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Singapore, a City of Skyscrapers and Little Land, Turns to Farming

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SINGAPORE—In this skyscraper-studded nation of nearly six million people, all the farmland combined adds up to about 500 acres—an area roughly the size of a single American farm.

That explains why more than 90% of the city-state’s food comes from abroad, a feat of globalization that plays out every day as beef is brought from New Zealand, eggs from Poland and vegetables trucked in from Malaysia.

But recent developments—from Covid-19-related border closures to international trade fights—have shown that near-total dependence on the outside world may not be the best strategy in a shifting global environment. “Countries increasingly look inward, prioritizing their needs over international trade,” says Singapore’s Food Agency, the body in charge of supply.

The Asian financial hub long focused on growing investment is turning to growing food.

A farm stand operates on a rooftop in Singapore.



Photo:

Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg News

A worker checks basil seedlings growing in sponge at a rooftop farm in Singapore.



Photo:

Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg News

It can’t be done the traditional way, however. Land is so scarce in Singapore that the government continually reclaims territory from the sea to build new urban infrastructure.

Instead, businesses are trying to reinvent agriculture. Industrial buildings are being converted into vertical farms with climate-controlled grow rooms. Rows of lettuce and kale are nourished not by soil, but via automated drips of nutrient-infused water. LED lights substitute for the sun.

More than a dozen such high-tech farms have sprung up in recent years, some in the midst of semiconductor factories and car dealerships. One company converted the rooftop of a parking garage into a greenhouse where lettuce, basil, and a popular leafy green called choy sum are grown for supermarkets. Another plans to expand fishery operations after online orders for Asian sea bass surged.

The government’s goal is to have 30% of the island’s nutritional requirements produced in Singapore by 2030, up from less than 10% today—a target some say would be a heavy lift. Earlier this year, it shipped 400,000 seed packets to households to encourage home cultivation of leafy greens, cucumbers and tomatoes. In September, it announced about $40 million in grants to expand high-tech farms.

Singapore isn’t alone. In May, Saudi Arabia promised $80 million to local farmers, part of a broader effort to boost production of vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers amid the pandemic. In June, Indonesia announced plans to irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres on the island of Borneo to make the country less reliant on imported staples. In August, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a campaign against food waste saying the country had to “maintain a sense of crisis about food security.”

A strawberry plant is pollinated at Sustenir Agriculture’s indoor farm in Singapore.



Photo:

Edgar Su/Reuters

So far, global food supplies have held up in the pandemic, defying nations’ concerns. The global value of imported food in the first half of 2020 was roughly in line with the value of imported food from 2019, according to a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

That’s fortunate because weaning a country off food imports isn’t easy, particularly for Singapore. Decades of development have all but erased its farmland. The fruit orchards and cattle farms of midcentury were gradually wound down as the country focused on becoming a manufacturing powerhouse.

Urban farming is gaining ground. Singapore has 31 high-tech farms, up from 12 in 2016, according to the Singapore Food Authority. But many wonder: Can it significantly increase in scale?

One newcomer is Commonwealth Greens, an indoor farm that launched last month. It occupies a floor of an industrial building that also houses a large bakery. Leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, and chard are fitted into vertical columns, forming what resemble walls of lettuce. Sven Yeo, the co-founder of Archisen Pte. Ltd., the company that manages the farm, says it can produce up to 100 tons of produce a year.

Operators can control the elements, as it were, including light and temperature. Pests aren’t a problem. But these benefits come with a cost: big-city rents and electricity.

Archisen has tried to trim expenses by cultivating vegetables at ambient temperatures and placing lights close to the plants to maximize efficiency. Still, even an efficient farm in Singapore will struggle to compete with those in neighboring Malaysia, where land is abundant and labor cheap.

Singapore, unlike the U.S. or Japan, has virtually no tariffs to protect local farmers from foreign competition. Mr. Yeo says it is difficult to grow food in an expensive city while competing with global prices. “To us it is a double whammy,” he said.

But he saw opportunity, he says, given the city’s demand for fresh food and his belief that vertical farming can be highly efficient. He expects sales to exceed operating costs by mid-2021, though recouping the initial investment will take longer, he said.

A more established farm, Sustenir Agriculture Singapore Pte. Ltd., produces about 90 tons of greens a year and is expanding its grow rooms to quadruple output. Government grants helped it push ahead with the technology it uses to automate seeding. Automated packaging is next.

Like most indoor farms, it focuses mainly on greens because of the crops’ short harvest cycle and their perishability, which gives local farms an advantage over imports. Sustenir has also cultivated cherry tomatoes and strawberries, but found it is complicated.

Strawberries, like many fruit-bearing plants, are typically pollinated by bees. But the buzzing insects navigate using the sun. In an initial attempt, Sustenir found that its bees became disoriented indoors. Now the company is developing a lighting system that will incorporate ultraviolet light, which it hopes will guide the bees.

“We’ve only scratched the surface on what’s capable for indoor farms,” said chief executive Benjamin Swan.

Barramundi is pulled onto a boat off the coast of Singapore.



Photo:

Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg News

A worker shovels ice onto a container of barramundi off the coast of Singapore.



Photo:

Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg News

Although Singapore is right to bolster local production, said Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University of London, he isn’t convinced the new techniques can be paradigm-shifting. “That technology is all possible, but it ain’t going to feed Singapore,” he said.

Singapore’s food agency says it will help. Goh Wee Hou, director of the food-supply strategies department at the Singapore Food Agency, said that multistory indoor farms can produce 10 to 15 times more vegetables than traditional farms using the same amount of land. “Technology is the key enabler,” he said.

Food producers are pushing ahead out at sea. Barramundi Asia Pte. Ltd., an aquaculture company that produces 700 tons a year of Asian sea bass—also called barramundi—in Singapore’s southern waters, plans to scale up operations. The company harvests fish two-to-three times a week and sells fresh fillets to customers through its website for $40 apiece.

Its operations contrast with smaller family-run fish farms that are situated in the shallow waters off Singapore’s northern strait. The company says it hopes to build up to 5,000 tons of fish a year by 2030, though imported fish from Malaysia and Indonesia—while potentially less fresh—is cheaper.

One encouraging sign was that online orders tripled early on in the pandemic, chief marketing officer James Kwan said. “The website broke for a few hours, we had so many orders,” he said.

Write to Jon Emont at jonathan.emont@wsj.com

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