Chapter 2 – Road to Self Sufficiency in Food Production

hydroponic-farming

This chapter is the second part of a five part blog series discussing the methodology adopted to develop ‘An Urban Farming Paradigm Resilient to Energy Descent for Singapore’. The data visualized in the blog posts is fully interactive, so have a go at it. Links to the five chapters are listed below:

1. Food Production from an Energy Perspective
2. Road to Self-sufficiency in Food Production
3. Closing the Systems Loop
4. Evolutionary Design Process
5. Adaptive-iterative Design Exploration

Cite as: Kaushik, Vignesh. 2012. “An Urban Farming Paradigm Resilient to Energy Descent for Singapore” Masters’ thesis, National University of Singapore.

Introduction

The World Food Summit of 1996 describes food security as that which exists when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. However, it completely missed the point regarding sourcing such food through sustainable means. At a time when we ought to be making cuts in the greenhouse gas emissions, it proposed for existing food system to extend its supply chains and thereby led to increase in emissions to a point where it ended up as the single largest contributor to global warming. Ironically, global warming caused by industrial food supply system led to disruption of the predictable climactic cycles on which agriculture depends. This in turn led to reduced food production and caused serious threat to food security in 2007-2008. It is a vicious cycle and energy use is still the key cog in that cycle. Not only is the contemporary food system inherently unsustainable, it is also severely damaging the environment. Therefore, it makes little sense to leave out the sustainability component in any dialogue on the food production & supply systems of the future.

To achieve urban food security, food must be:

  • produced, processed, distributed and consumed in a sustainable manner
  • of sufficient nutrient quality to sustain a healthy and active lifestyle and
  • readily available at all times to the entire population.

Why to Grow Locally?

The energy used on a farm is relatively small, but once food processing and packaging inputs and “food miles” in transportation are taken into account, the energy impact becomes much larger. More often than not, packaging is made heavier to protect contents travelling great distances which contributes to extra waste once unpacked. And produce that is ripened on the vine has better texture, flavour and nutrition than produce harvested unripe, then treated with chemicals and ripened during shipping.

This scenario could be reversed by re-establishing local food supply systems and substituting ‘near for far’ in production and distribution systems. Local food systems also have great potential to reduce the damaging environmental effects of the current food supply system. Also a local food system does more than just connect growers, businesses, and consumers in a region. It considers the bigger issues of health and nutrition, economic development, environmental sustainability, and overall community strength. Together, these elements greatly impact how people in a community live and interact.

What to Grow Locally?

It was found that lamb, beef and pork have very high energy costs at production and processing. Among the animal meat products, chicken and fish have the least energy costs till the gate of production house. A large component of the total energy input in that case is to transport it from farm to fork. Therefore, if chicken and fish were locally produced, the energy spent on transporting the produce would reduce to a fraction. Also the bio capacity to grow chicken and fish is much lesser compared to other meat products.

Therefore it makes the most sense, from an energy perspective, to grow vegetables, fruits, chicken and fish locally.

It makes the most sense, from an energy perspective, to grow vegetables, fruits, chicken and fish locally in Singapore.

Vegetables, fruits, chicken and fish are most suited to be grown locally in Singapore.


Local vs imported food – Comparative analysis of energy distribution.

How Much to Grow Locally?

Around 7% of the average Singaporean diet (in 2010) is made of red meat and a little less than 45% is comprised of vegetables and fruits. It is found that with a small, healthy change in the dietary habits, Singapore can produce as much as 75% of its per capita consumption, locally [1].

White meat is considered nutritionally better and is also emerging as Singaporean’s preferred option compared to red meat [2]. Therefore, a dietary pattern for a future Singaporean diet would suggest lowering the consumption of red meat (lamb & beef) even further from 7% to 4%, while increasing the white meat (chicken & fish) consumption from 13% to 15%. Also an overall increase of 10% in vegetable and fruits consumption contributes to a healthier diet [2]. Such modifications in the dietary patterns could make Singapore at least 75% self-sufficient in terms of its food production.
[1] We are what we eat.
[2] The Livewell diet.

Small, healthy changes to existing diet in order to produce 75% of food consumed, locally.

Small, healthy changes to existing diet in order to produce 75% of food consumed, locally.

How to Grow 75% of our Food Locally?

