Speech by SMS Koh Poh Koon at the Launch of the Urban Lab Exhibition “Growing More With Less”


Good afternoon. It is a pleasure for me to be here at the launch of the latest Urban Lab exhibition. Since 2015, this series of exhibitions has enabled the public to see cutting edge ideas in urban planning. For instance, last year we showcased how digital data could be used to transform cities around the world.

This year round, we are exploring how to grow more with less. This is a timely topic as there are rising pressures on food production worldwide. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that we need 70 per cent more food production to feed a global population of 9 billion by 2050, up from the 7 billion people that we have today. And we need to do so in an increasingly challenging environment. We have climate change that will impact the yields of agriculture. We also have many other factors, such as rapid urbanisation, which means less land for agriculture as cities grow bigger, and a reducing workforce that is no longer so keen on the manual work of agriculture. In this context, it is therefore imperative that the farming industry reinvents itself through the use of technology.

I am happy that things have started to change in Singapore. As a small city-state, we are faced with even more constraints like land scarcity and high labour costs. But we have seen our farmers turn these challenges into opportunities. They have done so by applying technology, engineering, innovation, as well as new design concepts to the traditional form of farming.

These are elements you would not traditionally associate with traditional farming. Let me highlight just a few of these exciting ways that farming is evolving.

First, production need not be limited by land size. Take Sky Greens for example. It has developed 9 metre towers that can hold 38 troughs for growing vegetables. To receive uniform sunlight and irrigation, the troughs are rotated by a hydraulic water-driven system that requires minimal water and electricity. As many as 800 towers can be housed in 1 hectare of land. This can yield 6 times more vegetables compared to a median productive volume of a traditional farm in Singapore. Mr Jack Ng, the founder of Sky Greens, is a retired engineer. Looking at what he is doing with innovation using his engineering skills, clearly he did not really retire from engineering as he is still developing farming solutions!

Here in Singapore, it is not only vegetables that are going vertical, fish farming can also become more productive through multi-tier systems. The CEO of Apollo Aquaculture Group, Mr. Eric Ng, also an engineer, did not rest on his laurels when he took over his father’s fish farm. Instead, he applied his engineering knowledge to come up with a three-tier system which grows grouper, coral trout and prawns. This system recirculates the water, uses nanotechnology to clean the water, and ultra-violet light and ozone to sterilise it. The entire system and water condition are monitored through sensors and operated remotely. I understand from Eric that his farm has the capacity to reach six times more yield than a traditional fish farm. Eric has also moved his farm internationally to our neighbouring country Brunei, where he can control the operations remotely in Singapore, using sensor technologies. This is another smart and innovative use of technology.

Eric continues to push boundaries. Together with Surbana Jurong, Apollo has come up with a conceptual floating ponds typology that will allow fish farms to be placed in different types of urban spaces. This modular and scalable farm would also be self-sustainable, recycling the water, nutrients and energy.

Next, farming need not be constrained by the natural environment. With new lighting technology, cheaper sensors and remote monitoring systems, farmers can now grow under any indoor condition. They can control the elements, be it light, air, oxygenation level, carbon dioxide levels � all these can be manipulated. This means that seasonal crops and those which are non-native to the local climate can be produced anywhere, all year round, independent of the weather. We are now looking at production of food in unprecedented ways.

For instance, Sustenir Agriculture built a vertical farm in an industrial building. Its founders, Mr Martin Lavoo and Benjamin Swan, did not have a background in farming. But they drew on their skills in engineering, marketing, business, finance, as well as science, to grow vegetables indoors in half the time needed by outdoor farms. They use a centrally controlled system to optimise and track the growth of the vegetables.

Finally, farming can take place in unusual places, such as rooftops, viaducts and parks. One such place is the West Coast Viaduct. Now, it is somewhat challenging to imagine a vibrant farming community sprouting out in a place like that. But this is exactly where Citizen Farm decided to pilot its modular farm. The vegetables are grown in retrofitted shipping containers, and LEDs inside these containers provide a constant source of light. The greens and mushrooms produced are then supplied to nearby eateries. I am sure that you will find more of such creative uses of space sprouting up in your neighborhoods soon. This is something that will activate neighbourhoods and bring people together to use spaces that were previously not usable.

It is evident from the examples I’ve shared that technology is a key enabler for farm transformation. It is changing the nature of farming itself, and attracting an entirely new generation of farmers � people whom you do not traditionally associate with farmers. It is very likely that in the future, many of these new farms will resemble high-tech manufacturing facilities rather than the traditional idea of farms, which will be assisted by automation and robotics.

If our farmers can continue to take bold steps to innovate and push the envelope, Singapore will not only be able to strengthen our own food security, but also contribute to global food security by exporting food and farming technologies to help with other countries’ food security needs.

In conclusion, I hope that everyone � whether you are a farmer, aspiring farmer, engineer, computer scientist, researcher or academic � can use this exhibition as a platform to learn from each other, to share some ideas, and perhaps, spark more collaborations and innovation, and hopefully create more innovation for all of us. By working together, we can continue to grow this sector. I hope an exhibition like this will continue to inspire the next generation. On this note, I declare this exhibition open and hope you will have a fruitful and enriching time.

Thank you.

Source: Ministry of National Development, Singapore