. Land for food security can be model farms operated by AVA with the possibility of replicating these across Singapore during a food crisis. These model farms will be using farming methods and crops most suited to ensuring food resilience. Like military exercises, these model farms will be stress tested for crisis scenarios such as two-week water shortage, 48-hour blackout, or sudden shortage of labour.

There are lots of empty spaces in Singapore that can be converted into productive farms when the need arises: empty land awaiting development, football fields, public parks, sidewalks, etc. What we need are trained personnel and an implementation plan. It has happened before during the Japanese occupation. Even our grand Padang was not spared from cultivating tapioca. Government workers were mandated to cultivate their plots for at least 4 hours a week. Primary school students were taught gardening and tended to farms in the schools. Imagine turning the landscape of Singapore into a vegetable garden!

In current times of abundance, it might seem silly and wasteful to grow “cheap” vegetables like tapioca and bananas in land-scare Singapore. Yes, compared to outsourcing food security, it’s going to require more resources annually from the government to run such model farms. However, there’s a Chinese saying: an army is maintained for years waiting to be used in a single day. I hope we don’t have to fill our stomachs with lettuce when that day comes!


Source: AVA website

So far, I have shared my thoughts of high-tech and industrial farming with regards to food security. We should also consider the other problems of environmental sustainability, nutritional value of produce, and ethics. But that would be for another time.

Meanwhile, my natural farming friend whose food forest got destroyed in the video link above wrote 2 articles comparing high-tech farming with natural farming.

  1. Indoor High-Tech Farming Vs Natural Farming
  2. Rise of high-tech farming – a worrying trend

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