Urban agriculture, the practice of growing and processing of food within the confines of the city, could be a solution attempting to reverse the ills of remote food production. The adoption of urban agriculture puts food production and consumption in closer proximity and thus allows cities to attain a higher degree of food self-sufficiency. Integrating agriculture in to the urban city fabric also has the potential to significantly reduce the city’s ecological footprint. However, it is easier said than realised as there is no understanding or benchmark of what a city, in which urban agriculture is integrated, would be like to live in. Another reason is that it is seen as producing less financial return from land which could otherwise be commercially developed for huge return on investment. Moreover, land ownership and competing demands for land from various other stakeholders make it extremely complex and requires a major shift in land use and acquisition policies.

We need a paradigm shift in the way we perceive urban agriculture. It is imperative to perceive urban agriculture as an element of essential infrastructure within cities.

Agriculture is commonly thought to be a land-intensive activity because, to achieve economies of scale, traditional agriculture requires large and continuous parcels of land. Professor Lee Sing Kong from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), estimated that around 24 square kilometers (2,331 hectares) of cultivable land would be sufficient to grow almost all the fruit and vegetables Singapore consumes. That would amount to a land area equivalent to Punggol New Town, Sengkang New Town and Serangoon combined! It is quite clear that Singapore does not have such large tracts of continuous arable land. We need a paradigm shift in the way we perceive urban agriculture. It is imperative to perceive urban agriculture as an element of essential infrastructure within cities.

24 sq.km of cultivable land is required to grow all the fruit and vegetables Singapore consumes

24 sq.km of cultivable land is required to grow all the fruit and vegetables Singapore consumes, a land area equivalent to Punggol New Town, Sengkang New Town and Serangoon combined.

Scale of Urban Farming

Urban farming can be imagined in a variety of scales, from plants in window sill to industrial scale vertical farms. It is important to understand the benefits and limitations of urban farms at various scales and study in more detail an appropriate scale at which we can grow 75% of Singapore’s food consumption effectively.

Small scale urban farming

Small scale urban farming is born out of an interest or hobby in food gardening and extends to the cultivation of an allotment garden, balcony planting or rooftop farms. Typically, food is produced by the same people that consume it. People across the world in many communities enjoy growing certain variety of herbs, spices or vegetables to guarantee freshness and flavor that they cannot obtain otherwise.

Residents tending vegetable crops on a rooftop community garden in Yishun, Singapore

Residents tending vegetable crops on a rooftop community garden in Yishun, Singapore.

Based on various calculations from a preliminary study by the NUS School of Design and Environment, it was estimated that, if residents were to grow food crops in high-rise HDB apartment’s rooftop area (total area of approximately 1000 hectares), Singapore may be self-sufficient in vegetable production [3]. However, such a high degree of fragmentation makes production limited and inefficient and cannot be expected to be a perennial year-round contribution to food capital. Its benefits may be mainly sought in its ability to provide community bonding, ecological awareness and educational benefits and offer leisure to a wide range of age groups.
[3] The need for urban agriculture in Singapore.

Medium scale urban farming

Medium scale urban farming is a good way to use smaller, fragmented pieces of land in urban fabric for producing food. It could provide a visually and culturally stimulating space while reducing heat island effects within the city. Usually, the fragmented piece of land is in the vicinity of the organisation farming it, to provide for their canteens and food courts. Many universities across the globe have taken to maintaining and farming small pieces of land with students from the community volunteering to grow the food.

SMU plants seeds for new urban farming movement in Singapore.

Singapore Management University plants seeds for new urban farming movement in Singapore.

But, it is still difficult to extend the benefits of such scale beyond the local community it is intended to serve. While such a practice makes use of land that otherwise wouldn’t have been cultivated, it may not scale up to add significantly to the farm capital of Singapore.

Large scale urban farming

To achieve a large volume of production at an industrial scale inside urban areas, agriculture would have to be stacked vertically in multiple levels to make use of the little land as efficiently as possible. Vertical farming requires a different approach compared to traditional ground farming, for example, since the former has lesser access to daylight, artificial lights would have to provided. Also, since working with soil is impractical, various soil-less techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics etc. can be employed to improve the growing conditions, and high inefficiencies can be reached by regulating the environment .

There is a need for an energy-efficient, ecologically integrated urban farming paradigm where various systems, both natural and artificial, are integrated such that the waste of one system can be used as the input for another. Such integration would help minimize the overall energy consumed by the system apart from minimizing effective waste. There is also immense potential to integrate such urban farms along with productive landscapes within Singapore’s urban density. Moreover, the proximity to end consumer offers huge energy benefits to such a localized model.

