From little space can big things grow?

Guava plants thriving in the Singapore heat at Bollywood Farms. Photo: Mya Kordic.

Agriculture, cornerstone of human civilisation.

The famous phrase is nestled among luscious rows of tropical produce in the Singapore countryside, splashed upon a sign in yellow paint at Bollywood Farms. 

Property owner Ivy Singh-Lim is a self-proclaimed “gentle warrior” who is passionate about growing her own food and sharing it with the world. “Life is based on agriculture!” Singh-Lim exclaims when asked about the origins of her business. “In agriculture you have entertainment, you have education, you have enlightenment, you have energy.”

Extensive agricultural practice has not always been a priority nor a necessity in the island nation of Singapore, but recent pressures of climate change agreements and food security fears are prompting rapid change.

The country is characterised by its sweeping skyline of high-rise buildings and clean streets, lined with meticulously landscaped greenery. Singapore is also well recognised for its cuisine, boasting 51 Michelin Star Restaurants and humble Hawker’s Markets that sell traditional meals at an affordable price. With limited land space available for cultivation and more than 5 million mouths to feed, the country has now been forced to rethink about the way its food is sourced.

The Singapore Food Agency’s recent Food Statistics Report revealed more than 90 per cent of Singapore’s food is imported, with just 10 per cent produced locally. In conjunction with the Singapore government’s Green Plan for sustainable development, the SFA announced a goal for the country to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030. With only 1 per cent of Singapore’s land space available for farming, making the 20 per cent increase over the next seven years is an ambitious target.

Professor Paul Teng is an agricultural scientist at Nanyang Technological University, specialising in food security and has written a report detailing 30 by 30’s achievability. Teng says it’s important to understand the plan focuses on meeting Singaporean’s nutritional needs, rather than just increasing local food production.

So what are the country’s present nutritional needs and how can they be met?

To ease the nation’s reliance on overseas imports, the 30 by 30 plan will centre around ensuring there is sufficient production of leafy greens and protein such as seafood or eggs.

The Food Statistics Report revealed the number of imported food supply sources increased to 180 countries and regions last year, with 40 nations approved to export high risk foods to Singapore, such as meat and eggs. Australia alone makes up 10 per cent of meat imports and 5 per cent of the nation’s sourced vegetables. However, between 2019 and 2021 the SFA says the number of licensed Singapore food farms increased by 39, indicating a promising incline for local production.

Teng has seen investments made in recent years into technology-enabled farming, such as indoor, vertical and LED-powered farms to help combat land-use issues.

“The government has an express policy to inculcate a sense of innovation amongst entrepreneurs here, not just in technology, also in farming systems and the aim is to make Singapore a key player in AgTech.”

Paul Teng

Teng acknowledges the government will face challenges in convincing Singaporeans to purchase food that has been produced locally, due to price sensitivity in the current market. “What the Singapore government has done is to try and position local produce as fresher, safer from the perspective of pesticides or chemicals and also more nutritious,” he says. Millennials are more likely to purchase “superfoods” such as locally grown kale. Teng believes the government is struggling to compete with imported food’s lower price point. “The worst demographically is the older generation, who are the main buyers and are very reluctant to try novel food,” he says.

Bollywood Farms has championed the farm-to-table concept for decades. Its restaurant Poison Ivy serves fresh produce reimagined as Singaporean cuisine, just metres from the soil it was plucked from. Founder Ivy Singh-Lim established the business while considering retirement with her husband and never looked back. Rather than selling her broad variety of produce to markets or restaurants, her customers travel to the farm to collect it themselves. “It’s based on the kind of garden I had when I was young,” she says.

“I think I have 700 things growing on my farm, 700, 800.”

Ivy Singh-Lim

Incredibly there are 25 different species of bananas on the property. Singh-Lim believes the government has prioritised land use for military or golf courses and is concerned this will now affect the future viability of local food production. “You see the local farms will all die off, okay?” she says sharply. “Let me tell you this is my biggest worry.” 

In the same Kranji countryside, Atlas Aquaculture chief executive Kane McGuinn founded a seafood farm in 2019, selling fish such as Asian sea bass and golden snapper, hoping to clean up the image of fish farming in Singapore. Perth-born McGuinn likes that his farm is land based, meaning he can control and treat the water conditions to prevent parasites and disease. He says a landlocked farm increases the chance of successfully growing fish and reusing water and extracting solid waste improves the farm’s practice and biosecurity. “We can leverage on that waste and instead of throwing it out or pumping it back out to sea, we can extract and use that as fertilisers,” he says. While McGuinn agrees the 30 by 30 plan is well-resourced, he believes the agencies behind the campaign will need more education from producers of what is possible. “Otherwise, it could turn into a let’s just hit that target any which way we can, which a lot of things could be not accurately reported, so that people can reach certain numbers,” he says.

Fish farm Ah Hua Kelong, located off Changi and Sembawang, is following Singapore’s traditional seafood harvesting methods. “Ah Hua” is the nickname of one of the business’s owners and “kelong” means a stilted structure on open water. Managing director Jinkai Wong oversees output, harvesting a variety of seafood, from red snapper to groper fish and selling to Singaporeans fresh from the nets within hours. Wanting to differentiate after seeing a rise in competitors, the brand decided to expand and open a restaurant, Scaled, in the city’s bustling Kallang area in 2017. “How can we really showcase our produce in a way that people can see it, can touch it, can feel it and eat it?” Wong asked himself when establishing the farm-to-table venue. The menu champions seafood sourced direct from the kelong, offering dishes such as curry mussels, seafood risotto and smoked seabass.

