Most of what we eat in Singapore comes from overseas. This has impact on food security, as this means we are susceptible to price fluctuations and potential supply disruptions. If we could grow more of our own food and reduce our dependence on imports, we would have a greater buffer against such threats.
One good way to increase local production of vegetables in landscarce Singapore is to use non-arable spaces innovatively to grow crops. Enter the concept and technology of indoor vegetable farming.
Indoor farming is becoming more popular with the advent of novel technologies that enable crops to grow in climate-controlled environments. In enclosed spaces such as brick-and-mortar factories, crops are grown on multi-layer shelves – a method which saves space. In addition, indoor farming keeps pests out, thus eliminating the need for pesticides. It also allows us to cultivate temperate plants that otherwise would not be able to thrive in Singapore’s tropical climate.
“Hi-tech farming needs to constantly move beyond the comfort zone to improve, and increase efficiency. It should even aim to go beyond the boundary of Singapore.”
Mr Edmund Wong, General Manager, Farm deLight
There are currently five AVA licensed indoor vegetable farms in Singapore. One of them is Farm deLight. Located in a flatted factor in Upper Aljunied, Farm deLight looks somewhat like a darkroom where photographic films are processed into prints. Red and blue LED lights have replaced sunlight, while air-conditioning and measured ventilation provide the ‘fresh air’ that vegetables need. Farming here is also less back-breaking since the crops are tiered vertically.
Capitalising on the advances in LED technology, Farm deLight began experimenting with LED lights as growth lights for crops about two years ago. Once they had proven the effectiveness of their growth lights, their focus soon switched to vegetable production. They are currently planning to reolocate to bigger premises in Boon Lay.
According to the company, it now produces a variety of microgreens, herbs, as well as leafy vegetables (lettuce, mizuna, kale, rucola, and ice-plant). Most of these are currently sold to restaurants such as Joel Robuchon and The Naked Finn, as well as those in Fullerton Hotel and Fullerton Bay Hotel.
Mr Edmund Wong, General Manager at Farm deLight, says his foodservice clientele appreciates the fact that his vegetables are grown differently – indoor, using LED lights, soil, and organic fertilisers. “At first, we started out using chemical fertilisers but switched to organic fertilisers with the aim of producing the best quality produce – as well as to be environmentally-friendly. The switch was initially very difficult, mainly due to the nature of organic fertilisers and the availability of good organic fertilisers and cost. However, it is worth it.”
This approach, combined with their innovative lighting technologies, has been working out well for Farm deLight. But indoor farming is not without its unique challenges, as Mr Wong points out: “One pertinent issue, as with all indoor farms, is the high power consumption. So it is a race to see who can reduce the use of power per unit weight of the vegetables.”
Although still in its infancy here, indoor farming holds much potential, as Mr Wong adds: “There are plants that are not viable indoors, and plants that will not grow outdoors either. Hi-tech farms and traditional farms will complement each other.”
Panasonic Factory Solutions Asia Pacific is another indoor vegetable farm that has taken root in Singapore. With a brand name that is synonymous with consumer electronics, some may find it hard to imagine Panasonic as a producer of fresh seasonal vegetables.The company says its vegetables are already being supplied to Japanese restaurants, F&B outlets in Resorts World Sentosa, as well as selected Isetan, NTUC FairPrice, and Meidi-Ya supermarkets.
The company’s parent division in Japan initiated research and feasibility studies in 2010 and established an indoor farm at Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim three years later. Here, vegetables are grown in optimum conditions, where temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels are monitored and controlled. Crops, now grown using soil, are also exposed to red and blue LED lights, resulting in half the average cultivation time required as compared to traditional farms, the company says. Soon, Panasonic hopes to combine the advantages of soil-based cultivation and hydroponics.
Mr Wong Chiak Yeen, Executive Director for the Factory Division foresees indoor vegetable farming to be a potential growth portfolio, “given the global shortage of arable land, climate change, and demand for high quality and stable food supply”, he says. “We aim to supply 5 percent to Singapore’s local vegetable production by March 2017.”
The journey towards this goal required some mettle. “It is important to have perseverance and the right mind-set, as a lot of R&D is involved to successfully grow crops, such as those which are typically imported, in an indoor environment,” Mr Alfred Tham, Assistant General Manager of the Agriculture Business Unit explains.
Nevertheless, the company now has a production volume of up to 81 tonnes of mainly leafy vegetables per year, and has the capability to produce 38 crop varieties. “This was achieved in part with the support of AVA’s Food Fund, which has contributed to the farm’s automation processes such as irrigation, soil mixing, and dispensing of seeds,” Mr Tham adds.
Besides providing funding support, AVA also keeps abreast of emerging technologies and actively equips itself with the relevant know-how. This enables us to introduce new concepts and provide technical advisory when the industry takes up a potentially viable technology. Indoor farming in particular is one area set for a leap forward.
AVA scientists began studying the indoor farming concept in November 2009, after attending the Symposium on Light in Horticulture in Japan, where keynote experts viewed this as the prospective food security solution. At that time, most available findings were based on temperate lettuce, Japanese vegetable varieties, and herbs. In 2010, we looked into the indoor farming of Asian leafy vegetables using fluorescent and LED lights.
Over the past few years, we developed and refined our indoor four-tier vegetable seedling production systems that have the potential to raise productivity by four to six times. One such system – that uses fluorescent lighting and an ebb-and-flow irrigation method – has proven to reduce water consumption by 90 percent. Seedlings also grew faster. In another configuration using automated drip irrigation, water usage was reduced by 70 percent and individual plant weight increased. In addition, we have established effective cultivation protocols for growing xiaobaicai, gailan, naibai, caixin, and loose lettuce using these systems.
The key to this success is the control over growing conditions, which only indoor farming can provide. Not only is lighting, watering, and temperature optimised, but automation means that labour costs are reduced too. AVA has been sharing these research findings with the industry, as well as conducting demonstrations and providing technical advisory to a number of indoor farmers, such as Farm deLight and Panasonic.
We hope that the farms of the future will make use of integrated vertical and indoor systems, automation, and robotics so as to intensify their production while cutting down on manpower. For information on the technical and funding support provided by AVA, click here.