We need an energy-efficient, ecologically integrated urban farming paradigm where various systems, both natural and artificial, are integrated such that the waste of one system can be used as the input for another.

Having said that, some of the prominent ideas floated by vertical farming enthusiasts are that of a centralized, super high-rise, urban farm capable of growing food for the entire city. Such concepts are far from reality. To put the numbers in perspective, it has been estimated that it will require approximately 30 sq.m of intensively farmed indoor space to produce enough food to support a single individual’s nutrition of 2,000 calories/day/person [4]. Working within that framework, it would require a vertical farm tower with a footprint of 100m x 100m and rising up to 2640m to feed Singapore’s population. That is 3.5 times as tall as the tallest building on the planet!!
[4] Bioregenerative life-support systems.

Dragonfly- Vertical Farm concept for NYC by Vincent Callebaut Architectures

Dragonfly- Vertical Farm concept for NYC by Vincent Callebaut Architectures.

Though these ideas are touted to be set in future, there is little consideration to the ‘energy descent’ scenario in which such buildings would operate. Since there is a lack of proven knowledge on the energy arguments in favour of such buildings, they risk ending up being more energy intensive than the existing remote food production system. A centralized vertical farm building or a district capable of producing the entire volume of food for a country is less energy-efficient. It is impractical to expect 5.5 million people to travel to and fro from the food tower/district every week for their food purchase. Therefore food would have to packaged and transported to various parts of the city, thereby increasing overall energy costs and contradicts the whole purpose of growling food locally.

A vertical farm tower with a footprint of 100m x 100m and rising up to 2640m is required to feed Singapore's population

A vertical farm tower with a footprint of 100m x 100m and rising up to 2640m is required to feed Singapore’s population.

Decentralization

It is a better resilience strategy to have a decentralized network of urban farms across Singapore, producing, processing and delivering food to residents within a radius of 12 to 20 minutes of walking distance. The size of such farms is primarily governed by the population of people it is intended to cater to. Decentralization also allows for greater variety in the techniques and thereby flavor in the food grown. It maximizes the potential for a healthy competitive market that ensures quality and reduces risk of food monopoly. It also reduces the risk of spread of food contamination, which is very hard to control in a centralized food production district.

Decentralized urban farm network across Singapore based on a 12 minutes walking distance radius.
Decentralized urban farm network across Singapore based on a 12 minutes walking distance radius.

Decentralized urban farm network across Singapore based on a 12 and 20 minutes walking distance radius.

Decentralized urban farm network across Singapore based on a 12 and 20 minutes walking distance radius.

Each node in the decentralized network is a unique variant of a paradigm urban farm typology that is evolved as response to the context. The urban farm typology should consist of, but not limited to, these six components:

(1) Food production unit,
(2) Food processing unit,
(3) Food distribution centers such as farmers markets, restaurants etc.
(4) Crop research & development, and
(5) Energy production & waste reduction/reuse systems.
(6) Farmers’ housing

The aim is to increase urban food production, establish local food processing and food preparation to ‘add value’ to locally grown food, expand food-related business opportunities and encourage more farmpreneurs, improve nutritional health through access to fresh food via innovative distribution systems including farmers’ markets and collaborative models, and to improve productivity through composting and waste reduction and reuse, and involve the community for better bonding between producers and consumers.

Food Network in Clementi District

Identifying potential sites in a decentralized network concept for the whole of Singapore would form a thesis on its own, given the high urban density of Singapore. In order to test the feasibility of the concept of decentralized network of food production centers in Singapore, Clementi District was chosen. Some of the open sites that would be ideal for such centers were identified and mapped such that each center would cater to an average population of 10,000 people.

The 10 sites along with existing markets will ensure that the people of Clementi District would have to walk only 12 minutes on an average to reach any of these food centers. Hence it is estimated that there will be huge savings in energy spent on unnecessary transportation of goods over long distances. Moreover, since food can be purchased fresh and on daily basis, there will be huge savings in transportation and refrigeration costs as well.

Markets within 12-20 minutes walking distances in Clementi District.
Green – Super markets
Blue – Wet markets
Red – Proposed urban farm centers

For the purpose of this thesis, a typical site near the west coast crescent has been chosen to demonstrate the design of a prototype urban farm typology. This 2.6 Ha site overlooks the West Coast Park on its West side and the Clementi Woods on its East.

