By Sophie Johnson
Rooftop farms are popping up across Singapore, a city-state home to over 5 million people.
Among the Asian mega-city’s skyscrapers, urban farmers are beginning to cultivate crops, including tomatoes, eggplant, spearmint, basil, sorrel, tomatillos, and lemons. Comcrop, one of the newly-established urban farming collectives, is using vertical growing techniques to cultivate herbs and vegetables on a 6,000-square-foot roof in downtown Singapore. They also farm tilapia, and the fish’s waste provides nutrients for the plants and the fish itself additional income for ComCrop. The diverse urban farm is overseen by several staff members as well as volunteers. They report about a fifth of their food gets donated, and the rest is sold to nearby restaurants or farmers’ markets.
Photo courtesy of ComCrop
It’s a promising inclination that the country is transitioning toward smaller-scale, civic agriculture. Civic agriculture, simply stated, is a practice in which the connection between farmer and consumer is shortened and strengthened. This realm of food production is a sustainable alternative to conventional, large-scale agriculture. Yet, the country still has much progress to be made.
The Challenges of Urban Farming
Singapore imports 90 percent of its food. The concept of local food appears to be a fairly foreign initiative for Singapore, a country where only 8 percent of the nation’s vegetables are grown locally, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore.
One of ComCrop’s farmers, Yuen Kang, is a graduate of Middlebury College. When he quit his government job to work for the start-up, his parents were shocked. “Farming’s not really an industry that young people go into here,” Kang said.
The unpopularity of the industry proved a significant obstacle when establishing ComCrop. The CEO, Allan Lim, said the process to build the farm’s infrastructure, as well as receiving official city approval, was exhaustingly challenging, taking more than two years. Lim said he must have visited “every agency in Singapore,” the majority of which viewed his proposal as outlandish.
There are additional obstacles to overcome in order to make urban farming a widespread and lucrative practice. Several complications, which are highlighted in a paper published by Sam Wortman and Sarah Lovell in a 2013 issue of Journal of Environmental Quality, include soil and air contamination, water availability and safety, as well as rapidly changing atmospheric and temperature conditions. For example, extreme daytime temperatures and relatively higher nighttime temperatures are typically found in metropolitan areas.
In Singapore, temperatures nearly always exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. These conditions can cause stress to the plants, inhibiting photosynthesis and therefore reducing yields. Nevertheless, the practice of urban farming has some promising advantages.
Urban Climates Provide Natural Laboratories
Wortman and Lovell report that urban areas are generally warmer, with ozone and carbon dioxide conditions similar to the upcoming changes expected in rural areas caused by climate change. These urban farms are therefore providing natural laboratories for researching how climatic changes will affect plants and yields in the future. This is incredibly helpful, considering climate change is an impending threat to our planet’s food supply. Droughts, alterations in weather patterns, and soil degradation are just a few of the many detrimental effects of global warming, each having the capability to enormously modify agricultural outputs.
Rooftop farms, and urban farming in general, should be considered among the most important enterprises in the world today. World population is escalating rapidly, with more people are living in urban areas than ever before, arable land is diminishing. Urban farming is an efficient use of land, environmentally increasing food security and providing healthy food in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Adapting alternative food production methods such as this is vital to meeting future world food demands. Farms such as ComCrop are inspiring examples. Hopefully the rest of the world will soon follow in their footsteps.
-Sophie Johnson is a rising senior at UVM studying Food Systems with a concentration in Public Communication. She is interested in how civic agriculture can improve food security, as well as mitigate adverse effects of climate change. Sophie wrote this post for Florence Becot’s Comparative Food Production class (FS 196).