From garden city to urban farms

Asit K. Biswas and Leong Ching

THE STRAITS TIMES | October 15, 2011

HERE’S an unthinkable thought for World Food Day tomorrow–could Singapore be self- sufficient in food one day? Surely, an impossible dream – it is too small, its land too expensive, and it’s far cheaper to import.

These very same stones were hurled at the issue of water in 1965. But Singapore has gone from almost totally dependent on imported water from Malaysia, to importing 40 percent today, and by 2061, when its second water agreement with Malaysia expires, self-sufficiency.

Food, however, has never been given the same strategic position as water – gram for gram, it has a far higher value and can be imported from a diverse number of sources. Today, food comes from Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, China and the United States.

Only 738ha, or about 1 per cent, of land is set aside for farming, compared with 12 per cent for roads and 15 per cent for housing.

Cities after all are for vibrancy and dynamism, for buzz and nightlife, and more recently for gambling, high fashion, champagne and car races.

But here are good reasons for Singapore to rethink its urban landscape. For one, global cities are being redefined with urban agriculture seen as a viable, efficient and environmentally-friendly
complement to farms.

In 2008, London launched a scheme to turn 2,012 plots of unused land into tiny farms to grow food by 2012. More young people and professionals are taking up farming.

In Milan, a 27-storey apartment complex is now under construction. Named Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), it is the brainchild of architect Stefano Boeri. Each apartment will have a balcony with oaks and amelanchiers to filter air, providing shade in summer; in winter, sunlight will shine through the branches. This is a new collaboration of out-of-the-box-thinking by architects, engineers, botanists and town planners.

Similarly, in Valencia, 96 apartments are being built, with 8m balconies cantilevered in the sky. Residents of Torre Huerta (Orchard Tower) will literally be able to pick oranges and lemons from the sky.

Then, too, issues of food safety and security are increasingly important. Tainted food and food viruses require vigilant checks and accreditation while extreme climatic events have led to wild fluctuations in prices.

In 2007, high food inflation prompted the Government to set aside more land for farming and to give $5 million to support agricultural entrepreneurs. Since then, however, little has been said.

We argue that urban agriculture is not only possible, it provides an alternative and equally exciting vision of Singapore. Three lessons from an impossible dream three decades ago – the water story – may help.

Overcome physical constraints

SINGAPORE was thought to be too small to hold enough water. We overcame this by pushing out into the sea – Marina Barrage is a fresh water lake reclaimed from the sea. We also used all the drains and recycled every drop used.

Land scarcity applies too in agricul-ture. But why not push upwards into the sky?

A good prototype for vertical farming has already been developed by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority and a private company. This “farm” is a collection of two-storey tall structures, rotating slowly, so the sun shines on each in turn. This increases the yield per metre by five times.

Aside from new technology, old-fashioned urban planning may help. Nanyang Technological University estimates that 2,331ha of farm land would supply enough greens for Singapore. Meanwhile, the National University of Singapore has estimated that there is a rooftop area of approximately 1,000ha in HDB housing blocks.

There are also green spaces in between blocks, the common areas in corridors. Physically, we can do far better than the 7 per cent of vegetables that we are producing now.

Political champion

FOR innovative food policies to have a place at the table, a political champion is needed. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had said that every policy “bent at the knee” for water. Food policies too need similar high-level commitment.

The current goals are modest – limited self-sufficiency in eggs, fish and leafy vegetables. The target is to increase production from 23 per cent of eggs, 4 per cent of fish and 7 per cent of leafy vegetables to 30 per cent for eggs, 15 per cent for fish and 10 per cent for leafy vegetables by 2015.

For the longer term, an ambitious target would be to have near self sufficiency in these areas.

Appreciating food

SINGAPORE imports 90 per cent of all its food. Yet each year, Singapore throws out 570 million kg of food, mainly edible food scraps – one fifth of its supply.

A frugal attitude and self control are needed – order only what we can finish, plan meals so that we do not have to throw out stale food.

These things will take time, judicious investments and enduring policy commitment. Yet, Singapore’s edge lies exactly at this praxis – witness its remarkable policy successes in areas as diverse as water, public housing and industrial infrastructure.

We believe that Singapore can add urban agriculture to the list.

The first writer is a distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the second is a PhD candidate at the same school.

Article published in The Straits Times, October 15, 2011