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Singapore Looks Skyward to Take Farming in New Directions

June 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Singapore's skyline is not just a point of pride for residents, it can also be a source of fresh produce. As part of the NewsHour's series "Food for 9 Billion," special correspondent Sam Eaton reports on Singapore's vertical solution to the challenge of feeding a growing population in an urban environment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, we resume our weeklong look at food security and how climate change is affecting what we produce and how we eat.

Tonight, special correspondent Sam Eaton reports from Singapore, where the challenge of feeding a growing population is pushing the concept of urban farming to new heights.

It’s part of our series “Food for 9 Billion,” in partnership with Public Radio International’s “The World,” Homeland Productions, American Public Media’s Marketplace, and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

SAM EATON, Homelands Productions: Singapore has one of the highest population densities on the planet. More than five million people crowd into this small wealthy island city. Land here comes at a premium, forcing people to expand up, rather than out. And it’s not just office towers and apartment complexes that are reaching skyward. Singapore now has one of the world’s first commercial vertical farms. It’s called “Sky Greens.”

Jack Ng the founder of Sky Greens.

JACK NG, Founder, Sky Greens: This is the framework, is a greenhouse.

SAM EATON: Fifty-year-old entrepreneur Jack Ng, an engineer by training, is the farm’s owner and designer.

Translucent structures nearly four stories tall line the property. On the inside, automated towers of vegetables rotate like ferris wheels in slow motion between a nutrient-infused bath below and the sun above. Ng says each tower is powered by a gravity-fed water wheel. It’s an ancient technology with a modern twist.

Ng says one of the biggest benefits of this closed loop hydraulic system is how little energy it consumes.

JACK NG: Electricity we use in Singapore is three dollars per month for this full tower.

SAM EATON: That’s three dollars a month to run this entire tower, or about the same amount of electricity used in single 60-watt light bulb.

JACK NG: You can try the lettuce.


JACK NG: OK. You can. It’s fresh.

SAM EATON: Eating local freshly picked greens is a luxury in Singapore. With just 250 acres of farmland left, the city grows only seven percent of the produce it consumes. That may be an extreme case, but it represents a looming problem facing cities all over the world, says Columbia University ecologist Dickson Despommier.

DICKSON DESPOMMIER, Columbia University: We’re going to reach a tipping point really soon where traditional agriculture can no longer provide enough food for the people living on the planet.

SAM EATON: He says producing enough food for the 3.5 billion people living in cities today requires an amount of land twice the size of South America.

DICKSON DESPOMMIER: That would be OK if we could stabilize our population at seven billion. But that’s not going to happen.

SAM EATON: Despommier believes that 80 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, making today’s challenges seem trivial by comparison.

DICKSON DESPOMMIER: The question arises, can we supply enough food for everybody on the planet, including a growing urban population? And I think we can. And I think we can do it by empowering people in the cities to grow food right there.

SAM EATON: Sky Greens’ vertical farm offers one example of how that may be possible, not just technically, but also economically. The system is 10 times more productive per square foot than conventional farming. It also takes a lot less water, labor and chemical inputs.

LEE SING KONG, Director, National Institute of Education: Singapore is currently looking very much into urban production.

Dr. Lee Sing Kong directs Singapore’s National Institute of Education.

LEE SING KONG: I think, eventually, urban factories for vegetable production will take place in place of electronic factories in Singapore.

SAM EATON: But Lee says visit any Singapore restaurant and you can see just how far the country is from being self-sufficient.

LEE SING KONG: If you look at the plate of food on the table, say vegetables, it could come from China, it could come from the neighboring countries of Indonesia or Malaysia, or it could come in terms of salad greens as far off as the U.S. and the European countries like Holland.

SAM EATON: Maintaining that supply of food from so many foreign sources is a monumental task. Every night, hundreds of trucks enter Singapore from Malaysia and beyond, unloading their cargo of fruit and vegetables at this central wholesale market.

From here, the food is loaded onto smaller trucks and delivered throughout the city before sunrise.

More than 90 percent of the food in Singapore’s grocery stores like this one comes from foreign countries. That makes local urban produce like Sky Greens a premium novelty for customers. But, to some, it’s much more than that. It’s an insurance policy.

SAM EATON: Supermarkets buy food from dozens of other countries as a defense against climate-related disruptions in the global food chain. But the National Institute of Education’s Lee Sing Kong says even that may not be enough to guarantee a steady food supply in the future.

LEE SING KONG: We do anticipate the need for our own production to a certain level of self-sufficiency. I think the government has set a target, initial target of 10 percent to 20 percent of our need. And if we can achieve that, I think there will be a great feat.

SAM EATON: Singapore recently invested $20 million dollars in a fund to boost domestic food production through new farming technologies like Sky Greens. But Lee says incentives alone aren’t enough. First, he says, high-rise farming needs to be cost-competitive.

LEE SING KONG: Whatever we produce in Singapore must compete with the prices of vegetables coming into Singapore. So that’s why the government in Singapore is now encouraging and emphasizing models of urban farming that can really not just increase productivity, but also lowering cost of production.

SAM EATON: Sky Greens’ owner, Jack Ng, says he’s confident he can compete. Three years into his experiment, he says his operating costs are only a quarter of what it would cost to run a conventional farm.

And since he’s local, his transportation costs are also minimal, making his fresh lettuce and Chinese cabbage price-competitive with mass-produced cheap imports. But, most importantly, Ng says they taste better. He says the same-day freshness of his greens is a real selling point.

JACK NG: My customers keep on asking us, can you produce more? Can you supply more?

SAM EATON: Ng has raised $28 million dollars in public and private money to more than quadruple his capacity over the next year-and-a-half. And in fast-rising Singapore, that seems like a smart investment.

GWEN IFILL: You can see a photo essay of Singapore’s gardens online — and, tomorrow, how California’s dairy industry is changing global trade.