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’.
Chapter 1 - Food Production from an Energy Perspective
Chapter 2 - Road to Self-sufficiency in Food Production
Chapter 3 - Closing the Systems Loop
Chapter 4 - Evolutionary Design Process
Chapter 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.
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 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.
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 .
White meat is considered nutritionally better and is also emerging as Singaporean’s preferred option compared to red meat . 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 . Such modifications in the dietary patterns could make Singapore at least 75% self-sufficient in terms of its food production.
 We are what we eat.
 The Livewell diet.
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, 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.
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 . 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.
 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.
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 . 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!!
 Bioregenerative life-support systems.
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.
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 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 – Supermarkets
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 Westside and the Clementi Woods on its East.