Chapter 1 – Food Production from an Energy Perspective

farmandtractors

This chapter is the first part of a five part blog series discussing the methodology adopted to develop ‘An Urban Farming Paradigm Resilient to Energy Descent for Singapore’. The data visualized in the blog posts is fully interactive, so have a go at it. Links to the five chapters are listed below:

1. Food Production from an Energy Perspective
2. Road to Self-sufficiency in Food Production
3. Closing the Systems Loop
4. Evolutionary Design Process
5. Adaptive-iterative Design Exploration

Cite as: Kaushik, Vignesh. 2012. “An Urban Farming Paradigm Resilient to Energy Descent for Singapore” Masters’ thesis, National University of Singapore.

Introduction

Food security has traditionally been considered only in the context of rural poverty. However, the 2007/2008 global food crisis saw food riots and demonstrations in many parts of the world, and brought the topic of food security to the forefront of international attention. Far from being a one-off event, this crisis highlighted the vulnerabilities of our global food system, and the need for countries to re-examine their food security policies and approaches. The agricultural productivity is on the decline globally due to under-investment in agriculture while the global food demand has been steadily increasing due to expanding population. More often than not, climate changes, extreme weather events and natural calamities disrupt supply and compound the food shortage problem.

Food security is a complex problem. As a small city state with limited natural resources, Singapore imports over 90% of its food requirement for its 5+ million inhabitants [1]. In the event of global food crises, Singapore’s food security will be a grave concern as exporting countries, under pressure to feed themselves, are likely to restrict or even stop exports. Singapore is also a price taker and face the twin challenges of food price and supply volatility. Hence any disruption in production to any of its key suppliers could have significant consequences to the food security of Singapore. Though measures have been taken to diversify food sources (even as far as Brazil and Argentina), they ensure resilience only against short-term supply disruptions and are highly energy-intensive. [1] Speech by Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for National Development and Defence at the opening ceremony of the International Conference on Asian Food Security, 2011

Developed countries around the world are leasing or purchasing agricultural land in developing countries to ensure their own food security. For example, South Korea has agricultural land in Madagascar while United Arab Emirates has purchased land in Pakistan. Singapore has initiated a feasibility study for the Jilin-Singapore Food Zone which covers 1,450 square kilometers, more than twice the area of Singapore, in Jilin, China [2]. This only exacerbates the global trend of declining agricultural areas and food production and may challenge Singapore’s sovereignty.

[2] In 2008, the leaders of Singapore and China raised the idea of building a super farm in Jilin, China.
Sources:
Bigger stake for China in Sino-S’pore food zone
Super Farm


The AVA Annual report 2009/2010 indicates that a very small percentage of the food that Singapore consumes is produced locally.

Moreover oil output is expected to peak in the next few years and steadily decline thereafter. The global peak oil and energy descent scenario poses a serious threat to food importing nations, since the modern food system is both highly centralized and almost entirely dependent on oil. We have a very poor understanding of how the extreme fluctuations in the availability and cost of both oil and natural gas will affect the global food supply systems, and how they will be able to adapt to the decreasing availability of energy [2].

[2] Why Our Food is So Dependent on Oil?

As a small city state with limited natural resources, Singapore imports over 90% of its food requirement for its 5.4 million inhabitants.

Therefore, in the wake of energy descent and due to such overwhelming dependency on external food sources, certain energy-efficient strategies have to be developed to ensure greater self-sufficiency in food supply for Singapore’s growing population.

Food Production: An Energy Perspective

As a first step towards developing a holistic strategy, it is imperative to analyse the energy consumed in importing major food products to Singapore as it is still unknown if Singapore has energy and cost benefits in cultivating crops locally. For the purpose of this study only vegetables, fruits and animal based products are analysed. Other staple food products like rice, wheat, sugar, cooking oil etc. have all been excluded from the study as there is little merit in analyzing them since Singapore is land constrained for growing such ground intensive farming crops.

Diversification of sources of food supply to Singapore
Source:
AVA Annual Report 2009/2010

The total energy input for each of the food items from the point of production to the point it reaches Singapore port is analysed. This analysis helps in identifying food items that makes the most sense to be grown locally. There is also a possibility that certain stages of the food production process are more energy and cost efficient if moved to Singapore. Therefore, it is important to analyse a detailed break-up of energy consumed in producing, processing, packaging and distributing food to Singapore.