While Wong can transport his seafood from water to land in less than six hours, he says Singaporeans remain price sensitive and are being offered a selection of imported product that is cheaper than his own. “I focus on convenience, on freshness, on “buying from me will save you time” rather than trying to re-educate them on all this sustainability stuff,” he says in regard to his consumers. He says educating the public is an essential part of encouraging purchase of local product and he believes the target audience should be school-aged students, the future consumer. Ah Hua Kelong has hosted polytechnic students in recent years, generating ideas about self-sufficiency and sustainability, before health and safety regulations made it impossible to continue. Wong is confident he can increase production by 30 times his present rate to meet the government’s 2030 goal, however his concern is being able to sell more seafood to locals. “We need to be a little bit more realistic and while we know we want to get there, how are we getting there?” he asks.

Each sector in Singapore’s food production industry will face different challenges over the next seven years while trying to meet 30 by 30’s ambitious target. The issue they all share lies in who will consume the produce.

Kenny Eng is a fourth-generation member of a farming family that founded Gardenasia, a Singaporean agricultural institution that focuses on the production, selling and landscaping of plants. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the globe, he saw an opportunity in establishing The Local Farm brand at their Kranji farm, complete with a bistro, grocer and farm stay. Eng said The Local Farm came to fruition after recognising the common pain points Singaporean farmers face presently. “Food security is complex, but food is not. Actually, at the end of the day farmers just want to earn more. That’s it. Yet, we tend to complicate it,” he says. Eng believes increasing demand for local food requires a penetration of the market, simplifying how consumers buy local. His bistro serves farm-to-table meals such as local fish and chips and soup packs customers can take home and cook. A new range even features gelato ice cream made from Singaporean-grown vegetables, a point of difference for locals buying the product.

While Eng believes the creativity and innovation of Singapore’s high-tech farming will ramp up the scalability of production, he agrees finding demand for the produce is a weakness of the plan. “Having the goal is good but someone needs to buy the produce. If nobody buys the produce, then those goals are just good to have as a food security strategy,” he says. Eng understands convincing consumers to buy, rather than just support locally sourced food is a tough job. “So we continue to try and that’s what we do because 30 per cent shouldn’t be that bad if we really look at the demand side of things,” he says.

Singapore’s desire as a nation to lead the world in technological innovation and ingenuity, has led to creative solutions to its land limitation and production issues.

One of these can be found within the heart of the urban jungle.

Rooftop gardens are quickly gaining popularity in the city and are now sustaining the fridges and pantries of the city’s world-class restaurants. One of the largest urban farms in Singapore’s CBD can be found at the Pan Pacific’s Parkroyal Collection Hotel in Marina Bay. Established as part of SDG 45-million-dollar (approx: AUD 51 million) renovations during the pandemic, the hotel wanted to improve its environmental sustainability and food supply resilience. Chan Tuck Wai, the hotel’s executive chef, says the garden for Peppermint, the hotel’s main restaurant, services a trifecta for the hotel in farm-to-table, farm-to-bar and farm-to-spa. “At the urban farm we have more than 60 varieties of fruits and vegetables; variety is mainly dependent of what promotion and cuisine we are serving for that particular month,” he says.

Parkroyal’s marketing and communications assistant manager Kingston Too says 20 per cent of the restaurant’s produce comes directly from the garden and the hotel is proud to make its urban farm a focal point for guests, located adjacent to the dining area. “You can actually educate young students, young adults and members of the public about awareness of climate change, awareness on sustainability and waste management – to reduce, reuse and recycle,” he says.

The Pan Pacific Hotel’s Parkroyal Collection is home to one of Singapore’s largest Urban Farms. Video: Mya Kordic

To alleviate a heavy reliance upon produce importing, Singapore has turned its attention to reducing unnecessary waste as part of its sustainability mission. National University of Singapore food science and technology Professor Dejian Huang says properly using all the elements of a product will be key in achieving the 2030 goal. Huang outlines the upvaluing of food processing waste streams such as spent barley grains from Tiger Beer and Milo production, will support the government’s food sustainability plan. “We can actually reduce the waste, then when you import food you actually utilise it and you don’t need to import as much,” he says.

Despite the demanding nature of farming in Singapore, it’s clear the agricultural traditions and pride in the food cultivated, makes the toil worthwhile for producers.

Jinkai Wong enjoys the rarity of Ah Hua Kelong being part of a tight knit community, of which he says are owned by “uncles” that encompass a sense of solidarity, they refer to as “kampung spirit”. “They’re all oldish like 50, 60, 70 and they’re all very close, they have coffee, they’re together, they chill together and help each other out,” he says.

Ivy Singh-Lim takes great joy in teaching children about farming and nature. Photo: Supplied

Ivy Singh-Lim says the desire to live a healthy lifestyle on a big farm offers her contentment in creating circles of life. “Being fundamentally based on land, the rain and the sunshine, that kind of living is the real living as far as I’m concerned,” she says. Singh-Lim’s face lights up when she talks about her property being some Singaporean children’s first experience on a farm, finding fulfilment in observing the youth’s evident wonder amongst nature. “These kids have now come back as grown-ups to see me and it’s marvellous you know and it’s so cute,” she says.

Kenny Eng’s mission at The Local Farm has always been to promote the importance of Singaporean food and the work of farmers. He says people tend to disregard Singapore in the agricultural sector because of the nation’s lack of space for cultivation. Eng believes the ambitious 30 by 30 goals, emerging farming techniques and innovative technologies will help change this perception. “Watch Singapore because the opportunities are great. We are going to change the way cities will relook into agriculture.”