Land-based farmers in Singapore’s new agritech fantasy
Written by Bev Devakishen, Illustrated by H
Food Forest is a messy, productive piece of land where 100 species of local fruits and vegetables naturally grow and rich biodiversity thrives. It is part of Green Circle Eco-Farm, an organic farm that has been cultivated on a secondary forest in Lim Chu Kang for crops. 78-year old Evelyn Eng-Lim has owned the land since 1997, and has since transformed it into a thriving farm with a large variety of local vegetables and fruits.
Unfortunately, it would seem that land-based farms like Green Circle Eco-Farm do not have a place in the state’s ideal vision for the future of Singapore’s agricultural sector.
Food security is a serious concern for Singapore, particularly in the context of climate change. The climate crisis has affected food supply chains around the world, with droughts, unpredictable weather patterns and other climate-related phenomena threatening to destabilise the food sources of millions. As a result, the Singapore government has initiated efforts to boost the local agricultural industry, aiming for 30% of Singapore’s food supply to be locally produced by 2030. However, as with any instance of climate action, efforts to adapt to climate change should not further marginalise already vulnerable communities. With regards to agricultural policies, land-based farmers have expressed concern at being left behind in the wake of the government's explicit prioritisation of small, agrotechnology-based urban farms. While some of these agritech farms are local, others are funded by regional or international giants that view Singapore’s agricultural sector “a potential growth portfolio”.
Panasonic, for instance, set up its first indoor vegetable farm in 2017 and had begun selling their produce to Japanese restaurants around the island; the organisation has expressed that indoor farming in Singapore would be particularly profitable due to the nation’s “low food-sufficiency and limited land”.
Agrotechnology in Singapore farms
The government has focused on developing the technological capacities of farms, with the view that this will help increase production and achieve the state's agricultural output goals. To achieve this, the government is intensifying efforts to redesign agricultural spaces such as the area in Lim Chu Kang; SFA has developed what they term the “Lim Chu Kang Masterplan'', and its primary goal is to "create a high-tech, highly productive and resource-efficient agri-food cluster." Several farmers have benefitted from this; many of them have accessed subsidies for agrotechnology that boosts their farms' productivity. Hydroponics is one particularly popular form of agritech, where plants grow in water, completely without soil. Vertical farming has also become common, with LED lights installed in indoor vertical structures where plants are grown and harvested. However, despite the subsidies offered, the cost of investing in agrotechnology is still too high for many farmers, especially since they risk financial instability in the short run by pouring financial resources into technology they have not yet tested out on their farms.
In 1984, Goh Keng Swee, newly appointed Director of the Primary Production Department, articulated his vision for the agricultural sector of Singapore - he wanted the industry's main purpose to be the "accumulation of wealth and the earning of surplus value(...) by the application of modern science and technology.” The Primary Production Department was restructured to form the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore in 2000, and its food-related functions were consolidated into the Singapore Food Agency in 2019. The state advocating for the use of agrotechnology is not new; it has its historical roots in the intense modernisation period of the 1980s in Singapore.
Mr Goh Wee Hou, the director of the Food Supply Strategies Department at the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), recently stated that he hopes to transform the agricultural industry into a sector "like manufacturing – where production takes place within a controlled environment with a defined input.” This notion has manifested in the land leasing decisions made by the government; SFA has stated that land would be leased to farms “with the best concepts – concepts that employ … productive technologies to maximise food production." In line with this, the state has not been renewing leases for several traditional, land-based and legacy farms. Instead, the government’s new focus on agritech means that farms with advanced technological practices are more likely to have their leases approved and/or renewed. The state is also leasing out smaller portions of land for farms to carry out more space-saving agriculture and less land intensive farming.
One rationale for the prioritisation of small, vertical agritech farms over land-based farms is the perceived notion that Singapore has to "deal with a land constraint and a land budget.” However, it is worth noting that agriculture only takes up 1% of the land on the main island. In contrast, according to the governments’ 2013 Population White Paper, 19% of land is used for defence purposes, and this proportion is planned to remain constant in the future. With many farms in Kranji losing land to military use, these contrasting percentages demonstrate the way land use policies, as opposed to land scarcity alone, contribute to the loss of farms, even as these farms contribute to Singapore’s total defence strategy by strengthening our food security.
