Local farms urged to ‘embrace technology’ to increase food supply

‘S’pore can make a leap in food production levels, new innovation could be shared’
TOH EE MING Today Online 3 Nov 16;

SINGAPORE — With increasing stress on global food supply brought on by growing demand and degrading conditions for producing food, farms — including those in Singapore — should take steps such as embracing technology to increase food supply, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

Embracing technology could help Singapore farms “make a quantum leap in our food production levels”, and new technologies could be shared with other countries that are urbanised like Singapore, Mr Wong said, speaking at the 27th Commonwealth Agricultural Conference yesterday.

With Singapore’s agricultural sector playing an important role in the food system here, the Government will continue to ensure “sufficient agriculture land for farms that are able to harness technologies, leverage on innovation and maximise their productivity,” said Mr Wong, addressing an audience of about 250 farmers and regional government officials.

“The Government is also supporting these farms with funding for technology adoption and R&D. So while we may be small in size, we believe that we can be a useful ‘living lab’ for urban farming solutions and new technologies,” he added.

For example, in the area of vegetable farming, Singapore now produces about 10 per cent of local demand. “But we have farmers who are starting to try out new technologies and different ways of farming.

“One of them is Sky Greens, which is the world’s first commercial vertical vegetable farm. Its hydraulic water-driven vertical farming system enables it to be resource-efficient and produce up to five times more than traditional vegetable farms,” noted Mr Wong.

Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) chief executive Tan Poh Hong, who also spoke at the conference, noted the growing support in promoting local produce.

Going forward, the farming sector could be “branded” differently to attract the next generation of young farmers.

“Someone in (the) computer (field) could decide to do fish farming, and use his knowledge to design a water-monitoring system that he can monitor from his iPhone,” she said.

Responding to questions from the audience on how Singapore deals with matters of limited land and short leases of 20 years, leaving farmers with little certainty, Ms Tan said that they are issues the authorities are still “mulling over”.

“We’ll be talking to the (Kranji Countryside Association), and to many of the farmers … (to discuss) what happens after 20 years.

“Our premise has always been if the land is meant for agriculture, and you use it for agriculture productively … it is likely you could get an extension on your own land, or on replacement land … We always premise on the fact productivity will be one of the key considerations in (ensuring) tenure of land,” she said.

Kranji Countryside Association president Kenny Eng was optimistic about the local agricultural community’s ability to innovate, but felt the Government needed to provide more certainty, such as with a ten-year masterplan, and keeping farmers in the loop.

Referring to the 62 farms in Lim Chu Kang which will have to make way for redevelopment plans, Mr Eng acknowledged the authorities had not been turning a “deaf ear” to their sentiments. For the 62 farms with leases due to expire next year, AVA has granted a reprieve by extending them to 2019.

New sites nearby would be opened for bidding, and in June, the AVA announced that all new agricultural land will be tendered on 20-year leases, instead of 10 years.

Mr Eng told reporters yesterday: “If we have a proper plan, then we won’t rush (things) as we know the next step is the right move and everyone will (follow) happily.

“But the frustration on the ground is that we are unsure, everyone is worried that we might (be told to shift again) … Careful thought has to be put into this industry.”

Agreeing, Ms Chelsea Wan, director of Jurong Frog Farm, said: “You can’t (just) tear down and rebuild agriculture. It takes time for people to build up an area, a reputation.”

Sky Greens founder Jack Ng felt there was no lack of government grants to draw on to boost the firm’s productivity, but there are too few specialists to guide farmers on issues such as disease management, for instance.

Fate of 62 Lim Chu Kang farms still remains uncertain
Carolyn Khew, The Straits Times AsiaOne 3 Nov 16;

Productivity will be one of the key considerations in deciding whether or not to extend a farm's lease, said Ms Tan Poh Hong, chief executive of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) yesterday.

"Our premise has always been (that) if the land is meant for agricultural use, you use it productively, it is likely that you could get an extension either on your own land, or even replacement land," she said.

She was responding to a question on land security in Singapore from an audience member at the 27th Commonwealth Agriculture Conference yesterday after a presentation on national food security.

Uncertainty remains for the future of 62 farms in Lim Chu Kang, with the Government announcing in June that they would have to move out by the end of 2019 to make way for the Defence Ministry's new training grounds. To give farms more time, the AVA had pushed back the original deadline of 2017.

Affected farmers will be able to bid for new farmland early next year, but exact details of the location and new plot sizes have yet to be announced. The first tranche of land sales will be launched in 2017, AVA said yesterday.

Ms Chelsea Wan, whose Jurong Frog Farm is among those affected, said the Government's stand that farms have to be productive has never changed, but other factors should be considered, such as farming's role in Singapore's history.

Farmers have also pointed out a move could cost them millions to build new infrastructure, and move animals and farm equipment.

Farmland currently takes up about 1 per cent of Singapore's land. Close to 600ha has been allocated to over 200 farms for the production of food and non-food items.

AVA told The Straits Times yesterday that it has been engaging the farmers to better understand the challenges they are facing and gathering their thoughts and feedback. For instance, Dr Koh Poh Koon, Minister of State for National Development and Trade and Industry, visited 22 of the farms in September to hear their concerns.

"The Government is also supporting these farms with funding for technology adoption and research and development," said AVA.

"While we may be small in size, we believe that we can be a useful living lab for urban farming solutions and new technologies, and at the same time transform the local agricultural sector."

Speaking yesterday, Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong urged farmers to embrace technology.

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