30 by 30 Vision: Singapore's agritech sector nurtures food security

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in mass panic food buying, leaving many grocery stores and supermarket shelves empty around the world. In Singapore, this cast a spotlight on the nation’s reliance on food imports and, in turn, food security.

Currently, Singapore imports more than 90% of its food supply, making the nation vulnerable to global and regional changes to food supply and demand1. The pandemic saw many food-producing countries prioritise feeding their own populations, as seen in the export ban of chickens by Malaysia2.

According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Singapore ranks first on the food security index, but falls to 12th position when climate-related and natural resource risks are considered3.

To reduce its heavy reliance on imports and manage the impacts of supply disruptions, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has set a target – called the ‘30 by 30 goal’. This goal aims to transform Singapore’s agri-food industry into one that is highly productive, innovative, and sustainable, while producing 30% of the nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030.

Singapore agritech

Safeguarding Singapore’s food supply and security

Singapore, a small city-state, has only 1% of its land available for food production. The 30 by 30 goal, therefore, seeks to diversify the nation’s import sources to ensure there is a stable supply of food.

The 30 by 30 goal aims to leverage existing industry segments. Currently, Singapore produces 4% of its vegetables, 8% of its seafood and 30% of its hen shell eggs domestically4.

Encouraging local production is key to mitigating the impact of supply chain disruption. This can also be achieved by having local farms develop operations overseas and exporting produce back to Singapore.

Singapore’s limited resources in terms of arable land raises a significant challenge, and the small, densely built up land needs to be used as efficiently as possible. Singapore has converted this challenge into an opportunity by enhancing productivity with technology and advanced farming systems.

Advancing the 30 by 30 goal

Despite disruptions caused by the pandemic, Singapore saw a 17% increase in its number of farms, rising from 221 in 2019 to 260 in 2021. The 30 by 30 goal looks to leverage technology to grow more with less5.

The adoption of agriculture technology (agritech) allows farming operations to be enhanced without being constrained by space, climate, and manual labour. Singapore has supported agritech by launching the Singapore Food Story Research and Development Programme in 2019.

The programme focuses on aquaculture, urban agriculture, future foods, and food safety. Recently, the programme received an additional investment from the government, bringing the total amount committed to more than SG$300 million.

The added investment demonstrates Singapore’s commitment to agritech’s potential in boosting food resilience and allows the programme’s scope to be expanded. With new capabilities, the range of foods produced can be expanded to include more fruits, vegetables and crustaceans.

Agritech start-ups fulfilling their growth potential

The SFA has partnered with start-up Pure Harvest Smart Farms to develop the first hybrid greenhouse tomato farm in the region, aimed at boosting sustainable food security6. Besides that, urban spaces that already exist are utilised for growing food.

Citiponics is one of Singapore’s first carpark rooftop farms that uses hydroponics, growing up to 25 different types of herbs and leafy vegetables without pesticides7. Beyond maximising under-utilised spaces to grow food sustainably, it allows the community to be connected to their food source. 

Community is also built through online farm markets, such as Glife – a farm-to-table platform that connects local food and beverage businesses directly with farmers for their fresh produce needs8.

Netatech, a sustainable technology firm, and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) LearningHub have developed a six-month programme to prepare trainees for jobs in agritech business9. The programme covers a wide base of topics from the basics of growing crops to artificial intelligence and machine learning in farming operations.

Is the road to food resilience sustainable?

Success stories such as the above do not come without challenges. Harnessing technology to boost production at a scale where products are price competitive with local imports remains a hurdle.

Consumers are also worried about consuming genetically modified foods, even more so lab-grown food. It is equally important that Singaporean consumers are onboard with the idea of purchasing locally sourced and produced food.

Dr Sherman Ho, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Hoow Foods, says that the government has to play an active role in defraying land rental costs, utilities, and other spending to assist start-ups in becoming a sustainable business10. The government’s 30 x 30 Express grant, open to local producers who can utilise high-efficiency farming systems and raise output quickly is a nod at the right direction11.

Singapore's 30 by 30 is centralising sustainability 

The investments and initiatives set out by the Singapore government to facilitate the 30 by 30 vision shows that there is room for growth. Achieving self-sufficiency is a difficult task that requires collective effort for it to be viable.

With climate change becoming an increasingly pressing and pertinent issue, it’s no surprise that Singaporeans – who tend to be environmentally conscious in nature – are shifting their behaviours accordingly.

According to the OCBC Climate Index, 71% of Singaporeans are willing to pay more for products if they are convinced that it will have a positive impact on people and the planet12.

The road to sustainability seems promising with supermarket shelves now boasting more local produce, some of which is labelled ‘SG Fresh’ to highlight this. The 30 by 30 goal will not only help ensure Singapore’s food security, but also advance agri-food solutions for a rapidly urbanising Asia.

The opportunities ahead

The 30 by 30 vision presents an incredible opportunity for agritech companies from all over the world, especially those operating in countries that face similar challenges. It enables these businesses to bring their solutions and expand their operations into Singapore.

Several Singapore government agencies, including the Singapore Economic Development Board and Enterprise Singapore, are tasked with supporting and facilitating the expansion of foreign companies into Singapore, which is instrumental to achieving the nation’s strategic targets and vision.

In addition, Singapore is regarded as a key gateway for spring boarding businesses into the rest of Asia, thus offering a huge commercial opportunity for foreign agritech businesses with international ambitions.

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1. Singapore Food Statistics 2021

2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/01/like-mcdonalds-with-no-burgers-singapore-faces-chicken-shortage-as-malaysia-bans-export

3. https://impact.economist.com/sustainability/project/food-security-index/

4. Singapore Food Statistics 2021

5. Singapore Food Statistics 2021

6. https://www.thenationalnews.com/business/start-ups/2022/10/27/pure-harvest-to-help-develop-singapores-first-hybrid-green-tomato-farm/

7. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/parking-lot-roof-turned-urban-001313336.html

8. https://agfundernews.com/glife-pursues-multiple-mas-to-expand-its-farm-to-table-ecosystem-in-southeast-asia

9. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/new-farming-school-in-joo-koon-to-boost-talent-in-singapores-agri-tech-sector

10. https://vegconomist.com/food-and-beverage/singapore-foodtech-startup-hoow-foods-launches-new-egg-alternative-hegg/

11. https://www.mti.gov.sg/Newsroom/Speeches/2022/10/Opening-Address-by-MOS-Low-Yen-Ling-at-the-21st-World-Congress-of-Food-Science-and-Technology-2022

12. https://www.ocbc.com/group/sustainability/climate-index