Another reason for focusing on high-technology farming methods is the government’s vision of attracting investment opportunities for research and development in agrotechnologies. In turn, it is hoped that the agricultural sector will develop innovative profit-making technological exports. Ultimately, while it is recognised that local food security is key to preparing for future climate changes, the sector is also being shaped around other governmental priorities such as capital and military defence requirements.
Responses of land-based farmers
It is worth questioning if technology is the be-all and end-all solution for the whole agricultural sector. One farmer from Jurong Frog Farm pointed out that treating the farming industry like a manufacturing industry is dangerous and out of touch, stating:
"For the longest time they treated us the same as manufacturing or tech companies. They never quite considered that livestock takes a long time to grow. They can die, you know. They're not plastic. They're not software."
The state's decision to elevate one model of farming as the ideal — a model based on space-saving agritech urban farms — ignores the lived realities of many land-based farmers and the nuances in their work. Moreover, it disregards the farmers' connection to the land, to their shared histories with the soil they grow their crops in or raise their livestock on. Many of the farmers have existed in their legacy farms for decades, with ownership of the land stretching back generations.
One example of this is Fireflies Health Farm, which shut down earlier this year because the government was not extending its lease. The Fireflies Health Farm was a family-run organic farm that also had its own well-known food stalls in People’s Park Centre and VivoCity which used veggies from the farm to make Thunder Tea Rice. Relocation was not an option as the government had imposed a minimum output level on all land-based farms in 2014 that the farm could not meet; the owners explained, "for an organic farm committed to nature's way, we have not been able to meet the future in this way, the way of high technology use for agriculture".
Just as technology-based farming techniques are beneficial, organic farming methods are also valuable to the future of Singapore. Part of the same group of Lim Chu Kang farms that lost their land to redevelopment, Green Circle Eco-Farm also relies on organic farming. The farm features a unique food forest where crops are allowed to grow naturally in seven different layers of edibles, producing plants such as mango trees, lady’s fingers, Chinese cabbage, and more. Mdm Eng, who ran the farm, stated that the farm’s vegetables grow well despite weather changes; the idea behind the Food Forest is that people can rely on the food the landscape naturally produces instead of forcing the land to produce crops to meet specific targets or monocultural produce. Green Circle Eco-Farm also sits opposite the area earmarked for the Lim Chu Kang agricluster, and Mdm Eng is petitioning for Green Circle Eco-Farm to be valued and preserved alongside agrotech-based farms. “You must have diversity in farming,” she reasons, a sentiment that many experts agree with.
Land-based farms such as Green Circle Eco-Farm produce a diversity of crops that cannot be achieved through agritech farms that rely on vertical farming or hydroponics. Without soil or land, root crops and trees cannot thrive, and output is mainly made up of leafy greens. Furthermore, because agritech is so input-intensive, farms need to sell highly-priced greens such as kale or spinach to make a profit. This essentially means that low-income households cannot afford the crops produced by urban farms that rely entirely on agritech; in fact, many such farms, including the indoor farm funded by Panasonic, make their profit by selling their vegetables to restaurants. In contrast, Fireflies Health Farm produce contributed to affordable meals in local neighbourhood food courts.
Many farmers in Singapore have spoken up to advocate for the value of their conventional farming methods. In particular, the Kranji Country Association, established in 2005, was formed in response to the threat that new land use policies posed to farmers’ livelihoods. Made up of farmers working in the Kranji area, KCA has had some success in advocating for themselves and their community; in 2016, after KCA’s advocacy for increased land security for farmers, the AVA announced that land leases on new agricultural land would be 20-years long instead of just 10. With farmers already voicing out their needs and organising amongst themselves to articulate their vision of the future of Singapore’s agricultural sector, we in the climate movement should amplify their voices and stand in solidarity with them as their livelihoods continue to be threatened by the state.