Urban farming in Singapore: ‘The Netherlands must also embrace agricultural innovations such as vertical farming’

This is a shortened version of the interview with Vos, which will soon be published in the trade magazine BT.

The pursuit of economic growth propelled Singaporean industrial estates into the air. Because the island state will now also be strategically independent, the government prioritizes the use of the space. This means that heavy offshore activities partially give way to food production in a vertical framework. This summer, KuiperCompagnons completed its first vegetable factory in the island state with Urban Farming Partners. The Dutch consulting and design agency participates in Urban Farming Partners as a shareholder.

If the battle for the place is fought anywhere, it is in Singapore. After the island gained self-government in 1959, the former colony of Great Britain under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1959-1990) grew from a third-world country to one of the most prosperous countries. The population exploded from 1.5 million to the current 6 million inhabitants. And that on an area of ​​716 square kilometers (four times the size of Texel). With almost 9,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, the city-state exceeds the population density of the Dutch Randstad by a factor of 7.5.

Lack of space did not stop the Singaporean government from industrializing the country at a rapid pace. If it no longer went in width, then in height. Wouter Vos: ‘During the last thirty years, they have been busy with a completely new layout of the company’s buildings. This is how entire cars are put together, starting with the wheels on the top floor. Each floor below additional components are added. Finally, a truck drives away from the base of the building.’

Strategic autonomy

Where the manufacturing industry used to be the main focus, the Singapore government is now taking a different approach to industrial policy, based on strategic autonomy. The production of basic necessities is central. Vos: ‘Singapore has worked hard to become independent of the drinking water supply from Malaysia. It worked. The next spearhead is the food supply. Under the heading ’30 times 30′, the government aims to sustainably grow 30 percent of nutrients on its own territory by 2030 in order to be less dependent on the environment.’

KuiperCompagnons has joined the Singapore government’s agenda together with a number of (local) partners. Vos: ‘Compare it to a fortress like in the past in Holland. Within the wall of a fortress you had an orchard and a well, housing and protection. You could hold out for a while. That’s what Singapore does, and maybe we should do that more in Europe too.’

How does a spatial agency like KuiperCompagnons end up in vertical farming?
‘We have always worked a lot in Deltas. When we traded all the fertile land for urban planning, I began to wonder how we are going to feed all the people coming to the new cities. That’s how we got involved in food parks and I came into contact with the agricultural sector.’

‘A few years ago, KuiperCompagnons celebrated its centenary. It made us think about what we are good at and where we can make a difference. Space and water are our expertise. Much of what we do is directly linked to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, and climate adaptation. How can we as spatial planners contribute to this? Water, energy and food cannot be seen in isolation from each other, and we would like to make a contribution based on our knowledge.’

‘The agricultural system is creaking and cracking at the seams’

“Conventional, open agriculture not only makes great demands on land, but is also accompanied by the use of pesticides and herbicides, which is disastrous for biodiversity. In addition, a lot of water is used. I live in North Brabant. Farmers spray all day long. Half of the water evaporates immediately, the other half disappears into the ground. But a small part ends up with the plants. There are countless reasons why we need to produce smarter.’

What agricultural products can you already grow in a vertical environment?
“We can already now in a controlled manner grow everything that is leafy vegetables, but also herbs. Vertical cultivation is not yet economically feasible for the so-called low-value bulk (potatoes, grains, soy, etc.). But that may change as space becomes scarce.

In the Netherlands we are very good at growing vegetables in one layer in greenhouses. I think it will look very different in twenty years. By accumulating space requirements, salinization of many pieces of land and failed harvests due to drought and spray bans, we will be forced. The agricultural system is creaking and creaking at the seams.

‘We tried to roll out our concept in the Netherlands, but five years ago it was still too small. The Singapore government has made food security a policy spearhead and provides subsidies. We have teamed up with a number of partners in the chain. This actually means that we have to stack greenhouses and no longer use daylight, but artificial light’.