A brief look at the energy characteristics of each component of the production cycle is helpful in comprehending the energy distribution. The energy used in the food production is primarily divided into direct and indirect energy use. Direct energy inputs are those on the farm, such as electricity for machinery and equipment handling and diesel and other fuels used on the farm. Indirect energy inputs include the embodied energy in the manufacture and supply of pesticides, fertilizers and forage & fodder. Capital energy is the energy consumed to set up and maintain the production house and includes all fuels used to manufacture machinery, building materials and other farm inputs. Processing includes butchering animals, washing and packaging crops, or other more involved processing techniques. Distribution includes transportation as well as wholesale and retail sales. While these categories make up a substantive part of the energy invested in food production, they don’t represent the totality of it. Energy used by restaurants and caterers, within households to store and prepare food, and by water treatment facilities and waste disposal sites, among other categories, are not included, guaranteeing that the numbers presented are at best, conservative.

It is clear from the graphs above that the energy inputs in animal meat production are high. It isn’t surprising, since the production of animal meat is an industrialized process from start to finish, requiring large pieces of machinery, sophisticated processing facilities, industrially-produced feed, and refrigerated transportation. All of these require huge investments of energy, either directly as fuel to power them or indirectly in their manufacture and maintenance. The huge energy demand associated with farm inputs is made up primarily of the embodied energy in grain purchased to feed cows, lamb and pigs. The high fuel costs is because of best-practices regulations that requires meat operations to transport animals to slaughter and packing facilities instead of processing them on-farm.

Transporting goods by truck is about eleven times more energy-intensive compared to shipping them.

Farm to plate – Comparative analysis of energy distribution
Sources:
Energy use in the production of Poultry
Nutritional outputs and energy inputs in seafoods

Among the meat based products, lamb, beef and pork have higher energy costs till the gate of the production houses. However, they spend much lesser energy on average in transportation when compared to chicken and fish. This is because these three products are currently being shipped from Australia or New Zealand which is much more energy efficient compared to chicken and fish products that are being trucked from Malaysia and Thailand by road. On the other hand, vegetable and fruit production are not as energy intense as producing meat, so trucking them via road from Malaysia or Thailand adds disproportionately higher energy costs. Though ground farming is considerably low on overall energy consumption, the processes that take to keep the produce fresh from the gate of production house to the port of Singapore and then to the plates of the consumer thereafter is relatively high.

Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious compared to plant protein

One indicator of the unsustainability of the contemporary food system is the ratio of energy outputs (the energy content of a food product in calories) to the energy inputs. When the ratio is presented as inputs divided by outputs, a number larger than one indicates a system that’s energy-intensive, so the smaller the input/output ratio the more sustainable the system is.


Ratio of Energy Input to Food-Energy Output
Sources:
Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment

Tracking food animal production from the feed trough to the dinner table, it is found that broiler chickens to be the most efficient use of fossil energy, and lamb, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output while lamb meat production is the worst at 57:1. Beef cattle production is also as inefficient as lamb (energy input to output ratio of 40:1), but including Dairy production adds up to the energy output a little more compared to lamb. The larger the animal, the larger the percentage of that animal’s body mass that is inedible material like bone, skin and tissue. That explains why it takes exponentially less water and energy inputs to produce fruits and vegetables.

Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water compared to producing 1 kg of grain protein.

Organic farming is more energy efficient compared to industrialized farming methods. The improved energy efficiency is largely due to reduced use of fertilizer and pesticide inputs that account for atleast 30-40% of energy use in conventional systems. When reared organically, a large portion of feed for dairy cattle and lamb is derived from grass and therefore it is found that organic systems are five times more energy efficient on a per animal basis. But once it passes the farm-gate, it is still energy-intensive to slaughter, process, pack, store and transport the meat to various parts of the globe.

Bottom Line

Our contemporary food system is inherently inefficient and highly unsustainable and is almost entirely dependent on one finite energy source, oil. The vulnerability of our food system to sudden changes was seen during the fuel crisis in 2001. A sharp increase in oil price or a reduction in oil supply could present a serious geo-political conflict and eventually threat Singapore’s food security. Also, there is growing evidence that the produce that is imported is not as nutrient rich. This is because the food is travelling across increasing distances and in order to accommodate the weeks spent in transport, produce is harvested long before it ripens and thus well below its peak nutrient density.

Therefore in order to achieve Singapore’s self-sufficiency in food production, we have to first address the three main problems with its food supply; vulnerability, inefficiency and unsustainability.