On the rooftop of a Singapore shopping mall, a sprawling patch of eggplants, rosemary, bananas and papayas stand in colorful contrast to the gray skyscrapers of the city-state’s business district.
The 930m2 site is among a growing number of rooftop farms in the space-starved country, part of a drive to produce more food locally and reduce a heavy reliance on imports.
The Singaporean government has championed the push amid concerns about climate change reducing crop yields worldwide and trade tensions affecting imports, but it has also been given extra impetus by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The common misconception is that there is no space for farming in Singapore because we are land scarce,” said Samuell Ang, chief executive of Edible Garden City, which runs the site on the mall. “We want to change the narrative.”
Urban farms are springing up in crowded cities around the world, but the drive to create rooftop plots has taken on particular urgency in the densely populated city-state, which imports 90 percent of its food.
Farming was once common in the country, but dwindled dramatically as Singapore developed into a financial hub packed with high-rises. While less than 1 percent of its land is devoted to agriculture, the city-state of 5.7 million people has seen food plots sprouting on more rooftops.
The government last year said that it was aiming to source 30 percent of the population’s “nutritional needs” locally by 2030, as it planned to increase production of fish and eggs, as well as vegetables.
With the pandemic increasing fears about supply-chain disruptions, the government has accelerated its efforts, announcing that the rooftops of nine parking lots would become urban farms and releasing S$30 million (US$21.9 million) to boost local food production.
Edible Garden City, one of several firms operating urban farms in Singapore, runs about 80 rooftop sites.
It has also created many food gardens in more unusual places, including a former prison, in shipping containers and on high-rise apartments’ balconies. Its farms use only natural pesticides, such as neem oil, to repel pests.
“What we really want to do is to spread the message of growing our own food. We want to advocate that you really do not need large parcels of land,” Ang said.
The company grows more than 50 varieties of produce, ranging from eggplant, red okra and wild passion fruit to leafy vegetables, edible flowers and so-called “microgreens” — vegetables harvested when they are still young.
It is also using high-tech methods. At one site inside a shipping container, it is testing a specialized system of hydroponics — growing plants without soil — developed by a Japanese company.
The system features sensors that monitor conditions, and strict hygiene rules mean that crops can be grown without pesticides.
Edible Garden City’s produce is harvested, packed and delivered on the same day — mainly to restaurants — but online customers can also subscribe to a regular delivery box of fruit and vegetables.
Sales to restaurants slowed when Singapore shut down businesses to contain COVID-19 from April to June, but Ang said that household clients grew threefold in the same period.
William Chen (陳威廉), director of the food, science and technology program at Nanyang Technological University, said that developing city farms was a “way to buffer the shock of supply chain breakdowns.”
“Skyscraper farming in Singapore is certainly a bright option,” he added.
Still, there are limits to what a country half the size of Los Angeles can achieve, and Chen said that the city would still have to rely on imports of other staples, such as meat.
“We don’t have animal farms, and for rice we don’t have the luxury of land,” Chen said. “Growing rice and wheat in indoor conditions will be very costly, if not impossible.”
In addition, a lack of skilled farmers presents a challenge.
“While we are able to recruit people with an interest in farming, they do not have the relevant experience,” Ang said.
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