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2019-10-10

Interview with Lim Chuan Poh, Chairman of the Singapore Food Agency Board

Singapore's growth has pushed the city towards industrialization and urbanization over the decades, leaving little land for agriculture. This year, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) announced the ambitious goal to grow 30% of nutrition required within the city by 2030.

We asked Lim Chuan Poh, Chairman of the Singapore Food Agency Board at the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and key note speaker at the Global Food Summit 2020 in Munich, about the SFA and the realization of a circular economy in Singapore. 

What are some of the things SFA is doing to put the plans in motion? What do you think are some of the key drivers to achieve this goal? 

Singapore is a small city-state with significant land constraints and we rely on imports for over 90% of our food. This situation contrasts very sharply with that of Germany, which is by and large self-sufficient in food production. Given that the population density in Singapore is nearly 40 times that of Germany, it is no surprise that we are hard pressed to think about innovative and sustainable ways of growing food in our city. 

However, the rapid progress in agritech has now made it possible for us to explore urban food production in a sustainable and climate-resilient way. For instance, multi-storey/multi-tier indoor food production ‘factories’ help to maximise land productivity. Building indoors also helps us to include environmental controls to buffer against extreme weather. These urban food solutions, should they be found suitable to meet Singapore’s needs, will also be our contribution to regional or global food security in time to come. 

In order to help catalyse this effort, the government has set aside S$144m for research and innovation effort in this sector. The research and innovation program focused on three main themes: improving sustainable urban food production techniques, advancing biotech-based protein production, and innovations in food safety science. 

How important is the Circular Economy in achieving the target? How does SFA work with other agencies to transform the city’s food systems into a Circular Economy?

The linear economy (take, make, use and toss) is no longer sustainable. We need to look into the circular economy approach not just in the food sector, but across water, the environment and many other areas. 

As such, in addition to productivity, we must also prioritise the environmental sustainability of food production. This ensures that our local food supply can remain resilient in the face of wider trends such as resource scarcity and climate change. Technology can tighten the food production loop, improve circularity, and improve the environmental sustainability of farms. Some of these solutions may look at reducing use of agricultural inputs, cycling by-products or waste streams back into the loop for use, or improving efficiency of conversion technologies (e.g. food waste to animal feed). Technology offers two potential benefits – to help farms be more resilient against the impact of climate change and on the other hand, to reduce the impact of food production on the environment. 

As a start, SFA supports farmers in their efforts to modernise and harness innovative, sustainable technologies and advanced farming systems. For example, we have helped farms to adopt curtain systems that shade crops and minimise the negative impact of high temperatures on crop growth, or closed-containment systems that reduce vulnerability of fish stock to environmental changes in the sea. However, we have only just begun the journey of actualising the potential of the circular economy. SFA is well placed to work closely with other agencies overseeing land planning, infrastructure, environment, and energy among others, to ensure that the industry grows into the circular economy. 

Will you involve the general public in achieving the 30 by 30 target? How do you think they can play a part?

The general public will play an integral role in contributing to the target. Their demand is important to sustain a vibrant agri-food ecosystem. Buying local produce will help to support the business of our local farmers, which will spur them to embrace technology and become more productive to meet the increased demand. This will in turn boost our food security. Increasingly, communities want to be part of the solution to feed themselves. Therefore, a critical part of our strategy is to build an awareness of local food production with them.

In order to raise awareness amongst Singaporeans, we have piloted two projects to assess the feasibility of commercial urban farms in the community heartlands. Apart from tapping on alternative or underutilised spaces within the heartlands for food production, these projects also serve to raise community awareness and support for local produce. We hope that bringing food production closer to the community will create more buzz and excitement around urban and sustainable food production while at the same time contributing to bonding within the community. 

We also need to prepare the public for career opportunities in the growing agri-food sector especially among the young. Beyond helping the public to better appreciate the process behind bringing food from ‘farm to fork’, urban farming initiatives raise the visibility of the farming sector and attract the next generation to be more involved in our food production and galvanise them to take greater ownership of our food security. We have started work with our schools and training institutions to develop and build curricula in agri/aquatechnology, agri/aquaculture, urban farming, and research in the sustainable food production arena. The millennial generation will find these opportunities particularly meaningful given their concerns with sustainability and climate change.