How should I imagine your farm in Singapore? A factory in a business park?
“There are actually two things running parallel in Singapore. There is little green space. All space has already been claimed ten times. What you see is that the manufacturing industry is being pushed beyond national borders. This means that existing commercial buildings become accessible, four-story warehouses that you can drive a truck up, sturdy enough to grow food. We also found a building like this for our proof of concept [cursief]then the burden of proof, to make.’

So there is a trade-off between manufacturing and food production…
‘Yes, the government is now prioritizing critical elements such as energy, water, food and housing. This means that there is less space for less crucial sectors and that the dependence on imports for them increases. For example, the building we are based in was a warehouse for the heavy offshore industry.’

‘The government will have to think much more actively about how to use land in a smarter way.’

“The government provides subsidies for local food production and has co-financed us. This makes it interesting for owners to participate in this development. In addition, the entrepreneur who was in this building wanted to change to something that was more sustainable and greener and contributes to the development of Singapore.’

Why are you still dependent on government support?
‘PlantLab has been going on for ten years. We have been working on the realization of our first module for four years now. This takes a long time and the timing has to be right and where you do it. You also have to look at it in the whole chain. PlantLab has found an investor and a retailer who buys products. We are still looking for that. There is also the question of how Urban Farming Partners will develop further. Do we need to develop new business models or do we want to provide total solutions that third parties can use? But above all, the economic feasibility is still a quest.’

What does that feasibility depend on?
‘Especially the energy prices. In contrast to greenhouse cultivation, you are dependent on artificial light. Half of the power now goes to the lamps. The other half for air handling. The costs will automatically decrease as the technology develops, until there comes a moment when you break even.’

And what now if you take into account the additional social costs of conventional agriculture and land use?
‘As Urban Farming Partners or Plantlab, we are not compensated for the fact that the use of pesticides in conventional agriculture destroys corals or does other damage to nature in agriculture. You need the government for that. The Dutch government is not that far yet.’

‘If we don’t continue to think through and innovate, we will no longer be a relevant player in the agricultural field’

“But the current discussion about nitrogen is a good reason to think about what we really want with the agricultural transition. How are we going to do it together? The government will have to think much more actively about how to use land in a smarter way, for example through vertical cultivation close to the buyers. You can, for example, pass on a discount on locally produced food. It is of course bizarre that you can buy a hamburger for one euro and a locally grown head of lettuce costs four euros.’

To what extent can the Dutch economy still rely on conventional agriculture?
‘Once in a while I go on foreign missions and then it is proudly reported that we are the second largest food exporter in the world. But if we do not continue to think through and innovate, we will no longer be a relevant player in the agricultural field. Germany’s leading role in the car industry has also put Germany to sleep, with the result that they are now in danger of missing the boat forever.’

We must be careful not to become Detroit?
‘Exactly. The current discussion with farmers is a good time to think about this. The government can play an important role in being a pioneer and thinking together with the sector to secure the latest technology in ten years.[cursief] to be. No longer as the largest exporter of fruit and vegetables, but as the largest supplier of knowledge and technology to be self-sufficient.’

To what extent do you expect us to also grow caloric and protein-rich ‘bulk’ in vertical settings in urban areas?
‘When looking for alternatives to meat, you quickly end up with all kinds of mushrooms that can be grown without daylight. But you can also think about cultured meat and the production of vegetable proteins. The production of this may very well take place in the built environment.’

‘Suddenly starting to produce food in an industrial area short-circuits a number of authorities, also in Singapore’

“It is of course essential that in the long term we find an alternative to the cultivation of soya, which now has a devastating effect on our planet through water and land use. The Netherlands could take the lead in this, as a knowledge supplier. Then we will remain relevant for the next 20 to 30 years.’

When will the first head of lettuce roll off the production line in Singapore?
‘It’s already out of line. We are just waiting for our farm permit. We are in an industrial area, and despite the government’s incentive policy, it is still very difficult to adjust existing regulations. The fact that you suddenly start producing food in an industrial area short-circuits a number of authorities, including in Singapore. So you also have to think about that.’

BT Event: The Battle for Space

Wouter Vos is the keynote speaker at the BT Event on Thursday 10 November in Zwolle. More information about the program and registration can be found at www.btcongres.nl

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