Singapore farms face an even greater challenge in a post-COVID-19 world

SINGAPORE (CNA) – It is a vision that predates COVID-19. Spurred by threats like climate change, Singapore set about having 30 per cent of its food produced locally by 2030, to improve its food security.

But food security expert Paul Teng thinks the country is not going far enough with its “30 by 30” goal set last year.

“Even if we achieve that in 10 years’ time, we’re still dependent on the rest of the world for the remaining 70 per cent. If all things are normal, then it should be enough … to create a buffer,” he said.

“But if indeed all the worst-case climate change scenarios come true, and there are many other black swan events, then we may need more than two or three months’ worth.”

The professor, an adjunct senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, sees COVID-19 as a “wake-up call” to do more.

“I don’t imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic will be the last time that we’ll be disrupted in terms of food supplies … If you look around Asia at the moment, you’ve got a whole host of issues affecting us,” he noted.

A high-tech farm with lighting, climate control and plant racks extending to the ceiling. PHOTO: CNA

“The armyworm is just one example. But there are many other pest problems, disease problems… Anything could flare up and affect our supply chain. Then there’s also politics.”

There are 220 farms in Singapore as of last year, producing mainly leafy vegetables, fish and eggs.

Millions of dollars are being poured into this growing agri-food industry. But it still produces less than 10 per cent of the country’s food, and the rest is imported from more than 170 countries and regions.

Most of the farms are “not what I’d call modern farms”, said Teng, urging improvements in productivity. Not only that, other changes are also needed more than ever, the programme For Food’s Sake! finds out.

One of Singapore’s largest producers of Asian leafy vegetables is Farm 85, which lies on 12 hectares of land in Lim Chu Kang – roughly the size of 17 football fields.

But its owner, Tan Koon Hua, who started the farm in 1991, does not think it is easy to increase production further.

“The most we can do is to find ways to prevent disruptions,” said the 52-year-old, citing the example of greenhouses, which he has built to protect his crops against changes in weather.