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”.

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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. Continue reading

Project Lui – Permaculture at a Private Resort

It’s been a few months since we started work at a private resort situated 45 minutes by car from Kuala Lumpur. We spend 2 to 3 weeks a month there as farmer-in-residence, trying to change current practices to be more aligned with permaculture principles. The landowner bought the 8 acre land over 20 years ago and has been wanting to practice permaculture on it. There are some beautiful old traditional Malay and Indonesian houses that she transported over for guests to stay in comfortably.

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The land is long and narrow. Mostly flat except for a depression serving as a wetland that fills with water periodically, and a slope with a secondary forest. It is surrounded by secondary forest all around. No issue with flooding, based on memory at least. Continue reading

Foraging for Edible Mushrooms – Termite Mushroom

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I never thought that wild mushrooms in Malaysia and Singapore could be edible. The image of picking mushrooms from the ground and placing them in a weaved basket to bring home for dinner doesn’t seem realistic here. It’s only possible in a children’s storybook happening in temperate Europe where everything is pristine, not in our tropical land of mosquitoes and leeches.

I realized this isn’t true ever since we started staying at Project Lui. We are in the rural villages amidst foggy mountains and waterfalls. Knowledge of the land is still somewhat strong here and people still forage for food in the wild. One of the wild mushrooms we learned about is the termite mushroom. Actually I came up with the name myself because I don’t think there’s a common name in English for it. In Malay, it’s “cendawan busut” (cendawan means mushroom). The scientific name is Termitomyces sp., which provides a clue about this mushroom. Termito like termites, and myces like fungus. Continue reading

Serukam Farm: Where Waste Becomes Treasure

We recently spent a few days at Serukam Farm. It is located in northern Malaysia, in a village within Sungai Petani. Xin and Fred started the farm about 2.5 years ago on a 2-acre piece of land that Xin’s grand-uncle and grand-auntie live on.

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We first heard about this place from our good friend Will from FOLO Farms. Serukam Farm wasn’t just an organic farm, but a homestead. Over there, they live on the land. They grow food small-scale and organically; firstly for themselves and selling only if there is excess. While organic farms are getting more common in Malaysia, it is still rare to see people that view farming as a lifestyle rather than a business.

We have stayed at many farms before but this was our first time since having a baby! Luckily Xin was more than accommodating and gave us the nicest room – the only loft in the family house. She said that there’s no point farming if the farm can’t cater to a baby. Continue reading

Are Garden Snails in Singapore Edible?

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Twenty snails harvested in a few minutes on a drizzling day

Yes they are. We have eaten them a few times over the past months. The snails at Project Canossian have been munching away at our seedlings and we thought that the best way for pest control would be to introduce a natural predator – the Homo sapiens. In a more diverse ecosystem, we would probably get more natural predators like ducks, lizards, beetles, birds, snakes, etc. However this is not common in an urban area surrounded by lawns.

A favorite permaculture adage is “the problem is the solution“. And as Bill Mollison says You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency!” Over here, our duck deficiency is solved by some very omnivorous human beings.

To be accurate, these are the common snails you see all over Singapore. The kind you might have stepped on accidentally after a rainy day. They are known as African Land Snails (Achatina fulica). Before attempting the African Land Snails, we have actually tried eating the very invasive Golden Apple Snails (Pomacea canaliculata), commonly found at the reservoirs with their pink eggs along the water edges.

In an urban garden that does not have any livestock, these garden snails are the only source of meat. In fact, they are said to be very healthy because they are low in fats. If you are looking to be more self-sufficient in food, these snails are a great addition to all the greens for a whole diet. Not to mention they are free-range, organic, wild foraged, hand-picked, and “add any fancy marketing term here“. Continue reading

Lawn to Food Forest in One Year

It has been a year since we started the food garden at Project Canossian. One year ago, the same place was a flat grass patch. Today, there are over 50 species of food plants growing happily. Not to mention the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers (huge ones), snails (too many!), and more.

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The garden after a year of growth…

The garden has been dynamic, starting from legumes for green manure, moving to annuals like okra, and now to a multi-layered perennial system. The tapiocas are probably getting the MVP award, growing rapidly to give high shade and also providing lots of tubers and yummy shoots. Some of the fruit trees are growing better while some got their feet in waterlogged soil and seem stagnant. The snail infestation causes a high rate of seedling mortality. However for all the anguish they cause, the snails also poop copiously and provide our only source of animal protein from this garden (yes, we have tried and they are edible).

We have had more freedom in how we maintain this garden compared to the typical “neat and tidy” gardens around Singapore. We took the opportunity to spend time on protracted observation rather than being reactive to every issue. We sometimes let the weeds grow more rampant than our usual tolerance threshold (which is already pretty high relative to most gardeners). Snails, grasshoppers, caterpillars are typically left to their own devices. Masanobu Fukuoka might give us a pat on the back while meticulous weeders shocked by our laziness. Continue reading

Project Panchor – Converting Oil Palm Plantation to Food Forest

We are helping Ricky transform the oil palm plantation on his 7.25 acre family land to a food forest based on permaculture principles. The oil palm monoculture was planted about 20 years ago but has been left fallow since then. No one has been harvesting the fruits. Over time, the understorey has been vegetated naturally and become dense with shrubs and small trees.

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Ricky walking in the dense shrubs under mature oil palms

Ricky became interested in permaculture a few years back and we met when I gave a talk on permaculture at a farmers’ market in Johor. We kept in contact but it was only recently that he resolved to turn his dream into reality. He wants a piece of land where his kids can play in nature, instead of spending weekends in a mall. We talked about industrial agriculture, societal issues, environmental destruction, etc, where we shared similar views.

Oil palm monocultures have become the most common landscape in Johor; a drive around here will convince you of that. They have a bad reputation for causing deforestation (by burning or mass clearing), eutrophication of water bodies through use of chemical fertilizers, reduced biodiversity, soil erosion, and other issues. After two cycles of planting, the soil will be completely degraded and the land unproductive. We are reversing the clock – turning an old oil palm plantation back into a polyculture forest using ecological methods. We have not seen any precedents and hope that whatever we learn can be used by many others to heal the land. Continue reading